Hibiscus History

The Mystery of Hibiscus liliiflorus ~ 1700's

Hibiscus History Continues...

Where our gorgeous, modern, exotic hibiscus came from is a fascinating story in many ways, but one that is partially obscured by the mists of time and the introduction of errors, well intended though they may be. The story goes back at least 300 years, depending on where one wants to start, and of course during much of that time there were no cameras to take precise photos, and communication between botanists was very slow and uncertain. We rely mostly on the Latin language taxonomies for the earliest records, and try to interpret what they describe by what we see growing in front of us today. Drawings that appeared in early botanical magazines also help us figure out what was what during the early days.

Hibiscus liliiflorus is one of the important species of hibiscus that contributed to the genes in today's modern hybrids. One would think that this species is well known and documented, and that there would be no doubt as to what plants alive today are Hibiscus liliiflorus. Surprisingly, that assumption turns out to be wrong. There now exists doubt about which specimens of hibiscus really are H. liliiflorus. How did this happen? What is the evidence that we have to go by?

← Is H.liliiflorus this pink flower                            

                                                or this orange flower? →

Drawing of Hibiscus liliiflorus
from Loddiges Botanical Cabinet, 1819
Let's take a look at the original information on H. liliiflorus - the first time it was named and described in an early taxonomy. That will solve any mysteries where this species is concerned, won't it? This species was first named and described briefly in the 1788 version of the the Linnaeus taxonomy, and discovery of the plant was attributed to Antonio José Cavanilles. Cavanille gave a complete description of the plant in his dissertation of 1789 (thanks to colleague Yvonne Forsling for making this available). Referring to this source should be definitive. Alas, nothing is ever so simple when dealing with the ancient world. Cavanilles described H. liliiflorus as "Corolla (flower petals) phoenicia" in his original description. Unfortunately, "phoenicia" is a word that refers to a dye made in ancient Phoenicia that was a reddish purple. This does tend to support a pink colored H. liliiflorus, but there is no way for us to be sure that pink was the precise color Cavanilles meant in his original description.

Hibiscus liliiflorus
from Sakuya Konohana Kan
The Great Conservatory
Osaka, Japan
Even so we do have other significant indications of the appearance of H. liliiflorus before the modern era. This is in the form of drawings and paintings in botanical publications and also the accompanying text that describes H. liliiflorus. Such drawings and descriptions match our observations of the pink-flowered plant growing in our yard and greenhouse. The drawing above at right is from the publication Loddiges Botanical Cabinet in 1819 and shows one such example. A later example, at left, of a living plant that matches ours are these photos from Sakuya Konohana Kan, the Great Conservatory in Osaka, Japan.

Hibiscus liliiflorus
from Sakuya Konohana Kan
The Great Conservatory
Osaka, Japan

An early description of H. liliiflorus that confirms the bright pink color is found in the Floricultural Cabinet and Florists Magazine published by Whitaker & Co. in 1834.

"Hibiscus Liliiflorus, Lily-Flowered Hibiscus Malvaceae. This elegant plant, of which there are many varieties, was introduced a few years since by Mr. Barclay. It is necessary to preserve it in the stove; it grows freely, and flowers during the summer. The flowers are of a bright rosy lilac; it is necessary to preserve it in the stove, as it is a native of the Mauritius."

So, why are we making such a point of the historical descriptions of H. liliiflorus? This is because back on Rodriques Island, one of the Mascarene Islands off the east coast of Africa where H. liliiflorus once grew naturally, an effort is well underway to repopulate the island with the extinct or near-extinct H. liliiflorus. Articles have been published about this effort and one such has spread around the hibiscus community in recent days. But isn't that a good thing? Maybe not. All these efforts are focused on a plant that is described by Ross McKinnon, Curator of the Brisband Botanic Gardens (May/June 2000), as "covered in the most exquisite orange flowers". This sounds more like the related hibiscus species H. boryanus or some unknown plant that may be a hybrid rather than the "bright rosy lilac" colored flower that we believe to be H. liliiflorus based largely on the sources described above.

Also of interest is that McKinnon's article described H. liliiflorus as having orange flowers, citing "Barker, 1877" [sic] as the source for his description of H. liliiflorus. However, we consulted the Baker (not Barker) publication from 1877, Flora of Mauritius and the Seychelles. It described H. liliiflorus as "Corolla (Latin for flower petals) large, funnel-shaped, bright red." No mention of an orange flower in the very source cited by these well intentioned explorers and conservators.

Hibiscus genevii
Complicating the situation is the fact that H. liliiflorus is either extinct in the wild or down to its last few wild plants growing in the Mascarene Islands off the east coast of Africa. McKinnon's article tells the story of a group of interested people who tried to find the last plants of H. liliiflorus in order to save them. We most definitely applaud their efforts and wish more such work was being done. However, it appears to us that a mistake in identification has been made and that it is likely to be compounded, since McKinnon claimed that this orange-flowered plant was grafted and is now growing and identified as H. liliiflorus in a botanical garden on Mauritius (one of the three Mascarene Islands). Even more alarming is McKinnon's claim that "many young plants are growing from the seed of these plants at Nancy and Kew." These latter are well regarded Botanical Gardens that share seed of rare species and could become a major source for future confusion. So why did they pick the orange-flowered plants on Rodriguez Island as the final specimens of H. liliiflorus in the wild? We don't know, but would very much like to hear from them and get some clarification about this choice.

Hibiscus fragilis

There appears to be confusion both locally and internationally between all four species of hibiscus discovered in the Mascarene Islands of Mauritius, Rodrigues, and Reunion. Three of these species, H. fragile, H. genevii, and H. liliiflorus, are closely related and are known to be cross compatible since many hybrids have been made with them. H. boryanus is also related to these species and has been photographed with orange flowers. "Mandrinette," the island word for "hibiscus" is a word that is commonly used in the Mascarene Islands to refer to any of these species.

Hibiscus boryanus
Mandrinette is also the word used in McKinnon's article in reference to the purported H. liliiflorus that was the object of conservation. When looking at the historical record one comes across such items as a photo of H. genevii but with text that calls it H liliiflorus. The Conservatoire Botanique National de Mascarin, which is the local conservatory for the Mascarene Islands refers to these species as being "synonyms" for each other. It also describes an orange flowered H. liliiflorus but adds that there is controversy over the identification. It is in French, but anyone interested can have a look at the conservatory web site at http://flore.cbnm.org/

Drawing from Kew Gardens
labeled H. liliiflorus
Finally, we discovered a photo of an old drawing at Kew Gardens that shows what is supposed to be H. liliiflorus that appears to be bright reddish orange. Clearly, there is substantial confusion over which plant was the original H. liliiflorus discovered by Cavanilles.

We are not in a position to prove one way or the other the "real" identification of H. liliiflorus or the other hibiscus species plants that originated on the Mascarene Islands. After extensive research and in consultation with international sources, we have concluded that the best evidence points to H. liliiflorus as being bright pink-flowered, H. fragilis being bright red flowered, H. genevii being very light lilac flowered, and H. boryanus being orange-flowered. Unless and until better information emerges (see next article on genetics of hibiscus), we will continue to identify the ancestral hibiscus species as described above and as seen in photos on the HVH website.

Orange flower called H. liliiflorus by some
So what is the orange-flowered hibiscus in the Mascarenes that is sometimes called H. liliiflorus? Is it one of the others - possibly H. fragilis or H. boryanus? Or is it an early hybrid of two of these native species hibiscus? Or is it an entirely new species plant? We can't answer this question now, but hopefully, in the near future, all the confusion surrounding hibiscus species plants will be cleared up.

And finally, just for fun, here is an interesting story that we found on Gil Bujunda's website, Hibiscus & Malvacae. It demonstrates the difficulties we have in sorting out the truth about the original hibiscus species that are the ancestors of today's hybrids.

In the late 1970s, botanists had shown interest in a rare tree hibiscus (Hibiscus liliiflorus) growing on top of the highest mountain on Rodrigues. When Gerald Durrell went out to make a film, he discovered that it was being eaten up by goats. Money was given to fence it off from the goats, and forestry department workers were sent out to put up the fence. When the workers realized that they didn't have enough fencing to go around the entire plant, they chopped off one of its large branches to make the hibiscus fit inside the fence. "They didn't quite get it," Wendy laments, shaking her head. "I saw the hibiscus in 1982, just after it had died." She was given new hope, however, when she learned that a cutting taken from the plant had survived and was growing in a Catholic priest's home on the island. "Again, when the plant was fenced, people went up and began taking bits of bark, branches, and also leaving money and putting little candles on the tree," she recalls. "It became another magic tree. In 1982, when she went up with a forester to take a cutting, only remnants of the hibiscus remained, its fate sealed with wax from the candles placed on it and burnt in its honor. She stood there, staring at the remains, realizing nothing more could he done for it. As she contemplated the dead plant, the forester climbed over the fence and began picking up the change strewn around it. Then she recognized the second tragedy: "People were still throwing money in - these were poor people; they didn't have 'loose change' to spare.

    Watching, from the Edge of Extinction
    By Beverly Peterson Stearns
    Published by Yale University Press, 2000