The criteria are much the same: first, visual appeal, second, hardiness – the ability to survive, nay thrive, in Phuket’s climate; three, fragrance – and ability to attract bees, birds and butterflies.
The first flower most people probably think of when tropical gardens are on the agenda is the hibiscus. Top of the Phuket pops, there must be few gardens on the island that do not boast a plant or more, not just of Rosa sinensis (the most widely grown), but also of the other hibiscus species as well. All derive from the mallow (malvaceae) family.
The red version is the national flower of Malaysia and is seen in offerings and decorations from Bali to Bora Bora. The hibiscus blooms so profusely that each bush carries a significant number of flowers at the same time.
Originally a shrub with smallish blooms, the flowers of modern hybrids can be anything up to 30 centimetres across. These trumpet-shaped blooms come in both single and double forms and in a range of hues possibly unmatched by any other shrub – white, cream, yellow, salmon pink, scarlet and magenta.
Long established hybrids fare equally well in Phuket, and are frequently deployed as a tall barrier or hedge where their leaves form a dense screen. The flowers are, of course, a massive bonus. One variety, with variegated leaves and smaller red or pink flowers, is particularly effective in this role – both a strong grower and unfussy about soil conditions.
If the conventional hibiscus has a downside, it does require good soil and a reasonably sunny aspect. And since the plant has a branched tap root, it is not entirely happy in a container. Moreover, without good conditions, and unlike its relatives, mutabilis and schizopetalus, it will become prone to fungal mould and white fly infestations.
On the other hand, Hibiscus schizopetalus and sometimes referred to as the coral or Japanese lantern, is in this writer’s experience, completely disease free. Much less widely hybridised, it is a pendulous shrub whose single scarlet or coral flowers hang down at the end of long, graceful, leaf-cladarches. While it does not bloom with the freedom of sinensis, the coral hibiscus will tolerate most conditions and is one of the easiest shrubs to strike from cuttings.
Hibiscus mutabilis is again quite different. As its name implies, its massive double blooms change colour: white in the morning; pink at noon; rose red in the late afternoon sun. An asset to your Phuket garden with its large rose-like flowers, mutabilis or cotton rose, deserves to be better known. It is a vigorous grower, flowers more-or-less continuously and will accept poor soil and semi-shade.
It is difficult to argue against the hibiscus’s place in any list of best-loved shrubs. Most gardeners would vote for Rosa sinensis on the basis of its unparalleled visual display. Few shrubs can match the brilliance or range of its palette of colours. Mutabilis is easier to grow but limited to daily doses of white, pink and red. Schizopetalus is both hardy and delicate in appearance, though not a prolific bloomer.
But as far as this writer is concerned, all three varieties are indispensable. They certainly all feature in my private patch.
Patrick has been writing for ten years about gardening in Phuket and allied topics. If you have horticultural or environmental concerns, please contact him at email@example.com. Many of his earlier creative and academic publications can be found at Wordpress: Green Galoshes.