A Gardening Journal

Red Flyer mallow

hibiscus-red-flyer-640

 

Cerise flowers as big as soccer balls?  In May and June, I've still got my pride.  But by September?  Bring 'em on.  'Red Flyer' is a perennial hibiscus that—despite the name—will be the peak of your pink-friendly garden.  And I mean peak: the plant can reach twelve feet!

 

Just the thing for ten or fifteen feet back in the southern of my pair of pink borders; the northern is "only" 10 by 60, whereas the southern is twice as deep.  In the back reaches you'd better be big and bodacious to have a prayer of getting noticed.  I'm thinking 'Red Flyer' has that part down cold.

 

 

Here's how to grow this enormous Summer-flowering perennial:

 

Latin Name

Hibiscus 'Red Flyer'

Common Name

'Red Flyer' perennial mallow

Family

Malvaceae, the Hibiscus family.

What kind of plant is it?

Flowering perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 9.

Habit

Clumping, with upright and unbranched bamboo-like canes.  

Rate of Growth

Fast when happy.

Size in ten years

In Zones 7 to 9 and with plenty of sun and enough moisture, a monster to twelve feet tall and seven or more feet wide.  Much less vigorous even in high Zone 6, although my seven-year-old clump is finally soaring to seven feet.

Texture

The narrow-fingered palmate foliage brings a Japanese-maple-like openness to what could otherwise be a perennial of bamboo-clump dimensions and density.  The immense five-petaled flowers are also open, continuing this plant's theme of "ventilation."

Grown for

the size: At "peak" performance, literally, this giant perennial can be seen from a hundred yards. 

 

its flowers: Ten inches has never looked so gaudy.  The five broad propeller-like petals are red at the base but widen out to shameless hot pink.  Despite the name, 'Red Flyer' flowers read only as pink.  Big as the petals are, there's still plenty of space between them for the surrounding vegetation to show through.  This only exaggerates (or is that exacerbates?) the petals' vibrance and array.

Flowering season

Summer into Fall. 

Culture

Sun, rich soil, all possible water in season but, especially at the lower end of hardiness, excellent drainage in the Winter.

How to handle it

From Maryland south, 'Red Flyer' isn't much of an achievement at all:  Just plant it in full sun and good soil, then stand back.  In two or three years, its massive size overall, let alone that of the alarmingly bright flowers, will show just how over-the-top a perennial can be when the worst Winter it faces is only Zone 7.  In these favored circumstances, either you love the plant's super-sized trashiness or you pity those who do.   

 

In Zone 6, though, 'Red Flyer' is just tender enough that it's a shock to see it at all.  The hardier H. moscheutos cultivars—'Swan River II', 'Kopper King', let alone the dwarf 'Disco Belle' brats—don't get more than five feet tall even on a bet.  A perennial hibiscus eight, ten, twelve feet high?  It may be normal for North Carolina but in southern Rhode Island it would be an astonishment. 

 

In for a penny, in for a pound: If you're going to plant 'Red Flyer' at all, you might as well help it be as big and bodacious as possible.  Plant in your best "dahlia" soil:  rich and deep but mounded above the surrounding bed, grass, or pathway so that surface water drains away quickly.  The deeper and better your soil is, the deeper you can plant 'Red Flyer'.  This helps anchor the tall canes at the height of Summer, and also helps insulate the thick parsnipy roots over the Winter.  Regardless, and especially the first Winter or two, mulch very heavily after hard frosts have put the plant into full dormancy.  Don't cut the canes down until Spring, so as not to give cold Winter wet a "straw" to run its icy cold right down into the clump.  As Winter wears on, the canes develop a driftwoody and stark sculpturality, too.  In ice and snow, it's best to be a big-tent thinker about garden interest. 

 

After Spring has started to look hopeful, carefully pull the mulch back to help the sun warm the soil as well as the young clump itself.  Even so, perennial hibiscuses are slow to get going; be patient.  In Zone 6, all possible sun and heat will help the plant grow as lustily as possible; leave it to gardeners sweltering in Zone 7 and southward to experiment with growing perennial hibiscus in even a brief scrap of shade.

 

With flowers this big and bright, your only tasteful recourse is to combine 'Red Flyer' with colors that are unquestionably at home with pink.  Ten inches of throbbing cerise is no time to experiment whether the addition of orange or chrome would be fun, too.  Any foliage or flowers in white, grey, blue, burgundy, or green would be swell.  Pink choices include crape myrtles, purple ninebarks, and persicarias, as well as ornamental grasses (panicums especially) whose plumes nod to pink or burgundy.  Stay away from other large round flowers—dahlias, morning glories, roses, zinnias—which would look outclassed or repetitious or both. 

 

I partner my 'Red Flyer' with 'Freckles' knotweed at the front; its six-foot haystack of white-green leaves and frothy white September flowers hide 'Red Flyer' foliage, which is usually fleabitten by then.  Someday, bushes of 'Pink Velour' crepe myrtle may survive the Winters well enough here to get large enough to add their fluffy cerise flowers to the excitement.  ('Velvet Cloak' smokebush would be a hardier pairing but that's already in the Red Gardens.)  At the back is a huge espalier of 'New Dawn' rose; it's only in bloom June into July, and so is a tolerable green wallpaper when 'Red Flyer' starts blooming (for me) in August.       

Downsides

Unless you recoil at ten inches of any flower, let alone ten feet of height, 'Red Flyer' is a fun and self-reliant "big hair" plant in Zone 7 and south.  Yes, bugs lunch on the foliage—it's a perennial hibiscus, after all—but with flowers this big and atop canes this tall, 'Red Flyer' can be at the back of an enormous bed where no one will notice.  Now if only 'Red Flyer' were a Zone hardier.

Variants

Perennial hibiscuses suffer from the same over-eager hybridizing as—now that I think of it—the shrubby hibiscuses.  I embraced all horticultural manifestations of too-big, too-bright, and too-tall until I saw 'Kopper King' in bloom.  If you're more of an iconoclast than I, though, perennial hibiscuses can crowd your garden, with flowers from white to pink to near-maroon, some with (ugh) eyes the color of Kool Aid, too.  The dwarf 'Disco Belle' hybrids are, to me, unforgiveable mashups of too-large flowers with too-small plants:  Frankenplants if ever there were some. 

 

'Swan River II' is the perennial hibiscus I reach for with clients:  Pure white flowers on bushy growth to five feet.  But then that awful beetle arrived and reduced the leaves to skeletons: Then there weren't any flowers, either.  (It was a relief, though, to see 'Kopper King' eaten to the ground, and for good.)  'Red Flyer' is bug-resistant enough to flower well, but the foliage is still a mess by September.

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By division in Spring; 'Red Flyer' is a sterile hybrid, so doesn't set seed.

Native habitat

Hibiscus 'Red Flyer' is a hybrid of two Eastern United States natives:  H. coccineus and H. grandiflora.

 
 
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