Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

The Best Season Ever: Ornamental Okra

 Abelmoschus-manihot-flower--buds-100613-640

 

Ornamental okra flaunts impossibly pale, delicate, large, and fragile flowers from June to frost. Borne at the tips of rapidly lengthening stems, they levitate above surrounding horticulture. The dramatic central eye is all the more powerful for being so small. These showstopping flowers are essential viewing all season long.

 

The plant's large pointed buds and burgundy stems are striking in themselves.

 

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The dark burgundy of the stems and buds is so dark it's best called burnt umber. It's a color Abelmoschus manihot doesn't miss a chance to play with. In addition to the buds and stems and the deeply-recessed flower eye, notice the five-armed structure at the tip of the central stalk (known as the style) of sexual parts. It's the stigma, which receives the perfectly-contrasting yellow pollen from the anthers below (or from the anthers of other Abelmoschus flowers).

 

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Even the veins of the maple-like leaves keep to the umber theme. 

 

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At the bottom of the picture above are some flowers that have matured to fuzzy stiff pods. You can collect seeds from them to save for future sowings, or cut pod-bearing stems off for use in dried arrangements.

 

Ornamental okra certainly lives up to the name: From dried pods to warm-weather flowers, stems, buds, and foliage, it's ornamental year-round.

 

Here's how this high-performance tender perennial looks when resprouting in late Winter. 

 

Latin Name

Abelmoschus manihot / Hibiscus manihot

Common Name

Ornamental okra / Aibika

Family

Malvaceae, the Mallow family.

What kind of plant is it?

Tropical shrub that also succeeds, in slightly cooler climates, as a returning perennial. Also thrives as a self-seeding annual.

Hardiness

A shrub in Zones 10 and 11, decreasing in year-round presence as the climate becomes colder. In Zone 8b, a returning perennial. Succeeds as a flowering annual almost anywhere. The seeds are much hardier than the plants, enabling colonies to persist in Zone 6 and possibly colder. 

Habit

When grown as an annual in what, for this species, is the comparatively cool and short growing season of Zones 6 and colder, a single vertical stem four to six feet tall. Much larger in climates with hotter and longer growing seasons, to eight or even ten feet, and developing side branches, too.  

 

When grown in a large container that is overwintered, or when growing in-ground in the tropical climates where this species is hardy, Abelmoschus becomes a large multi-stemmed shrub with the clumping habit of (and with flowers the same color of) an enormous specimen of fig-leaved hollyhock, Alcea rugosa. Ornamental okra could potentially grow into a monster similar in scale and habit to lion's ears (Leonotus nepitifolia).  

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in five months

Size is dependent on high temperatures and length of growing season. As an annual, four to eight feet, sometimes even ten. As tall and even wider as a shrub in the tropics. 

Texture

Lively, thanks to the vertical habit of the stems, the well-spaced maple-like foliage, the enormous flowers, and the prominent pods that follow. Despite its size and vigorous growth, this plant is lush without being dense or heavy.

Grown for

its flowers: Large single hibiscus flowers—diameters of five or six inches aren't uncommon—with petals of creamed-butter-and-suger yellow. A small central eye the color of burnt umber is a thrilling and sophisticated contrast, as is a hibiscus flower's typical single stalk of fused sexual parts. Pale yellow pollen is borne on the stalk's "trunk"—the style—which is tipped by a star-shaped stigma of the same color, burnt umber, as the eye. The oscillation in colors is perfect from petal to eye, pollen to pistil: yellow then burnt umber, yellow then burnt umber. 

 

its large scale and easy verticality: When circumstances are to its liking, Abelmoschus will be as tall as you are and taller, and yet rarely needs staking.

 

its foliage, which can be used as a leafy vegetable that is cooked like collards or used uncooked in salads. Although Abelmoschus manihot is a relative of the vegetable okra, Abelmoschus esculentus, its pods are not edible.

 

its roots, which release a mucilagenous water-soluble substance that is used as a binder in making Japanese washi paper.  

Flowering season

If germinated well before frost and planted out in late Spring, after danger of frost has passed, flowering begins in early Summer and continues into the cool nights and days of pre-frost Fall. 

Color combinations

Despite the petals' huge areas of pure yellow, the elegant alternation of burnt-umber and yellow from eye to anthers to stigma makes them a bicolor experience. With such a complex interaction already in place, the flowers of surrounding plants and their colors are best restrained to single hues that, preferably, are close allies of the dark and light tones of the Abelmoschus flowers' burnt umber and palest yellow. While white and silver-gray aren't clashing, they'll appear irrelevant. Pink, unthinkable. Red and orange would be too jumpy; strong blue and violet, ditto. Palest blue? If you must, but only in flowers that are radically smaller, and are arrayed in small spikes.

 

Foliage usually offers fewer options for color, and colors. Bicolor leaves—i.e., ones that are variegated—are possible because they don't bring the repetition (or competition) that bicolor flowers do. The same choices in colors apply as for flowers: Choose leaves that are solid purple or yellow, or smaller leaves variegated with either color.

 

See "Plant partners" for ideas.    

Plant partners

Keep this species' size, coloring, habit, and cultural needs in mind as you welcome Abelmoschus to your garden. All of the suggestions below work well with burnt umber and pale yellow.  

 

When used as one of the plants in a large container, these annual or tropical possibilities have enough bulk and full-to-the-ground density to mask the lower portions of the Abelmoschus stems, bring textural contrast to its pointy foliage, and perform without flagging from late Spring to frost: Philodendron 'Black Cardinal', Phormium 'Black Adder', and Coleus 'Othello'. If you have access to them, a specimen-sized container of either of these would help do the job, too: Euphorbia milii 'Aurea' and Portulacaria afra 'Aurea'. Sink their containers into the larger one. All of these would be candidates to plant in front of Abelmoschus when it is sited towards the front of a bed. 

 

These plants could front Abelmoschus when it is sited towards the back of a deep bed, when only the flowering tops of its tall stems are likely to be visible by August. Spirea thunbergii 'Ogon', Juniperus chinensis 'Gold Coast', and Acer palmatum 'Red Pygmy', Buxus sempervirens 'Elegantissima' (if kept pruned), Vitex agnus-castus 'Shoal Creek' (when coppiced brutally), and Leucosceptrum japonicum 'Golden Angel'.

 

These are some of the plants that would form effective backdrops, chiefly by providing growth that is high and wide enough, dark enough, small-foliaged enough, and dense enough to contrast maximally when at the rear of the pale, delicate flowers of Abelmoschus: Taxus hedging, Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Fastigiata', Ilex x meserveae 'China Girl'Ilex x 'Dragon Lady', and Ilex 'Nellie R. Stevens'.

 

These plants, of various sizes and, therefore, placements near Abelmoschus, would form a burnt-umber-specific partnership. They are large enough to provide striking contrast in form and texture; all have exceptionally dark "umber-esque" coloring. Phormium cookianum 'Black Adder', Pennisetum macrostachyum 'Burgundy Giant', Canna 'Australia' (provided you cut off its clusters of saturated-red flowers), Euphorbia cotinifoliaPittosporum tenuifolium 'Atropurpureum', Cordyline 'Black Ribbon' (a.k.a. 'Dark Purple'), Ricinus communis 'New Zealand Purple', Coleus 'Othello', Saccharum officinarum 'Pele's Smoke'Perilla frutescens, and Philodendron 'Black Cardinal'.

Where to use it in your garden

Whether grown as an annual or a perennial, Abelmoschus is statuesque, not just out-and-out tall. Because emerging flowers are always at the upper reaches of their stems, and Abelmoschus grows quickly and steadily throughout the season, it is likely to be one of the taller plants in its patch of your garden. So it's unlikely that its flowers would be hidden. Plants can be sited at the back of even deep beds and still command attention; the size of the flowers, and the tendency of the flowering portion of the stems to be open and airy, also helps enhance the display.

 

Siting well back in a bed is also a help because the lower portions of the stems tend to lose their leaves, giving the clump a bandy-legged look. Plants to the front of the clump can hide everything nicely.  

 

Even so, the flowers are so sumptuous, and the details of their color scheme so satisfying at close range, that it would be cruel not to have at least one plant be fully accessible. Incorporating Abelmoschus in a mixed planting of a large container is one possibility, provided the container is large enough for this vigorous, fast-growing species. Ornamental okra's appeal only increases as long as the weather is frost-free, so all of its companion plantings will need to be indefatigable as well. 

 

See "Plant partners," above, for combinations, especially those that dress up the bottom third of Abelmoschus while still permitting in-your-face appreciation of its extraordinary flowers higher up.   

Culture

Sun, heat, rich soil, and plenty of water. See both "How to handle it" boxes for options on how to provide these conditions.

How to handle it

Start seeds six weeks before frost, providing plenty of moisture and all possible light and heat to help the young plants along. Soak them in warm water overnight, then sow a half- to full-inch deep. Height is part of the appeal of Abelmoschus, so do what you can to keep the upward progress unimpeded. Water attentively, and add some fish emulsion to the water. Pot up small plants as needed to prevent their roots from becoming crowded, and space the plants on the bench so that they don't shade each other's lower leaves.

 

In Zone 6 and colder, the Summer temperatures are comparatively cool and the growing season short. Plants will be much smaller than in warmer climates. Space potted youngsters closer than you would in hotter climates—twelve or eighteen inches apart is good, in groups of three and more—so their solitary stems don't look gangly. Staking isn't usually needed.

 

It's not unusual for plants to self-seed; be alert for seedlings, which won't emerge until the Spring soil is truly warming up. Thin or transplant carefully, and keep surrounding growth at bay until the young plants are tall enough to receive the steady sun they need.

 

Dead-heading will probably ensure even longer flowering but, in my experience, untended plants flower into October, anyway, so don't worry if you don't get to it. Another tactic is to harvest mature pods for their seeds, for next season's late-Winter sowing. They are also interesting in dried arrangements.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

Abelmoschus manihot is worth growing in a container just so that you can overwinter the plant. Instead of the first-year growth of a single stem, with just one or two flowers open at a time, an overwintered plant usually has a half dozen stems and more and, so, many more flowers open simultane-ously. Because Abelmoschus grows quickly, craves plenty of moisture, and would, if permitted, grow taller than you, your first thought might be to plant in your very largest container. Then you'd have hope of providing all the root room, nutrition, and moisture the plant could want, for the largest possible display. But moving such a large container into shelter can be a project in itself, even when you cut the plant itself back to a foot or so beforehand.

 

Instead, grow in a medium-large container that you sink several inches below the final soil level of a really large overall container, where it can produce roots top and bottom just as well.

 

Or, sink your medium-large container directly into the garden at the same balmy time in Spring you'd be setting out tomatoes or melons. Bury the crown of your Abelmoschus with several inches of soil: Stems root easily. Plus, the plant will extend other roots out through the drainage holes in the pot.  

 

Abelmoschus appreciates soil moisture all season long, so give the plants a good soaking once a week when they're growing in the ground; twice or even thrice a week when in a container. Adding "Soil Moist" granules to your potting soil is a good idea, too. If you are obsessive, setting the container in a deep saucer, watering so much that the saucer remains full of water.

 

Let a light frost bring the season's growth to a halt. Because the crown of the plant as well as a couple of inches of stems were covered by a couple of inches of soil, the viability of the plant itself will be unimpaired. Cut the stems off at the soil line, dig up the container, clip off roots that have grown out the drainage holes, clear away what top-level soil you can from around the rooted portions of the stubs of the stems, and set the container in a bright and warm spot. Don't water until needed; excess soil moisture could combine with insufficient warmth to cause the plant to rot instead of enter dormancy.

 

Your plant might not need further attention until the new year.  Lead from behind with watering; wait until you see new leaves and stems emerge, then, if possible, provide even more light and sun. Pinch stems to encourage more branching and, hence, more flowers. Replant outside only after the weather is reliably warm.   

Downsides

The foliage of Abelmoschus is eaten in salads and as a cooked vegetable, and some browsers may find it tasty, as well. My resident woodchuck is so enamored of the leaves that I can grow Abelmoschus only in a pot that I set atop a pedestal.   

Variants

The leaves of Abelmoschus manihot ssp. tetraphyllus are much more finely divided, recalling those of Acer palmatum. A. caillei, A. esculentus, and A. moschatus are similar in look and cultural needs to A. manihot, but are grown as leafy vegetables or for their seeds. A. ficulneus is considered a tropical weed.

Availability

On-line as well as at retailers.

Propagation

By seed or by cuttings, which are reported as rooting so easily that young stems can simply be stuck into moist ground.

Native habitat

Abelmoschus manihot is native to southern and eastern Asia, from India to Japan, as well as Australia and many Pacific islands.

 
 
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