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Weekly planter: Panama Red hibiscus puts on a maple-like show

Panama Red produces deeply dissected maple-like foliage.
Panama Red produces deeply dissected maple-like foliage. TNS

The false roselle or African rosemallow stirs up avid conversation this time of year for its foliage — many people think this tropical hibiscus is a Japanese maple. Indeed the selling point of the plant is the incredible foliage.

Those gardeners who do grow it probably don’t refer to it by a common name like Cranberry hibiscus or even its botanical name, which is Hibiscus acetosella. Instead most refer to it by its varietal names, including Haight Ashbury hibiscus or Maple Sugar hibiscus.

As its common name suggests it is from Africa. We are growing several of the variety Panama Red at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah, Georgia. The foliage is simply dazzling. It’s indeed like having a fiery dark purple-red maple showing off all summer.

Panama Red has become one of the top varieties in the market and has been selected as a representative in the Southern Living line of outstanding plants. It will reach 5 to 6 feet in height with a spread of 3 feet. Its habit is more rounded than that of Red Shield and has leaves that are more dissected. Dr. John Ruter with the University of Georgia is credited with making this award-winning selection.

Plant Panama Red or any other variety you choose in fertile, well-drained soil with plenty of sunlight. Full sun gives the most intense foliage color, but I assure you a little afternoon shade or filtered light will still entice you to bring out the cameras.

The literature has it all over the charts from the standpoint of cold-hardiness. Most say it is perennial from zone 9 to zone 11. Most report it is common to see them root hardy in zone 8. If you live in an area with mild winters, gorgeous red flowers will appear.

Whether it is in the landscape or as a thriller-plant in mixed containers, the African rosemallows like Panama Red, Maple Sugar and Haight Ashbury promise to perform all growing season. I hope you will give it a try.

Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South.”