Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Okra's Kith and Kin

As any good gumbo eating southerner knows: okra loves the south! While sane humans are hiding in their air conditioned houses, okra is soaking up the sun. An early proponent of solar power, it uses it to propel itself to incredible heights and lengthen pods visibly overnight. So it makes perfect sense that okra's kith and kin are happy plants in the southern garden. The okra cousins featured below have been super easy plants in my garden, all thriving in full sun, heat, humidity, and drought. All are easy to grow from seed and in fact self-seed rather freely.

If okra (abelmoschus esculentus) has a fraternal twin, Abelmoschus manihot, or Sunset Hibiscus, may just be it. Their soft yellow flowers are virtually identical and they reach the same soaring heights but the leaves and seedpods vary a bit.

Every family has a runt and in the Okra family Abelmoschus moschatus may be it. Although I've read that they can reach a few feet tall, in my area they seem to top out at less than a foot. It turns out that the common name, musk mallow, applies because the oil from the seeds is commonly used in the perfume industry as a plant form of musk thereby sparing the endangered musk deer and is one of the key ingredients in one of Chanel's new fragrances. See http://indieperfumes.blogspot.com/2007/02/ambrette-seed.html if you feel compelled to make your own smelly stuff.

My neighbor and I discovered this beauty on a plant collection expedition on a southeast barrier island. The barrier island does happen to be heavily populated AND it is five miles from our front door AND we did find the plant in a heavily cultivated and probably commercially landscaped front yard BUT other than that Tony Avent has nothing on us- we are plant explorers.

Unable to collect seeds, we searched for the plant online, thought we id'ed it, and ordered seeds. Neighbor friend planted them at the base of her picket fence and waited for them to fill their allotted to 2'x3' space. At two feet, they were still growing. At five feet, they were still growing. Within a couple of months they could have been used as Christmas trees in someone's soaring entry hall as their hulking pyramid shapes topped out well over 8' tall with an equal spread at the base. Methinks our plant id'ing skills failed us!

We still don't know what we first saw but we do know that what she grew was hibiscus radiatus and when I inherit a 20-acre garden from some benevolent stranger I may plant it again. In the meantime, it is preserved in pictures and in memories of its beautifully colored flowers and viciously prickly seedpods.

Pentapedes Phoenicia or Scarlet Mallow is a ridiculously spindly, awkward fellow when planted alone but in groups makes quite a show. With minimal branching, the smallish red cup-shaped blooms open along the trunk. They reach about 4' tall and one inch wide. Okay, maybe a bit more than an inch wide but these guys are so skinny they do have to turn sideways in a rainshower to get wet. Give them about 12-16" to make the full turn.

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