Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Hibiscus survives high winds and Cuban cigars



It's time, I think, for another hibiscus. Let's head again to Mexico and Cuba where they have one of the biggest, called Hibiscus elatus, literally the tall hibiscus. You'll sometimes see it under the name Talipariti elatum, the tall talipariti, but we'll stick with Hibiscus.

You don't see this species grown much in Australia, or at least not in the south, so it feels quite exotic to me. Also it is native to the Caribbean islands, although grown elsewhere in the tropics or near tropics (e.g. Mexico) and sometimes an invasive. It's the national tree of Jamaica.


Apart from being quite tall, up to 20 or even 30 metres, this species has oddly coloured flowers. Odd in the sense that they start yellow and end red. Not unheard of in Hibiscus - another good example is the Australian species, Hibiscus tiliaceus - and known in other unrelated plants such as the rose, Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’, or more famously perhaps the giant Victoria water lily. In the latter case the flowers change colour to attract, and then discourage, pollinators to help with pollen transfer between flowers. Maybe our hibiscus is simply hedging its bets, attracting insects (favouring yellow) at first and birds (favouring red) later...


The common name, Blue Mahoe, refers to the colour of the wood - which has blue-green streaks when polished - and a local or perhaps Spanish word for the species (the common name for this plant in Mexico is Majagua). The wood is said to be durable and good for cabinet making, flooring and local lutes (cuatros), amongst other things.

The fruits are cute but I didn't read of any use for them.


To bring this back to the one place in the Caribbean I've spent any time (four days to be exact), the inner layer of bark - the 'Cuba bark' - was once used to make a rope for bundling together Havana cigars. Despite this it doesn't seem to be under any major threat of extinction.

While I didn't see Blue Mahoe in the wild in Cuba, it is widely grown and the National Botanic Garden in Havana (Jardín Botánico Nacional) had a fine specimen (tree pictured above) near the venue for the conference of Caribbean and Central American botanic gardens I attended.

In Mexico I was able to examine a smaller specimen in the botanic garden within the forest of Chapultepec (Jardín Botánico del Bosque de Chapultepec) of the 500 ha parkland in Mexico City.


More than a cabinet timber, more than a string to bind cigars, the leaves of the Blue Mahoe can also provide a 'home remedy'. What it remedies is, I gather, dysentry.

If you want to grow it in Australia you need annual rainfall of above 1500 mm (or a good irrigation system I suppose) and some year-round warmth. It's said to be 'very wind-resistant' which makes it a good tree for the north of our country. Also a good choice for the botanic gardens of the Caribbean, where hurricanes are the number one threat to their tree collection.


Images: thanks to Manuel Bonilla Rodríguez for the last picture (photobombed on the left by a Blue Mahoe) and for providing a scale bar to the smaller specimen at Chapultepec.

1 comment:

Katherine Wagner-Reiss said...

Thank you, loved the discussion of the reasons for color changes in flowers!