Australian native hibiscus and hibiscus like species

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Hibiscus tiliaceus

(This series is being compiled by Colleen Keena from Queensland, Australia, Kristin Yanker-Hansen from California, USA, and Marcos Capelini from São Paulo, Brazil.)

Note: The links to websites in this article, including those from commercial suppliers, have been provided for your convenience only. The authors are not liable nor responsible for the contents of the sites listed.

Hibiscus tiliaceus is a tree native to the shores of the Pacific and Indian oceans, today cultivated or naturalised throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the world, particularly in coastal areas. It is grown mainly as an ornamental tree for landscaping, although its wood, bark and flowers have been used for various purposes. It is known by several common names, including 'Cotton-tree' or 'Cottonwood' (Australia), 'Purau' (Tahiti), 'Vau' (Fiji), 'Hau' (Hawaii) and 'Mahoe' (US, mainland?). The Latin species epithed was chosen by Linnaeus because the leaves of H. tiliaceus are similar in shape to those of the linden tree, whose Latin name is Tilia. A group of 22 closely related species in the genus Hibiscus, including H. tiliaceus, has been recently reclassified by Malvaceae taxonomist Paul A. Fryxell into the new genus Talipariti. This article still uses the old name, but this species may eventually be widely known as Talipariti tiliaceum instead.

Hibiscus tiliaceus can attain a height of up to 8-10 m (26'-32') and can grow just as wide if not pruned. It is a common tree along the coast in its native and naturalised ranges, and in the wild it is found near watercourses, mangrove swamps and estuaries, frequently forming impenetrable thickets and covering very large areas along coastlines. It is therefore particularly suitable for sandy and moist soils, although it will also grow well under drier conditions and in a variety of soils. It can also stand brackish water and is tolerant of salt spray, and therefore it is an excellent species for coastal areas.

The trees are very ornamental, with large heart-shaped leaves and a dense foliage. The leaves are usually dark green, but there are selections available with variegated or purplish foliage. The hibiscus-like flowers are bright yellow with a crimson centre, and usually point down on the tree or slightly sideways. They are about 10-15 cm (4"-6") wide when fully-open and usually last a single day only, falling off at the end of the day or the next morning, when lots of day-old flowers can be seen on the ground. Like some other plants in the mallow family, the flowers change colour as they age, turning dull orange or reddish by the time they fall. In winter there may be few or no flowers in mild-tropical or subtropical climates, but the flowers may remain on the tree for more than a single day, creating an interesting effect as both yellow and reddish flowers can be seen on the trees at the same time.

H. tiliaceus can be propagated from seed or cuttings.
Since seeds are normally dispersed via water, they can benefit greatly from soaking in warm fresh water for at least 24 hours prior to planting. Filing the back of the seed with an emery board or sand paper before soaking is also helpful, but care must be taken not to reach the tender embryo inside the seed. After the soaking period, the seed can be planted in a sandy medium, which should be kept on the moist side. Seedlings will usually emerge in a week or two, and should receive plenty of light from the start. The seedlings can reach between 60 cm and 80 m in the first year and will grow very fast after that if planted in good soil and kept well watered, although they may take a number of years to mature and start to produce blooms. Propagation by seed may be a good option if it is difficult to obtain a plant in your area or where the soil is limited, e.g. over sandstone, as the tap root of the seedling can anchor the plant.

In most cases however, cuttings may be the preferred way to propagate H. tiliaceus, since plants grown from cuttings will usually have exactly the same characteristics as the original plant. Desirable traits such as floriferousness and colour of the foliage (for the variegated and purple-leaved varieties) will therefore be safely reproduced in the propagated plants. Another advantage is that plants grown from cuttings will flower much sooner than seedlings. Growing H. tiliaceus from cuttings is very easy, and in tropical areas cuttings will strike year round, although in subtropical climates it may be better to avoid the colder months. Tip cuttings or hard-wood cuttings between 20 and 40 cm in length and .5 to 1 cm thick will usually root very well. Commercially available rooting hormones can be used with success, although they are not strictly necessary. Cuttings also appear to root faster if two or three leaves are left on. The hobbyist may want to use a transparent plastic bag over the cuttings to keep the moisture in, but the cuttings should be checked regularly for yellow leaves and fungus. Under favourable weather, rooting may take place in less than a month, and it may be a good idea to use a transparent container so you can check on the state of the roots.

Hibiscus tiliaceus is a fast-growing tree which is best suited to landscaping, although it can be kept in containers if properly pruned and potted up as necessary. It can be also grown successfully as a bonsai. This plant prefers full sun but can be grown indoors if placed by a window where it can get as much sun as possible, preferably in the morning, although it may be very difficult to get flowers indoors. Potted plants will require regular fertilising with a balanced fertiliser, but it is unlikely that inground plants will require fertiliser. It is not cold hardy and is usually recommended for USDA zone 9b and above. In sub-tropical areas it can recover from very light frosts.

It is frequently planted as a street tree as it has such a dense, shady canopy. It can be trained as a standard and is used as a standard to provide shade in car parks in Brisbane shopping centres and at Brisbane airport in Australia, for example. Regular pruning and sucker removal are necessary for the trees to keep a good shape.

As it is a fast growing medium-sized tree capable of suckering, especially if given plenty of water, consideration should be given to where it is planted. It should only be planted where there is no possibility of damage to structures such as pavements or pools.

Hibiscus tiliaceus is listed as invasive in Florida and has naturalised elsewhere, so care should be taken to prevent it from spreading in areas where it is not native. If in doubt, local regulations should be checked.

Besides being such a great ornamental tree, Hibiscus tiliaceus has many traditional uses around the world. In Tahiti, the leaves were wrapped around food to be cooked, and were also used as plates. The leaves are fed to cattle in Southeast Asia. The roots and young shoots are reported to have been eaten by aborigines in Queensland. The Polynesians ate the young leaves and used the bast fibres to make ropes and the adult bark to make "tapa", a traditional clothing used in pre-European Polynesia. A Singaporean source states that the fibre is used for strings and ropes for making fishing nets and caulking boats. In Hawaii the wood is used to make outrigger canoes. Several medicinal uses are listed as well, including to cool fevers and soothe coughs (leaves), treat dysentery (bark), ear infections and abscesses (flowers), as laxative (bark and flower), etc. The light timber is attractively patterned and easily worked.

"Wildflowers of South-eastern Queensland", Volume 1, Beryl A. Lebler, Senior Botanist, Botany Branch, DEPARTMENT OF PRIMARY INDUSTRIES, Brisbane, Queensland, 1977 S.R. Hampson, Government Printer, Brisbane
"Talipariti (Malvaceae), a segregate from Hibiscus". Paul A. Fryxell. Contributions from the University of Michigan Herbarium, Vol 23, pp 225-270, 2 July 2001

Describes three varieties of H. tiliaceus found in Tahiti, along with its uses by the Polynesians
Excellent info fact sheet, mentions several uses and has a list of links and references. By Ria Tan, from Singapore.
Short description and uses (Hawaii). Listed as a Polynesian introduction in Hawaii.
Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawaii Vol. 1 Section 64 - Malvaceae, on the site of the Hibiscus Society of Queensland Inc., Australia (
"Florida Exotic Plant Pest Council" website, where H. tiliaceus is listed as invasive.
B & T WORLD SEEDS (seeds sent world-wide)

Tradeswinds (seeds, US)
Aloha Tropicals (plants, Hawaii)
Offers the "Tri-Color Hau". Short info sheet.
Ho-Ti Nursery (plants, Hawaii)
Glasshouse Works (plants, US)
Trades the variegated "Tricolor" variety.
Fairhill Native Plants and Botanic Gardens (plants, Australia)

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