Rose of China, China Rose, Shoe Black Plant.
The species of hibiscus which seems to have the greatest number of variants is Hibiscus rosa sinensis. These plants appear to have innumerable variations in colour and shape in both single and double forms, due to the interest in these plants by early hibiscus fanciers who hybridised Hibiscus rosa-sinensis with other compatible species. Ross Gast in his Genetic History of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis traces the early movement of these plants and the hybridisation with other species which has led to the abundance of cultivars available today. Special variations were perpetuated by the taking of cuttings.
Although generally considered to be native to continental tropical Asia, the species is unknown in the wild and its area of origin is conjectural. Gast however believes it to be from India due to the fact that Polynesian people supposed to have originated in India may have brought the species to China and the Pacific in the centuries of their Eastern migrations.
Because it reached its highest development as an ornamental plant in China, and as most early cultivars were collected there and shipped to Europe, the species was given its name rosa-sinensis or Rose of China (China Rose). It is interesting to note that the earliest forms collected were of the double form, these were found growing around ancient temples and palaces in China, and the single form was not connected with the species for some considerable time.
A double red form of H. rosa-sinensis was illustrated and described by Van Reede in 1678, and a double red and other forms were introduced to England by Philip Miller, curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, London as early as 1731, under the name of H. javanica, indicating them to be natives of Java. Cook and other Pacific explorers found the double red form cultivated in several island groups. This form is still common in all parts of the world where hibiscus are grown. The single red form of H. rosa-sinensis is also known as 'common red', 'sinensis' or 'camdenii', and it is the national flower of Malaysia and the State of Hawaii.
A reproduction of an engraving appearing in Van Reede's Hortus Indicus Malabarensis (1678). It is said to be the first pictorial representation of an ornamental hibiscus to appear in a European horticultural publication. This flower when crushed turns black, yielding dark purplish dye used in India for blacking shoes (hence Shoe Black Plant). In China it is used by women to dye hair and eyebrows. It is also used to colour liquors and to dye paper a bluish purple tint which reacts like litmus. Hawaiians eat raw flowers to aid digestion and the Chinese pickle and eat them.
The red hibiscus was considered a sacred flower in Polynesia, for an early writer speaks of a native being clubbed to death for wearing the flower over his ear in front of a temple. A Polynesian myth tells of a beautiful woman whose beauty was destroyed by a witch; her hair and brows were restored by the juice of the hibiscus. According to Tahitian lore the hibiscus was created from the ruddy face of man, and a hibiscus bloom worn over the right ear shows that a person is looking for a mate, if over the left ear a mate has been found.
In Hawaii real interest in hibiscus culture began at the turn of the century. The common red seems to have been brought in at an early date from China and this was crossed with the species native to Hawaii and with H. schizopetalus to produce some spectacular results. One of the first persons who became interested in hibiscus was Gerrit Wilder, who seems to have held the first hibiscus show in 1914; he exhibited some 400 different varieties. In the years following, interest was very widespread until there were literally thousands of different forms and colours. In 1923 a law was passed making the hibiscus the flower of the Territory of Hawaii. Single blooms are known as aloala lahilahi and the double...