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My Wild Pavonia

By Ian Maxwell (GranvilleSouthMay 6, 2008
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This is the story of a wild flower I found last summer. At first I thought it was a weed, but with some care it turned out to be an attractive & hardy addition to my garden.

Gardening picture

I started noticing them early last summer, pastel pink blooms scattered through the undergrowth along the road. Some of them sprouted from stormwater drains, others fought through thistles, blackberry vines & wild amaranth. They all bore their pale, delicate flowers defiantly & swayed unperturbed in the breeze.

Though I've lived in the area for many years, I'd never noticed this wildflower before. At first I dismissed it as a pretty weed but after seeing a month of flowering, I began to wonder. Eventually, curiousity got the better of me & I decided to take a closer look.

The first plant I reached turned out be a small, weather-beaten shrub. Its leaves were tattered & sparse, but it flowered daintily like a small, wild hibiscus. Some of its flowers were closed & some had gone to seed. A few of these I collected & took home.

That night I hit the internet. Working on the assumption my wildflower was some kind of hibiscus, I started going through botanical sites. The first bad news I discovered was that the Hibiscus family contains over 200 species. That is a lot of possibilities, but it got worse. Hibiscus in turn, shares Malvaceae or the Mallow family with up to 200 other genera. That is, well over 2000 species. These other "mallows" range from cotton to cocoa to baobab trees.

Wild Pavonia

Clearly, this wasn't going to be simple, but there was good news. Australia has a number of native mallow species such as Sturt's Desert Rose, (Gossypium sturtianum); a beautiful, drought-hardy flower. I was planning a dry weather garden with a focus on wildflowers & heath-like groundcovers like G. sturtianum, Coastal Rosemary (Westringia fruticosa) & Blue Fescue (Festuca ovina var. glauca). With its apparent resilience & persistent blooming, the little wildflower would fit right in.

The next day, I returned with a camera, shovel & a couple of flowerpots. It had been raining overnight & the day was still overcast. Cars whizzed past on the road not far away, making me suddenly feel a little self-conscious. Was this some rare, protected species? Or was it some noxious weed that I was about to spread? Was I possibly breaking some law? Deciding it was too late for trepidation, I took some photographs, dug up two shrubs & hauled them potted to my car.

Obviously help was needed identifying my new adoptees, so I next tried Dave's Garden. In the Australian Gardening, forums I posted pictures & a description of my wildflower. The first suggestion to come back was Flower Of An Hour or Venice Mallow, (Hibiscus trionum).

It didn't take long to work out that the Venice Mallow was not a particularly popular plant. Whilst some DG members reported positive experiences, many more called it a weed & complained of the short time its flowers opened. Apparently, it can be invasive & difficult to get rid of but fortunately, the descriptions & pictures of H. trionum did not match my wildflower.

Wild Pavonia
A dishevelled transplant looking for a name

Colonial plant collectors originally "discovered" Pale Pavonia in Australia fifteen years after settlement. These early researchers considered the plant native. The contemporary view is that P. hastata was introduced but this raises a few questions. Who introduced this plant & when? How did it arrive from South America so soon after settlement & why was it not recognised by early collectors? These questions are made more perplexing by the fact that Australia was a penal colony at the time the pavonia was found. The first free settlers were still decades away.

Pavonia hastata leaves
Forster, Adam, 1850-1928, Pavonia hastata
Forster, Adam, 1850-1928. Pavonia hastata [1924 Jan. 15] watercolour. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Another suggestion was Native Rosella, (Hibiscus heterophyllus). This was a much more attractive proposition, H. heterophyllus being often cultivated as an ornamental. Its berries can be made into a tasty but acidic jam, which is used similarly to chutney. With regard to the flower, Native Rosella was a closer match to my wildflower, but the leaves were quite different. For better or worse, H. heterophyllus was not the one either.

The third suggestion was the most confident & proved to be accurate. It came from Kennedyh. My wildflower was Pale Rock Rose or Pale Pavonia, (Pavonia hastata). Like Gossypium, Pavonia shares Malvaceae with the Hibiscus family, making my little flower a mallow as I had suspected. Though I didn't know it at first, this was great news.

One the many things I was soon to learn about my Rock Rose was the fact that amongst all the pavonia species, it was one of the very few cultivated as an ornamental. Reading up, I discovered that there is no genuine consesus as to its status in Australia. Once thought native, it is now considered an introduced species that has become naturalised across eastern parts of the country. The same can be said of it growing in some american states such as Florida & Georgia, where it is also known as Texas Rosemallow. Its actual place of origin is somewhere in South America.

Back home in their pots, my wild pavonias struggled a little at first. They sulked from the shock of transplanting & ceased flowering. I moved them around a bit before deciding on a spot to leave them & let nature run her course. Busy with other things for a few weeks, I received a pleasant surprise when I began to check up on them. The Pavonias had grown new leaves in the shelter of my garden; dark, glossy & tatter-free. They looked great.

P. hastata gains its botanical monicker from its distinctively lobed leaves. These little arrowheads are a large part of the mallow's individuality & charm. In contrast to the leaves & delicate flowers, the remainder of the shrub reflects the rugged surroundings to which it has adapted. P. hastata's stems are woody; surprisingly so for a plant that only grows to around a metre in height. Additionally, some of its flowers are cleistogamous. This means they do not open but instead, self-pollinate & set seed whilst remaining tightly curled beneath the sepals.

Over the course of the remaining summer & early autumn, I played with my wild pavonia. In the process, I found that it happily tolerates irregular watering, will germinate readily from seed, flowers persistently through the warmer months & will usually survive propagation as a cutting. Reading that P. hastata flowers are edible, I tried them as a salad garnish with pleasing results. I now have a good ½ dozen Pale Pavonia shrubs bordering what will soon be my wild heath garden. Looking back, I am grateful for the fact I finally pulled-over & had a look at this flower. Next time I see a pretty weed, I'll do the same again. There is no telling what I might learn.

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  About Ian Maxwell  
Ian MaxwellA life-long vegetarian, community gardener & member of Australia's SeedSavers network. I love plants both within the garden & in the wild. Trees are a special passion that I hope will prove infectious.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
So delightful! cathy4 1 3 May 6, 2008 10:30 PM
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