“What’s in a name?”
The answer, dear Juliet, is not as simple as it seems.
“That which we call a rose”
Unless, of course, it was not a rose, which is the case for Rose of Sharon, the large-blossomed flowering ornamental shrub bringing bulbous blooms to yards and gardens everywhere.
“By any other name would smell as sweet.”
But how would it taste? Delicious, if we are speaking of Hibiscus syriancus, a plant known to have edible flowers and leaves that make a wonderful tea, but not if we are following historic precedent on the identity of this plant.
The name “Rose of Sharon” has its own odd and interesting history, quite apart from the story of the plant (or plants) it has been applied to. This term first was used in 1611 in the King James Bible. Annotators of the Song of Solomon, where the name appears, have offered the suggestion that perhaps it is a mistranslation of the Hebrew “Chavatzelet Ha Sharon,” which is likely a type of crocus or sea daffodil that was found on the Plain of Sharon in Israel on the coast of the Mediterranean. It could also have referred to a tulip, or Madonna lily, or even Jesus himself, according to biblical lore.
In modern usage, the name Rose of Sharon is most often applied to two different plants, Hypericum calycinum (St. John’s Wort) or, most commonly, to Hibiscus syriacus (Chinese hibiscus or shrub Althea). It is this latter plant that has my attention this week.
Hibiscus syriacus is the real Rose of Sharon, and, like its common name, its scientific name is fraught with inaccuracies. This species is not really from Syria: It is actually of Asian origin. Known in the Far East as the “immortal flower,” it is the national flower of South Korea.
If you have begun to notice that none of the nomenclature connected to this plant is exactly straightforward, you may already have guessed that Rose of Sharon is not actually a rose at all. It is in the Malvacaea plant family and is closely related to hollyhock, cotton, okra, and the currently blooming marshmallow.
You can’t miss its large, showy blossoms. At up to a few inches, these flowers draw attention. The big blooms only last one to three days, but the plant will continue to produce new buds throughout August and into September. The flowers can be blue, pink, red, lavender, dark purple or white and have a bright eye of a distinctly different color in the center. Different varieties, including Aphrodite, Diana, Helene and Minerva, offer single, double, and ruffed flowers with contrasting colored eyes. Hummingbirds enjoy these flowers immensely.
Not everyone is as excited by Rose of Sharon as I am. In Curtis’ Botanical Magazine, the author wrote that “We view it, however, with less delight, as it is a sure indication of approaching winter.” Surely that’s too depressing a way to look at one of the brightest ornaments of late summer.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.