Discovering Confederate Roses — exemplary Southern plants
by Margaret Dabbs
Oct 31, 2012 | 3315 views | 0 0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Margaret Dabbs
Margaret Dabbs
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An October trip to the Gulf Coast delivers a special joy to the soul. Abandoned by the sun-worshipping summer crowds which thrive on the heat, the unspoiled fall beach bestows a sense of ownership, accompanied by a rare, treasured tranquility, on the beach wanderer.

The cool sand tingles the toes and the senses are calmly overwhelmed by the glistening emerald water and the magnificent sunsets.

The fall beach trip encompasses an additional bonus as the drive south of Montgomery through small Alabama towns — Pintlala, Highland Home, Luverne, Brantley, and Kinston — offers a field after field reminder of the vitality of farming in our state.

The rich, fragrant dirt overturned to harvest peanuts and the unadulterated whiteness of picking-ready cotton ease the miles of the journey from Northwest Alabama.

On a recent fall beach trip, in the tiny Coffee County community of Curtis, we discovered a modest farm home almost overgrown by a massive shrub growing along one side. Close to 20 feet tall, nearly 10 feet wide, and frequently called a Confederate Rose, this plant grows prolifically and gigantically in that region of the state.

A biological cousin to cotton and okra, the Confederate Rose is also known as a Cotton Rose because the buds appear similar to cotton bolls. However, this drought-tolerant, easy to grow shrub is not a rose at all.

It originated in China and is a member of the hibiscus family. Botanically labeled Hibiscus mutabilis, the name points out one of the blossom’s most striking features.

The blossoms are mutable, thus capable of changing color over a period of several days. Opening pure white, the gracefully fluffy flowers show off a seemingly endless range of color from the most delicate pink to the richest, deepest red-pink.

Once they begin to fade, the slightest hint of blue may tint the blossoms.

As Southerners, we cherish our legends and the Confederate Rose comfortably accommodates this pleasant tendency. Some writers and gardeners suggest its name developed from the use of these plants, which easily root from cuttings, to economically landscape cemeteries when pocketbooks were empty after the Civil War.

Another suggestion of the name source relates the story of a Florida nurseryman who brought the plant from Brazil, confident the gorgeous blossoms would successfully market the plant. When sales failed to meet his expectations, he changed the name to Confederate Rose and sales took off.

Southern storytellers, who often have a romantic streak and create enthusiasm and interest by the beautiful art of embellishment, might tell us the Confederate Rose acquired its name after ladies in towns like Mobile gave these flowers to returning Confederate soldiers.

Or perhaps they would recount the legend of the teenage Confederate soldier who was injured in a notoriously bloody Civil War battle and fell at the base of one of these plants, which was in full bloom solely with perfectly white blossoms. As the soldier lay dying for several days, his flowing blood was absorbed by the plant.

Over time, the white blossoms changed to pink and ultimately red.

Ever since that day, Confederate Rose blossoms have emerged as they did during the death of the young soldier. If Alabama storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham had told that magically bittersweet tale during her long storytelling life, she likely would have ended it with a smile and one of her fondest morsels of wisdom. “Now if that story isn’t true, it should be.”

Enthusiastically sharing plants, like sharing recipes, books, and stories, is a wonderful thread in the fabric of our Southern culture. Confederate Roses join daylilies, cannas, spider lilies, and daffodils as popular pass-along plants because they are easily propagated from stem cuttings and given away.

In my neighborhood, an outstanding example of a pass-along Confederate Rose was in full bloom last week, heavy with blossoms of multiple hues and busy with butterflies. Started as a rooted cutting from a sister’s plant, it has grown about 10 feet high on the edge of a neighbor’s lot with essentially no effort on her part.

For rooting Confederate Roses, Southern Living Senior Writer and Grumpy Gardener Steve Bender proposes a straightforward method. “You can sow seeds in spring, but the easiest way to propagate it is to simply root cuttings in water.”

Several years ago, two Class of 1948 college friends realized pass-along Confederate Roses were more than just splendid landscaping plants. Bill Vinson moved to Davidson, N.C., after he retired, to restore his grandmother’s 1898 Victorian home. He wanted to revive the garden with plants which grew in that area during the time the house was built.

Classmate Charlie Patterson was an avid Confederate Rose grower and had given away dozens of the plants with the condition, “Grow it and pass it along to someone else.” So he gave plants to his old friend and they flourished — growing 12 to 15 feet high and boasting hundreds of blossoms.

Later, Vinson found a family photograph which included his grandmother, aunt, and father standing in front of the house under a huge, now familiar plant — a Confederate Rose. Patterson’s pass-along plants turned out to be a living connection to his friend’s family history.

Confederate Roses have also inspired quilt patterns. During the height of the Great Depression, quilt guru Nancy Cabot wrote a syndicated quilt pattern column for the Chicago Tribune and several quilt pattern booklets. She designed most of the patterns, including an intricate one she called Confederate Rose, and these patterns are still utilized today.

Brimming with tradition and legend, the glorious Confederate Rose is a plant of unquestionable Southern credentials. Naturally beautiful, endlessly energetic, and continuously eager to grow, this unique rose exemplifies the enviable qualities of the Southern spirit.

Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 205-387-2890.