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View from My Back Steps

By John I. Blair

Turk’s Cap

I first planted Turk’s Cap in my then-new garden in April 1992. At the time the area where I planted it was only partially shady, being near to a couple of volunteer “fenceline” hackberries and a young red oak I had recently put in the ground.

When I planted the Turk’s Cap I had no knowledge of it at all except from books and just took a stab at where to plant it. The name intrigued me, plus the plant’s reputation for attracting hummingbirds. And at the time a house on the end of our block had a big patch of Turk’s Cap that bloomed every year and looked beautiful. So that was encouraging.

Turk's Cap or Scotchman's Purse (Malvaviscus_arboreus)

I had just built a rough path of old bricks through that corner of the yard, connecting a new concrete garden bench to a clump of overgrown holly bushes where I contrived a “tunnel” through the holly that formed a feature on the path. And the Turk’s Cap would be the only other flowers in that area, once they got established.

That was 30 years ago. The holly clump is gone (victim of root rot); the brick path is gone (recycled to widen another garden path so it would allow my wife’s wheelchair to pass); the garden bench is still there, but overgrown by a wisteria vine and now used only by a couple of feral cats as a shady place to nap. But the Turk’s Cap is still there, spread out over several square yards of ground and thoroughly shaded by the red oak I had planted not long before them, which is now at least 90 feet tall. The oak and the Turk’s Cap are virtually the only survivors of all the things I had planted in that corner of the yard. Yes, Turk’s Cap is durable!

Large Clump of Turks Cap at the Church, 9/06/18

Let me introduce you more formally. This spreading shrub, often as broad as it is high, grows 2-3 ft., sometimes taller. The bright-red, pendant, hibiscus-like flowers never fully open, their petals overlapping to form a loose tube with the staminal column protruding, said to resemble a Turkish turban, hence its most common name, Turk's Cap. It is a member of the hibiscus family. A good ornamental for shady sites and sunny sites alike, it is popular in cultivation and goes by many English names including Turkcap, Turk's turban, wax mallow, ladies teardrop and Scotchman's purse. It is native to Central America, Mexico, and the Gulf Coast of the United States, particularly as an understory shrub in coastal Texas and Louisiana. It is an important food source for female and juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. Each individual flower lasts two days but contains more nectar on the first day. The fruit can be used to make jelly or syrup. Both the fruit and flowers are used to make herbal teas.

A landscaping treasure

It can be a wonderful plant for any wild garden, but also fits in well in a “civilized” garden. The flowers are uniquely shaped. Their color is truly brilliant, especially in the shady areas where they usually grow. And hummingbirds are attracted to them as soon as the flowers appear. So if you plant them, be sure to put them where you can see them – not like mine, which have gotten so hidden away in the back corner of the garden I have just gone more than a year without actually seeing the flowers, until I had the path to the bench cleared recently and carefully made my way back to a vantage point. They’re just coming into flower and should bloom the rest of the summer if I keep them watered. Calling all hummingbirds! And maybe the cats will make room on the bench for me to sit there once in a while.

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