Australian native hibiscus and hibiscus like species

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Marvellous Mallows - Pavonia Hastata

(This series is being compiled by Colleen Keena from Queensland, Australia, Kristin Yanker-Hansen from California, USA, and Marcos Capelini from São Paulo, Brazil.)

Pavonia hastata belongs to the Pavonia genus, which contains around 270 species, of which around 220 are found in the tropics and subtropics of the American continent. The remaining species are almost all concentrated in Africa, although two species are reported to be native to Asia. Together with hibiscus, Pavonia is the genus in the Mallow family which has the largest number of species.

P. hastata is native to South America, although some people claim it is also native to Australia, since early collectors are said to have found it there 15 years after settlement. Older Australian references generally refer to it as a native plant whereas more recent references, such as species lists for particular sites, usually state that it is an introduced species. It has naturalized in the USA in the states of Florida and Georgia.

Many Pavonia species have potential as ornamentals, though relatively few are currently used for that purpose and it may be difficult to obtain plants. Seed of a number of species is available from online sources (see references at the end of this article).

The Plant

One of the few Pavonias that has been used as an ornamental is Pavonia hastata. It is a small perennial shrub up to around 1 metre tall. During its flowering season, which extends mainly from end of spring through summer and autumn in subtropical areas, it bears numerous white or pinkish hibiscus-like flowers with a dark crimson spot in the centre. The flowers are around 5 cm (2") and last one day only, but are quickly replaced by others, so the plant will usually have many flowers at the same time. The form with white flowers has dark green leaves and the blooms show up well against the dark foliage.

In early spring it will form buds but these usually will not open, although seed setting will follow. This is a phenomenon known as "cleistogamy", which is probably an adaptation to unfavourable environmental conditions. However, buds will become blooms in early summer.

The fruit is not a pod like those of hibiscus and other relatives: it is divided in five segments with exactly one seed each. The style is another difference between Pavonia and Hibiscus species: while plants in the genus Hibiscus always have the style divided in 5, Pavonia species have twice as many stigmas.

Details of pod and style

P. hastata prefers light loams and sunny open areas, and is influenced by water run-off and so in Australia may be quite numerous along areas such as gullies and on roadsides. Although it responds well in conditions of good soil and water run-off, it does not need a lot of water to grow, but again if too stressed the blooms won't open.

It is frost-hardy to -7 degrees Celsius (20F), though sufficient heat is necessary for the blooms to open. It grows well without needing to be fertilized, however if fertilizing, the use of a seaweed extract would be beneficial. Plants that are pruned hard after the last frosts will soon re-shoot and become much more dense and so carry more blooms. Pruning is not essential but plants that are not pruned will become more open and straggly.

When given conditions such as good soil and ample water, Pavonia hastata may have the potential to become a weed, and in Australia it has been listed as a weed in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. The seeds remain viable for a long time in the soil, sprouting under favourable conditions, so the species may reappear in a locality after several years. The possibility that the plant may become a weed suggests that care should be taken with where it is grown.

For gardeners unable to grow it in the ground, Pavonia hastata grows very well in a pot, flowering and setting seed. It is like all the mallows in regard to growing in a pot. The size of the plant will be determined by the size of the pot. It can be maintained for many years in a small pot, but if potted on annually into a pot that is a size larger, after several years it can reach the same size as it would in the ground.

No special treatment is necessary before planting the seed, but it may be advisable to abrade its surface a little with an emery board so the seed will sprout faster. Seed is usually sown in spring or autumn but this would depend on the climate. In areas with very short dry summers, the seed could be sown in summer whereas in areas with summers that are very wet and humid, it would be preferable to sow the seed in autumn.

While propagation can be by cuttings, plants perform well from seed. As the plant is a species, the seed will come true, that is, the seedlings will be exactly like the parents. Plants would probably flower in 9 - 12 months depending on what time of the year the seed was sown. While pinching the seedling is recommended as it will result in a bushier plant, which will have more flowers in the long run, pinching may delay the first bloom. You need to expect that the first flowers will be cleistogamous and so there will not be a bloom, but these will be followed by normal flowers later in the season.

Bush habit

IHS members who would like a small hibiscus-like plant which is low growing for the front or edge of garden beds and which flowers profusely in the warmer months may find this a useful addition to their garden. For those who like or need to grow their plants in pots, this is a plant which does not need much attention and which rewards the grower by performing extremely well in a pot, given enough sunlight and warmth.

Bush detail

As with most hibiscus family plants, it is not just a tough, hardy plant. The blooms make a great garnish for a plate of sandwiches or a tossed salad. And should you be making a bowl of punch, the flowers are the perfect size to be set in ice-blocks and floated in the punch bowl to show just not just the beauty but also the versatility of our favourite family of plants.


Esteves, G. L. "Sistemática de Pavonia cav. (Malvaceae), com base nas espécies das regiões Nordeste e Sudeste do Brasil" . Doctoral dissertation, Inst. Biociências, Univ. São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil, 1996.
J. Wrigley, M. Fagg "Australian Native Plants", 3rd Edition, Collins Publishers Australia, 1979, 1983, 1988.
Keith Williams, "Native Plants of Queensland", Volume 2, Printcraft, Australia, 1984.
Online References
Australian References

The pros and cons of Pavonia hastata

Species description

Phosphorus tolerance

About cleistogamous flowers

Methods of weed control

American References

US distribution

Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants

French References

Plant information.

Photos on the Net

Nurseries and Seed

Listing from "Native Texas Nursery" (USA)
(apparently P. hastata is not on the list of currently available plants)

Glasshouse Works (USA) - calls it "Fairy Hibiscus"

Nestreblae Exotics (NZ) - seed catalogue, sends worldwide

B&T World Seeds - in Europe, sends worldwide

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