Australian native hibiscus and hibiscus like species

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Thespesia populnea

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Thespesia is a genus of Malvaceae with basically tropical and subtropical worldwide distribution. The genus is comprised of trees which are sometimes cultivated either for their usefulness to traditional cultures or for ornamental purposes. Thespesia is closely related to cotton (genus Gossypium) with which it shares, among other characteristics, the presence of gossypol glands in many plant parts. Gossypol is a substance that helps protect the plant against predators and which in large quantities, such as found in cotton seed, may be toxic to mammals, including humans. The most widespread Thespesia species is probably T. populnea, which played an important rule in Polynesian culture and is found throughout the Pacific basin, and which has also become naturalised in the shores of the New World. A plant found in the Society islands was painted by Sydney Parkinson in 1769

This article will mostly deal with T. populnea, but other species should also be mentioned:
  • Thespesia garckeana (syn. Azanza garckeana) is an African tree whose fruits are used as food by native populations but is also noted for its timber. Further information is available at
  • Thespesia grandiflora (formerly known as Montezuma speciosissima or Maga grandiflora), common name 'Maga', is an endemic species of Puerto Rico. In fact it is the state flower of Puerto Rico, and is cultivated mostly as an ornamental tree for the beauty of its flowers although it is also valued for its timber. The bloom can be seen at
  • Thespesia populneoides Along with T. populnea, this species is listed on an Australian site about plants used for timber under the common name for both plants of 'Pacific Rosewood'. It is often confused with T. populnea, from which it differs, among other characteristics, by having dehiscent fruits (the pods open when mature to release the seeds). T. populneoides is described as an attractive tree to 15 m (49 feet) with light-green, heart-shaped leaves. It has hibiscus-like flowers which are yellow, fading to pink, and small black fruit.
  • Thespesia thespesioides has a high concentration of gossypol. It can be seen at It is one of the species asssociated with mangroves in Australia and is used by Aborigines for medical purposes as well as for tools.
Probably it originated in India, but is a common plant of coastal strands across Old World tropics. It has naturalised in Florida and West Indies; it is also cultivated occasionally in Central and South America and has probably naturalised there. It has taken over beaches used by nesting sea turtles on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. In Florida, it is documented by herbarium specimens from southernmost counties and from Brevard County on the central east coast. In Hawai'i, it has been documented on all the main islands except Kaho'olawe at elevations ranging from sea level to 270 m (900 ft). It grows in Tahiti and also in Australia.

Life History: Thespesia populnea is cold-sensitive, but can stand mild frosts. It resists salt spray and wind action and grows "luxuriantly on shores of bays and inlets"; it is able to thrive in low silty land and coral and sand berms. It shifts into the more efficient C4-type of photosynthesis under saline conditions. Flowers and fruits nearly year-round. The fruits and seeds are buoyant, adapted to long-distance dispersal by tides and ocean currents.

Role in the habitat: Its main feature is that it is a mangrove associate. Like other mangrove associates, these plants provide shelter and food to many creatures of the mangroves.

This evergreen tree is bushy when young but thins out with age. It grows to 13 m (40 ft) or more with a spread of 3-6 m (10-20 ft). It grows rapidly under favourable conditions.
Bark: Brown, corrugated. Scaly twigs.
Leaves: Heart-shaped, shiny green, usually ranging in size from 5 cm to 20 cm (2 to 8 inches) long.
Flowers: The cup-shaped hibiscus-like pale yellow flowers are 5 to 8 cm (2 to 3 inches), with a dark blotch at the base of the petals . They last for one to two days, turning maroon and then dropping. They are produced intermittently throughout the year in warm climates.
Fruits and seeds: Capsule is a flattened indehiscent leathery sphere. The grayish brown seeds, 0.7 to 1.2 cm long (1/4 to 1/2 inch). Both the capsules and the hard seeds are buoyant and can be dispersed to very long distances by sea water.
Leaves of two different Thespesia species (upper side) Dry pod and seeds. As explained in the article, the pod doesn't open at maturity. Both the pod and the seeds are buoyant and can travel long distances in the sea.

These vary according to the country and include 'Portia Tree', 'Indian Tulip Tree', 'Pacific Rosewood', 'Bebaru'/'Baru Baru' (Malay), 'Milo' (Hawaii), 'Miro' (Pitcairn Island), 'Seaside Mahoe' (Florida).

Thespesia populnea may be confused with Hibiscus tiliaceus which was the topic of an earlier 'Marvellous Mallows'. Both belong to the family Malvaceae but are relatively distantly related, Thespesia being much closer to cotton (genus Gossypium). The leaves of H. tiliaceus are wider, with dense star-shaped hairs on lower surfaces. T. populnea has more elongated heart-shaped leaves and five dark dots at the centre of its flowers. As well, in T. populnea the sepals form a smooth-edged cup (vs.pointed tips), the leaf blades are slightly fleshy, hairless, narrower, above green and smooth-edged (vs. papery, hairy below, broader, above dark green and toothed leaf blades) and the stigmas are yellow (vs. deep crimson purple).

Adding to the confusion, in Florida both T. populnea and H. tiliaceus are exotics which share the common name of 'Seaside Mahoe'. Even worse, a third species very closely allied to H. tiliaceus, H. pernambucensis (which is reported to be native in Florida), also goes by the same common name. H. pernambucensis can be distinguished from the other two by its solid-yellow flowers, without the dark centre. And there is still a rainforest tree from Cuba, H. elatus, cultivated in the tropics for its valuable timber, which is also closely related to H. tiliaceus and is known as 'Blue Mahoe', often shortened to simply 'Mahoe'. It is therefore wise to be careful when obtaining seeds or plants of any of these species not to get the wrong plant, especially when they are sold under the name 'Mahoe' or 'Seaside Mahoe'.

In spite of the beautiful blooms and high value timber, care needs to be taken when considering planting Thespesia species. T. garckeana can sucker very freely. T. populnea is already listed as an invasive plant in Florida, where it is included in the Category 1 list as a species that is invading and disrupting native plant communities in Florida.
Its distribution is shown at:

One seed supplier notes that seed is not to be sent to Florida:

The following reference notes that it is a potentially invasive plant and that plants are not to leave the Greenhouse:

Propagation by Seeds:
This species is easily propagated from seed. The seed pods are indehiscent, that is the seed pods do not open when mature. The capsules can be opened by hand and the seeds removed. The seeds should be scarified (the seed coat penetrated). This can be done using an emery board, sandpaper, or nail clippers. Care must be taken to avoid damaging the inner part of the seed. The seeds do not require soaking, but soaking them overnight in warm water may hasten germination. The seeds should be planted in sterile potting mix at a depth of about twice the diameter of the seed. Germination takes 14 to 28 days.

Propagation by Cuttings: Cuttings are also a good way to propagate T. populnea. Small cuttings, about 30 cm (1 ft) long will root easily although larger cuttings can also be used. Keep the top three or four leaves, apply some rooting hormone, if available, plant in a small container (transparent plastic is great as one can see the roots as they develop). The top can be covered with a transparent plastic bag to keep moisture in and prevent the leaves from dessicating. The cutting should be protected from direct sun until it is well established. Rooting may take place within a month if conditions are favourable.

In the garden situation in a sub-tropical or tropical area, this plant grows quite quickly into a tree. Its blooms are attractive both when they are pale yellow and also when they age to a deep pink. The leaves help add to the appeal of this tree, both because they are shiny and because their large size can provide a visual contrast. Even the pods are a feature.

The plant also performs well in a pot. Again, the foliage makes for a feature plant. If the plant is re-potted as needed, it can make a feature plant in a shade-house.

This species grows well by the sea but its invasive potential needs to be considered. It grows in USDA Zone 11-12 but again its weed potential in these zones would need to be evaluated

T. populnea has a wide range of uses. These vary from use as a food plant or for medicine to use of the timber for craft. The plant also produces rope and dye and is used as a shade tree and as a windbreak.

References are given for the various uses but this article seeks only to provide information and cannot be seen to endorse any use for food or medicine.

Given the volume of information available, the following is in summary form with links for follow up on specific uses:

Bioassay test results showed that extracts of fruits and flowers of T. populnea distinctly inhibited the growth of two bacteria:

The leaf and flower buds are said to be edible raw or cooked. The seeds are applied to scabies and other skin diseases, and are rubbed on swollen joints. The yellowish juice extracted from young fruits is used to treat insect bites, gonorrhoea, ringworm, and migraine headache , and is also used for fistula, psoriasis, scabies, sprains, and wart removal:

Fibres, mats, paper and tapa cloth are products of Thespesia populnea:

This species has edible fruit and flowers and is resistant to termites. Rope has been made from the tough fibrous bark, cork from the inner bark, and the leaves have been used for a variety of medicinal uses. It is a host to a red insect, which stains cotton and so has been eradicated in many areas where cotton is an important crop:

The fruits, flowers and young leaves are edible. The timber is hard, termite-resistant, has an attractive grain and dark-red colour, and is naturally oily so it can be highly polished. But the timber is often twisted and rarely found in large pieces so it makes only small items. As the timber does not impart a flavour, it is often used to carve wooden food bowls and food utensils in Hawaii. The tough fibrous bark is made into rope (Hawaii and elsewhere) but is not as good for this purpose as Hibiscus tiliaceus is. The bark is also used to caulk boats (Malay). Cork is made from the inner bark. A yellow dye is obtained from the flower and fruits, and a red one from the bark and heartwood. Other products extracted from the plant includes tannin, oil and gums (a dark red resin exudes from the bark)...It casts welcome shade and in Hawaii they were planted near homes for this purpose. In India, they were planted to provide shade in coffee and tea plantations.

Traditional medicinal uses: Ground up bark is used to treat skin diseases (India), dysentery and haemorrhoids (Mauritius). Leaves are applied to inflamed and swollen joints (South India). When cut, the young fruit secretes a yellow sticky sap used to treat ringworm and other skin diseases (South India). Roots are used as a tonic. There is some modern investigation of the plant's effects on high blood pressure:

The roots are used as a tonic... Kirtikar and Basu report that in Mauritius the bark is described as depurative, and as a cure for dysentery and haemorrhoids. Nadkarni says that a decoction of the bark is used for washing skin diseases. Ground bark mixed with coconut oil is also applied to skin diseases... leaves are applied to inflamed and swollen joints. The fruit abounds in a viscid, yellow juice which the natives in South India use as an external application in psoriasis. Many other uses are listed at:

The bark was used for cordage fiber. The tree also yields tannin, dye, oil, medicine and gum, from various parts of the plant. The wood was skillfully crafted into bowls and into plates, too. The wood is flavorless, because it is lacking in any unpleasant-tasting sap that could contaminate stored food. The wood has an attractive grain that takes to a high polish and, in addition to food utensils and containers, was fashioned into paddles and other carved objects, as well as for an occasional canoe:

Wood used for food containers, slit drums and cabinetry:

There are 19 papers/mentions in the Agricola database (1970-1996) for use as a windbreak crop:

Thespesia are trees in the hibiscus-family valued not only for their ornamental qualities but also for their wide range of uses. However as T. populnea is already invasive in Florida, careful consideration needs to be given as to whether it is appropriate for cultivation in any given situation.

Fryxell, P.A. 1966, Australian Plants: Thespesia in Australia Sept.1966 vol.3 pp 366-367
Morton, J.F. 1966, Australian Plants: SEASIDE MAHOE (Thespesia populnea Soland.) Sept.1966 vol.3 pp 367-369
On the Web:
Hawaiian Native Plant Propagation Database:
Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Conservatory:
Aquatic, Wetland and Invasive Plant Particulars and Photographs:
Guide to the Mangroves of Singapore:
Mangrove and wetland wildlife at Sungei Buloh Nature Park (Singapore):
Field Guide to the Mangroves of Queensland
"Miro" (on Pitcairn Island):
Bevans,N. Alford,M. Guanches,F. Aregullin,M. Rodriguez,E. 2001 "Preliminary Phytochemical Study of Two Caribbean Malvaceae Used in the Treatment of Conjunctivitis" Journal of Undergraduate Study and Independent Research Issue 2, 20-24 (Winter 2001):


Rainforest Seed Co., Costa Rica:

Future Forests Nursery, Hawaii:

Austrahort P/L, Australia:

The Banana Tree, USA (not shipped to Florida):

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