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Native Plant of the Month: Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii Turk's cap - September 2022

Updated: Feb 7

By: Dona Weifenbach



Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii (Turk's cap)

It has been a long, hot, dry summer.  Each morning, when I look outside my window, I think about where I need to pull the hose and which plants need water the most. Then, a hummingbird buzzes past the window, heading straight for the abundant red flowers on the Turk's cap.   Of all the wilted plants I have seen this summer, this plant has not appeared stressed in the least, leaves and branches fully erect as the American Beautyberry stands limply beside it.  Turk's cap is a deciduous perennial spreading shrub with simple palmate leaves that are alternate on the stem, often growing as wide as high, from 3-6 ft on average.  It has bright-red, pendant, hibiscus-like flowers that never fully open, the petals overlapping to form a loose tube with the staminal column protruding.  The flower is said to resemble a Turkish turban, hence its most common name, Turk's Cap. The flowers are present from May to November, which later produce one-inch fleshy red fruits.



Photo credit: Mike Glaspell

 

Turk's cap prefers partially shady sites.  Its native habitat is woodland edges along streams and wooded limestone slopes and ledges. It prefers moist, well-drained, woodland soils but is drought-tolerant. It will adapt to and thrive in many different sites, including full sun and heavy soil, though unremitting sun will cause its leaves to become rougher, smaller, darker, and puckered.  It grows from central Texas east to Florida and Cuba, north to Arkansas and South Carolina, south through Mexico to the Yucatan and Chiapas. Other varieties of this species continue south through Central America to South America. It provides habitat, nectar, and fruit for wildlife.  The flowers provide nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, and other insects.  Turk’s Cap is the host plant for the Turk’s Cap White Skipper butterfly.  The females lay their eggs on the twigs and buds, and when the caterpillars emerge, they feed on the leaves, flowers, and fruit. The fruit and seeds are eaten by birds and mammals.  The fruit is edible either raw or cooked, tasting rather like an apple, hence its Spanish name, Manzanilla (Little Apple). 


Turk's Cap will germinate promptly from fresh, untreated seeds.  Collect the seeds as soon as the fruit turns ripe. Spread the fruit on screens to dry and separate. After a few days, the pulp will shrivel and may easily be rubbed off the seeds. It is also propagated easily from softwood cuttings. These cuttings should be 4 to 6 inches long with leaves from the bottom halves removed and treated with rooting hormone. Large clumps of Turk's Cap may easily be separated in early spring and transplanted to a new site. Be sure to water well!  It is easy to maintain by pruning.  To keep plants waist-high, cut stems back to 5 inches after the last frost.


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