Turk’s Cap, Malvaviscus arboreus was one of the first native plants that I became acquainted with when I began my native plants gardening adventure.
From the beginning, I was smitten.
Over the years, I’ve planted seven Turk’s Cap shrubs, all of which spread and developed into large specimen plants which anchor several of my garden beds during the course of the long growing seasons here in sunny Austin, Texas.
Turk’s Cap is a native southern United States plant, but is also native to Mexico and Cuba. There are cultivars of this plant, like ‘Big Momma’, (who names these??) , that are listed as herbaceous perennials in USDA gardening zones 7-10. Though this native Texan dies to the ground during our normal winters (except in South Texas), this hardy shrub emerges every spring and gifts to the garden and wildlife a long and prolific parade of blooms and fruits.
The Turk’s Cap is not picky about soil, nor does it need much water once established. Considered an understory plant, Turk’s Caps are best in shade,
…but flourish in full sun and anything in between. In full sun, the leaves will turn downwards, darken, and crinkle in a manner that many gardeners find unattractive. The plant looks like it’s struggling in the blazing sun and heat, but even under those conditions, Turk’s Cap is a tough and drought hardy perennial. All of my Turk’s Cap shrubs grow in shade to part-shade and in fairly heavy soil, but I’ve seen others perform beautifully in full sun while planted in sand. In shade and part shade though, the foliage is lush and suggestive of plants that are tropical mallows–which Turk’s Cap is!
Turk’s Caps are classified as shrubs, but I always think of them as a forming in a cluster or thicket and as performing more like herbaceous perennials. They tend toward the amorphous–shooting upwards and outwards from their thick roots after winter and reaching for the sky throughout spring, summer and into autumn.
During a wet spring, Turk’s Caps grow quickly, adding lots of stem length and leafy greens. Over the course of the growing season, those stems can flop over and look rangy, especially once heavily laden with masses of blooms. That’s a fine way to go if you’re aiming for a casual, wild garden. But if structure in the garden is a goal, Turk’s Caps can and should be pruned. Here is an example of a wayward limb.
The snipped off wayward limb allows a more formal look. This group,
…is one that I should have pruned back after our heavy rains in the spring and early summer (2015). I failed to complete that little chore and now this shrub has limbs flailing and falling this-a-way and that. I don’t think this is horrible and certainly bees, butterflies and hummingbirds have no issue with wonky limbs, but the human Turk’s Cap tender who prefers a tidier look, should keep this hardy shrub checked. This example is more representative of how I like my Turk’s Caps:
Actually, this large bunch is one of the first Turk’s Caps that I planted and is over 20 years old.
To keep the mature Turk’s Cap well-shaped, I prune up the outside limbs to about 2 feet in height, the next group inward to about 3-4 feet in height, in a graduated form, shorter to taller, toward the middle of the shrub. In general, I only prune for shape in late spring, with the occasional lopping off, as needed, in late summer or fall. It’s an easy, quick chore and I only prune what needs pruning.
Here in Austin, Turk’s Caps emerge from the ground in early spring with fresh and vibrant green foliage.
Depending upon rainfall, Turk’s Caps will grow in a moderate to rapid pace. If the spring is wet, the stems grow to about 4-5 feet, sometimes reaching 6 feet tall by late May, but often with little bloom development. During drought, moderate or otherwise, the foliage growth is slowed, but flower development (at least in my garden) isn’t retarded at all. Personally, I prefer Turk’s Caps during drought–these shrubs grow and bloom, without the rank limb development that occurs in wet years; the shrubs don’t require pruning under those circumstances and that’s a good deal for the lazy gardener.
Turk’s Caps begin their flower show in late spring (May in Austin) and the blooming continues throughout the summer months, with no rest. Summer is when Turk’s Caps shine.
Or rather, bloom like crazy.
The shrubs produce masses of blooms, each day, with each bloom lasting for several days. In a cluster, one can find buds, blooms and those destined to become fruits.
The petite flowers are stunning: they remind me of a jaunty turban, complete with pollen plume.
The Turk’s Cap belongs in the Mallow or Malvaceae family, thus sharing many characteristics with other hibiscus plants. The ruby-red, tiny hibiscus blooms never quite open.
Bees of all kinds, butterflies, and hummingbirds love these blooms.
Additionally, because the Turk’s Cap shrubs form thicket-like, birds and lizards use it for cover. Turk’s Caps are considered moderately deer resistant.
One of the things you’ll notice in these photos are holes in the foliage. During some summers, there is munching of the wide and wonderful Turk’s Caps foliage.
In the American garden of the past century, sterile, non-insect attracting plants were the desired garden outcome. As we have come to realize that wildlife is seriously threatened and in decline, the wildlife-friendly gardener recognizes that insects, often the larval stage of important pollinators like butterflies and moths, will eat foliage. Furthermore, it’s actually okay that they eat foliage–that’s what they’re supposed to do and that’s what the plant is there for. The plant won’t die; it’s uncommon for an insect herbivore to actually kill its host plant. It happens, but it’s not the norm. Are the holes unattractive? Well, it depends upon whether you want foliage that looks unreal–completely pristine and untouched–or whether you understand that there is a powerful and complex food chain mechanism at work in your garden. I like to think that the holes in the foliage are feeding beneficial insects that become pollinators or perhaps, food for birds or small mammals. Acceptance of some leaf damage is all about perspective and some knowledge of the natural world. Remember that plants were invented to serve insects, birds, and mammals.
Once fall is firmly in play, with its shorter days and eventually, cooler nights, Turk’s Cap shrubs cease blooming. Here in Austin, that occurs in October. The fruits begin developing in late summer,
…and turn a luscious red during the fall months. I’ve never tasted them (not sure why, I should correct that!) but the fruits reportedly taste like apples. The Spanish name for Turk’s Cap is Manzanilla, which means “little apple”–and you can clearly see why.
In my garden, Blue Jays and Mockingbirds are particularly fond of these fruits.
As the days and nights cool, the Turk’s Cap foliage turns yellow.
It’s not a particularly spectacular fall foliage display and in fact, the limbs lose some foliage and the plant becomes sparse and spindly during the cooler fall and early winter months, prior to the first hard freeze. In late fall, If my Turk’s Caps look sloppy, I trim them up just a bit to give the shrub a neater look.
The meager foliage in late fall is in striking contrast with the lushness that is the signature of the spring, summer, early/mid fall growth pattern.
In my urban garden, it takes a hard freeze to completely knock the Turk’s Caps to the ground for the duration of winter.
At that point, sticks rising from the ground is what a Turk’s Cap shrub is. I let the leaves fall as mulch and then, when I can no longer stand the brown gloom,
…I whack them back to the ground. That singular event, usually undertaken in late January or early February, is the major pruning that this plant requires. The result a minimalist garden look, to say the least. It’s a good idea to pair Turk’s Cap shrubs with evergreen or structured plants so that the minimalist look is, well, minimized. Here in Austin, winters are variable–sometimes they are consistently chilly with freezes throughout on a regular schedule; sometimes winters are very mild with no freezes at all. In mild no-freeze winters, I usually prune the still-green limbs with a few new leaves to about 12 inches from the ground in February.
The toughest situation for plants is when a hard freeze occurs early (I define “early” as anytime in December), with the remainder of winter being mild–no hard freezes at all. In that situation, Turk’s Caps will flush out with new growth in January or early February. No worries though for an established Turk’s Cap plant; the early growth will be slow and if there is a hard freeze once the new growth appears, the freeze will damage the leaves and maybe the stems, but the tough plant will survive. At that point, prune to where there is green on the stem, sit back and let spring happen.
I’ve paired some of my Turk’s Cap shrubs with a native Texas groundcover, Heartleaf Skullcap, Scutellaria ovata ssp. bracteata, because I like the combo of the bright green Turk’s Cap foliage mixed with the subtler, softer Heartleaf foliage throughout late winter and spring.
Once past winter’s chill, Turk’s Caps flourish–in foliage and blooms.
Turk’s Cap is a staple plant in my garden. Lovely and reliable, it’s a rich wildlife plant, as well as being a water wise and low-maintenance plant for the gardener.
Turk’s Cap is a plant that any gardener who is interested in feeding wildlife, while also enjoying a long blooming cycle, should add to the garden.
You’ll be happy you did.
I’m glad to join with Gail of clay and limestone to profile our wonderful native plants. Check out the link to learn about other native plants.