Bruce Bailey has a thing for cool plants. As the owner of Heavy Petal Nursery, northeast of Moses Lake, he is particularly passionate about the exotic-looking hibiscus, or rose mallow.
If you’ve ever seen one at a nursery or plant sale, you will understand his fascination. Their huge, colorful blossoms instantly evoke thoughts of tropical locales.
On Saturdays, Bailey can be found selling these and other plants at the Moses Lake farmers market. I recently caught up with him to learn more about the hibiscus and the Hot for Hibiscus event which he will host at his nursery on Friday and Saturday.
“(Plant hunter) Sean Hogan got me interested in the concept of zonal denial. I live in the desert and here’s something tropical that grows in the heat of my desert,” Bailey said, “although the rose mallow isn’t tropical. It’s actually native to the U.S. and the largest breeding program for them is located in Nebraska.”
Even though they look delicate, hibiscus prefer a hot, sunny location in the garden. They will grow in a wide range of soils, provided the soil holds moisture well. As long as the plants are watered regularly, they should be trouble-free and grow well.
“It’s also important for gardeners to know that they come up late in the year,” Bailey said. “I get calls from people professing their plant is dead, but once the soil warms up in May, that’s when they start shooting up.”
The plants bloom from July until it frosts in the fall. Spent flowers should be removed and if the blooming slows down, Bailey said he will fertilize them to make the plants form new buds.
With so many lovely varieties of rose mallow available, which ones are his favorites?
“I really like Summer Storm, which is a Proven Winner for this year. The leaves get bronze on them and turn burgundy,” Bailey said.
“I also like Copper King, which has a white flower with red veins that go into a burgundy eye, and Plum Crazy, which has purple-cast foliage with mauve-pink flowers and a deep plum eye. Fireball has attractive filigree leaves. I think it’s important to have something that holds your interest even when the plant isn’t blooming.”
Bailey is also a garden designer and has his own hibiscus breeding program. He showed me his Shake Rattle ’n Roll cultivar and it was stunning. The blossoms are fluorescent pink with a red eye, “but the visible, thin pink veins are what attracts you,” he said.
In addition to hibiscus, he sells a variety of plants. “I have hydrangeas, lots of different ornamental grasses, daylilies, bee balm, hostas and coneflowers. I also have a weakness for Oriental lilies.”
At the Hot for Hibiscus event, the hibiscus should be in full bloom. “We will have special guest vendors and some artists here,” Bailey said. “Linda Beutler, curator of the Rogerson Clematis Collection in Portland, Ore., will be bringing special clematis that are hard to find in nurseries but do well for gardens in Eastern Washington. And, of course, we’ll have this year’s Hot for Hibiscus T-shirts available.”