By Alyssa Nyberg, Restoration Ecologist at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands
I feel so lucky to live where there are lots of flowers—in Newton County with all its natural areas and close to Kankakee Sands, where I can enjoy 20,000 acres of native flowers brimming with color from April through September.
There are pretty flowers, and there are really pretty flowers, and then there are jaw-dropping, hold-the-phone pretty flowers. The swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus palustris) is definitely one of those jaw droppers.
This four to six-foot tall shrub-like plant has flowers with five bright pink overlapping petals. From the center of the flower arise a brilliant yellow cluster of pollen-holding stamens. What a contrast! Each individual flower lasts only last a few days, but new flowers open each day, so that there can be more than two dozen flowers blooming on one plant at a time! Jaw-dropping!
Swamp rose mallow begins blooming in late July, and it continues its display through early September, so there is plenty of time yet to be wowed. A great location from which to view them is along the Wet Prairie Trail in the north bison pasture – a 0.3-mile trail that begins at the Kankakee Sands office on US 41.
As its name suggests, swamp rose mallow grows in such wet places as wetlands, marshes, open swamps and along rivers and ponds in full sun or partial shade. It also grows very well in landscape settings should you want to grow this beauty on your own property.
In North America, the swamp rose mallow’s historical range extends from Ontario through much of the eastern half of the United States including the mid-Atlantic states and the Great Lake States down to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.
The swamp rose mallow supports a wide variety of insects, including bumble bees and long-tongued bees (such as the rose mallow bee) that take both nectar and pollen from the flowers and pollinate them. Japanese beetles, aphids, caterpillars of the painted lady butterfly, gray hairstreak butterfly, Io moth, and bird dropping moth all feed on leaves, petals or seeds of the swamp rose mallow.
And there is one insect in particular that calls the swamp rose mallow home – the velvet leaf seed beetle. In contrast to other insects which visit the flower or leaves and then fly or scurry along, the velvet leaf beetle spends most of its time on the rose mallow plant – its larvae feed on the seeds, and the adults are either drinking nectar or mating in the pink protection of the plant’s petals. As its name suggests, the velvet leaf seed beetle can also be found on velvet leaf – another of host plant of this beetle and a common weed in our Midwest agricultural fields and gardens.
At just 2 mm in size–roughly the thickness of a nickel, the velvet leaf seed beetle (Althaeus folkertsi) might easily be overlooked. I admit to not noticing the beetle in the swamp rose mallow that grow at the Kankakee Sands nursery, but I do notice the insect-nibbled seeds and the insect frass left behind – true evidence of presence.
The velvet leaf beetle and I both have a pretty sweet place to live. Love where you live, we say! Whether it be in Newton County surrounded by acres and acres of flowers or inside one of the prettiest flowers of the wet prairie – the swamp rose mallow.
The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is an 8,300-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.