Hibiscus refers to a genera of tender or subtropical plants in the Malvacae family, including cotton and hollyhocks. Also known as Rosemallow, the name is derived from hibiskos, the Greek name for mallow (Ward 189). A trumpet-shaped flower, it differs from its cottage garden cousins by being much more dramatic, with large and brilliantly colored blossoms and a more prominent “stamina column” with blooms “usually lasting for just one day” (Hogan 701) According to the Royal Horticultural Society it “is tender in Britain and is grown as a pot plant indoors where it may reach 2 m (6 ½ ft)” 
According to a website on the History of Hibiscus, the red hibiscus, “Hibiscus rosa-sinensis was first discovered in China or perhaps India.” Brought to Europe in the 1700’s, it was officially named by Linnaeus in 1753. Hibiscus became increasingly popular with the invention and proliferation of greenhouses in the mid-nineteenth century. Penelope Hobhouse notes that hibiscus were used in particularly grand French bedding schemes specializing in tropical drama in the later nineteenth century (252).
Symbolically, the hibiscus carries little freight in British literature. Wikipedia points out that the red hibiscus is associated with the Indian goddess Kali, cosmic mother, goddess of both creation and destruction. In the Victorian language of flowers, however, its designated meaning is simply “Delicate beauty” (Greenaway 21).
Hibiscus only appears once in Woolf’s writing, during the party towards the end of Mrs. Dalloway. Sally Seaton, Clarissa Dalloway’s adolescent inamorata, arrives. Having unexpectedly married a “bald man. . . who owned, it was said, cotton mills at Manchester” and having borne five boys, “the lustre had gone out of her” (167) and her voice “was wrung of its old ravishing richness (177). Nevertheless she owns “miles of conservatories” (183), and grows beds of “very, very rare hibiscus lilies that never grow north of the Suez Canal” (186). There is no telling if Woolf knew that the hibiscus is a relative of both cotton and the hollyhocks whose heads Sally Seaton once cut off and floated in bowls of water (MD 33). Sally is associated with the color red: she has a ruby ring “which Marie Antoinette had given to her great grandfather” (183) and the old women in the village near Bourton remember Sally as “your friend in the red cloak who seemed so bright” (177). Perhaps Sally’s adult fecundity in growing rare hibiscus is a dramatic tropical replacement for the flowers she decapitated in her rebellious younger years.
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