As the sun dips behind the Coastal Georgia horizon, a stand of gigantic prehistoric flowers shows signs of new life deep in the maritime forest of Little St. Simons Island. Little by little, under the shroud of darkness, the Hibiscus grandiflorus opens to reveal five large petals ranging in color from rose to off-white. They are among the last of their kind.

The nocturnal hibiscus, known also as a swamp rose mallow, once took root all across the Southeast. Its range today is mostly restricted to a handful of pockets along Georgia’s barrier islands.

Close-up image of the Hibiscus grandiflorus flower that only blooms once a year, at night. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current

Years of changing hydrology threaten the freshwater wetlands these perennial plants call home. Agriculture, mosquito ditching and a rising sea have slowly chipped away at their habitats and their population. 

“The fact that we get to see this right now is really special,” said Emily Engle, a naturalist at Little St. Simons Island who for three years has led early morning ventures to the flowers. “It takes my breath away every time.”

Only in the night will the swamp rose mallow blossom before its petals wither away under the heat of the summer sun. The ritual repeats for about a month beginning in July: open come night, gone come day. Few are around to observe them.

Engle estimates just 20 to 50 visitors see the island’s swamp rose mallows in bloom each year. Tours are only offered to guests at The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island and are capped so as to limit habitat disruption. Even then, not everyone is up for the trek required to get there.

Brian Norton, whose family vacationed from Greenville, South Carolina, said only half of his eight-person group took part in the adventure. First by truck, then by foot, he traveled before sunrise through dense forest teaming with mosquitos. The Lodge provided nets to keep the bugs at bay from waist-up, but Norton’s decision to wear shorts and sandals, he said in hindsight, is not one he would recommend to others. 

The payoff was worth every bug bite.

“I had only heard of hibiscus tea but thought of the word ‘hibiscus’ no further than that. And then to see this grove, with the height and the blooms,” Norton said. “The colors were just so vibrant.”

The hibiscus is also known to inhabit Georgia’s Jekyll, Wassaw, Ossabaw and Sapelo islands.

HIBISCUS GRANDFLORA

Engle said she doesn’t know of any swamp rose mallow stands quite as large as Little St. Simons’, though nobody can say with certainty that they don’t exist undiscovered. 

What ecologists can say with more certainty, however, is that the swamp rose mallow indicates a healthy, intact coastal freshwater wetland. 

“I think that’s what’s maybe rarer than the plant itself,” Little St. Simons Island Ecological Manager Scott Coleman said. “They’re a poster child for telling the story of how important our coastal wetlands are.”

Intruding salt water makes such an environment harder to come by these days, yet the story of the Hibiscus grandiflorus is not one of despair. Rather, it’s one of hope, Engle said. 

Come winter, when the blooms are long gone and the next generation of seeds lie buried beneath the soil, what remains of the special stands is hardly distinguishable from a lifeless bundle of sticks. 

But as seasons change and warmth stirs the seedlings to life, they return in the same flashy display as always. Even at the height of the pandemic, when humans were tossed into a state of uncertainty and turmoil, Hibiscus grandiflorus persisted. They erupted right on cue.

“These flowers kind of represent a testament to that undying consistency and will in nature that isn’t always occurring in the anthropogenic world,” Engle said. “I think there was a lot of hope and reassurance in that.”

The Tide brings news and observations from The Current staff.