Cajun Hibiscus Captures The Magic of New Orleans
Voodoo Queen, Cajun Cocktail, Gator Pride, and Swamp Music sound like drink names on a New Orleans menu. Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie, File Gumbo and Me-Oh My-Oh: straight out of a restaurant menu, or lyrics of the famous Hank Williams song.
But they’re all names of “Cajun Hibiscus”: hibiscus hybrids that are much bigger and much more flamboyantly-colored, broader, and flatter than the typical hibiscus– all of which are available from from Dupont Nursery near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Dupont Nursery is one of the Southeast’s biggest plant nurseries and wholesalers. Cajun Hibiscus is their most popular flower-– each year about 200,000 Cajun hibiscus are sold out of over two million plants total. Dupont holds over 50 patents on varieties of hibiscus, and they trademarked the name.
I first spotted Cajun Hibiscus in my New Orleans French Quarter patio, planted by my landlady, who shared the patio since my pink garden cottage with cobalt-blue shutters was behind her house.
Dupont Nursery’s Cajun Hibiscus have won many awards. In 2016, they won six out of 581 entries in the American Hibiscus Society Red Stick Chapter awards. Black Dragon, a dark purple-maroon-blackish flower, won Best Commercial Single. Cinnamon Star, a pinkish-brown edged flower, won for Sweepstakes Commercial. Pearl Mother, a pearly-pink hybrid submitted by collectors, won for Seedling Regular Single, and an Indian Summer and Cosmic Dancer cross won for Seedling Miniature Double, among others.
How the family-owned three-generation nursery got involved in hibiscus hybridizing is an intriguing story…
The nursery has grown and sold the giant hibiscus, some about a foot wide, since 1998. Founder Bobby Dupont was a retired florist and small nursery owner in Plaquemine, a small town one hour and 40 minutes from New Orleans by car, when he went to a hibiscus show in Baton Rouge that changed his life. He was fascinated by the different colors. His small florist shop, founded in 1956, morphed into a much bigger nursery with lots of greenhouse space when he purchased land on Bayou Plaquemine in 1985 and shifted his focus from consumer to wholesaling to garden centers.
At first, garden centers didn’t want Cajun Hibiscus, so he sold them mainly at shows. Then, tastes changed. How the family-owned three-generation nursery got involved in hibiscus hybridizing is an intriguing story. Dupont met a New Orleans Catholic priest and avid hibiscus fan who was president of the American Hibiscus Society New Orleans chapter— his name was Father Robert Gerlich. The pair became fast friends, and began jointly running a Cajun Hibiscus hybrid program. Gerlich bred most atop the science building at Loyola University, where he was a history professor for years, and eventually gave the seedlings to Dupont after they reached a certain height. In 2016, the flowers were grown at the nursery, as Gerlich was in Europe.
The Dupont family and Gerlich took turns naming the poetically-dubbed blooms. Eye of Kali, lemon-yellow with a red center, was named after the Hindu goddess by Gerlich, who also named Blackjack after a poker chip, as it was dark brown with a gold center.
The priest began collecting and growing more exotic hibiscus varieties in 1995, after being vastly impressed by the sheer colors and types he spotted at a Houston hibiscus show, which far surpassed the varieties then found in New Orleans. After he started sharing his flowers with Loyola staff and the grounds themselves-– speechless passersby often asked if the startlingly-big flowers were fake-– he started a New Orleans hibiscus club with fellow staffers, which later became the city’s American Hibiscus Society chapter.
Today, Bobby’s son, Robert Dupont, is president of Dupont Nursery, while his grandson, Jeff, does plant propagation. Bobby, now retired, visits the nursery daily. Their plants are sold in New Orleans (at American Aquatic Gardens and Plant Gallery) and elsewhere in south Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
For more information about Dupont Nursery, visit the nursery’s website.