The name Turk’s cap derives from its resemblance to a Turkish turban. The plant’s scientific name is Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii. It belongs to the Malvaceae family which includes mallows, hibiscus, cotton, hollyhock and, even, okra, just to mention a few. The genus Malvaviscus means “sticky mallow” referring to the sap. The species arboreus refers to the plant’s stems, and the variety name Drummondii commemorates Thomas Drummond. Twenty-eight other Texas plants are named in his honor.
In 1830, Drummond, a Scotsmen, arrived in America to collect specimens from the western and southern regions of the U.S. Territories. In March 1833, he arrived at Velasco, Texas where he began to collect plants. He spent almost two years working the area between Galveston and the Edwards Plateau, especially along the Brazos, Colorado, and Guadalupe rivers. His plants were the first species collected in Texas that were extensively distributed among scientific institutions and museums around the world. He collected 750 species of plants, which he sent to Sir William Jackson Hooker, founder of Kew Botanical Gardens in London. Drummond also collected birds, snakes, land shells, and seeds. He had hoped to make a complete botanical survey of Texas, but in 1835 he died mysteriously while collecting plants in Cuba.
The Turk’s cap flowers consist of broad red petals that remain closely wrapped around one another at the base but spread slightly toward the end. The stamens extend beyond the petals. Flowers, about ¾ to 1 ½ inches long, grow singly in the leaf axils or, at times, in clusters at the ends of the stems. The stems are usually straight, woody, and widely branched. Leaves alternate on the stems, and can reach 3 to 5 inches long and about as wide. Plants often reach 9 feet high, but the average is 2 to 4 feet tall with a 3 to 5 feet spread. The red, apple-like fruit is about 1 inch wide and ½ inch high. It ripens in late summer or early fall, after the blossoms disappear. Prune to keep the plant confined or when leggy.
In Texas, the Turk’s cap is native from the Edwards Plateau area, west toward the Midland/Odessa and south to Mexico. It tolerates sun or shade and requires low water; however it thrives best in more humid regions. Several of the plant’s characteristics are: provides fruit for wildlife, which is also edible for humans; susceptible to freeze; spreads aggressively; and attracts hummingbirds and large butterflies.
The plant’s leaves have been used as a soothing, skin-softening emollient. In Mexico, a tea, brewed from the flowers, is used for the treatment of inflammation of the digestive tract, to relieve menstrual pain, and to stop diarrhea. A poultice made from the leaves and roots may be applied to the chest to ease pulmonary congestion. The fruit can be made into a flavorful jelly, and its dried flowers and leaves can be cooked with other greens.
Nature intended for different flowers and plants to attract numerous birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Possibly to reduce the competition, as only a few plants do all things for all creatures. So when planning your garden, or adding a new plant to your landscape, keep in mind what type of visitors you want to draw attention too.