Malvaceae (mallow family) Lagunaria

Lagunaria patersonia Norfolk Island hibiscus, primrose tree

Queensland, Norfolk Island
Lagunaria patersonia in front of the Fire Station. Sairus Patel, 19 Jun 2020
Lagunaria patersonia flower and leaves. John Rawlings, c 2005

Rather a surprising spectacle when in bloom in midsummer and covered with flowers that are an inch or more across in colors grading through rose-pinks to lilac, this stately tree grows to about 25 feet. The flowers distinctly resemble the hibiscus, the stamens projecting from a central column, and indeed the tree is of the same family.

The leaves are dull green, very pale underneath, and about 2 inches long.

The seed capsules open to reveal five compartments and should be handled with care because of the fine sharp hairs (used as itching powder to be shaken down the neck of the kid at the desk in front of you by knowledgeable but uncouth mischief-makers). The cow-itch (Mucuna imbricata) of India, a woody climber, bears pods covered with sharp hairs but has nothing to do with Lagunaria. Nor has it anything to do with cows – the name is a corruption of cowage, a local name in India. Propagation of the deceptive name cow-itch for the sweet Norfolk Island hibiscus in some Bay Area tree and garden books must be a conspiracy to cover up the true use of itching powder.

There should be more of the Norfolk Island hibiscus on campus. Two are growing 4 feet apart on Serra Street at the Fire Station, not far from the Recycling Center parking lot. Five are near the Codiga Resource Recovery Center, tucked against its Serra Street fence (map pin).

In East Palo Alto, several pairs are scattered along the sound wall on West Bayshore Road, for example at the intersection with Dumbarton Avenue. More than a dozen line the east side of Hemlock Avenue in Redwood City.

Lagunaria patersonia. John Rawlings, c 2005

Name derivation: Lagunaria – Andrea Laguna (1494–1560), Spanish botanist; patersonia – William Patterson (1755–1810), British naturalist and plant collector.

Lagunaria patersonia flower. John Rawlings, c 2005
Lagunaria patersonia. From An Illustrated Manual of Pacific Coast Trees, Howard E. McMinn & Evelyn Maino

About this Entry: The main text of this entry is from the book Trees of Stanford and Environs, by Ronald Bracewell, published 2005. Specific ephithet corrected from the widely used patersonii to patersonia (Nov 2017, SP). Codiga location added, spelling of Mucuna corrected, minor edits; all locations now up to date (Jun 2022, SP). Removed mention of past specimens on site now occupied by Center for Academic Medicine and its parking lot; East Palo Alto and Redwood City locations added (Jul 2023, SP).