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Delightful Dombeya: A Bit Of Hydrangea-like Heaven In Swfl Gardens

Jan 24, 2021 10:30AM ● By ERIK ENTWISTLE

For those fond of hydrangeas, we’re fortunate here in Southwest Florida because we can purchase them seasonally in pots to enjoy indoors. Alas, they won’t survive outside in our climate zone. But all is not lost for gardeners in this region who would appreciate a flower similar to hydrangeas to grow in their landscape—thanks to the existence of cultivars from the genus Dombeya. 

Named after the 18th-century French botanist Joseph Dombey, the plants in this genus originate from Africa and Madagascar and are often referred to by various popular names such as pink ball, snowball bush, tropical snowball tree and tropical hydrangea. Adding to the confusion stemming from multiple names is the number of varieties to choose from. Flowers range from red to pink to white. No blues, but you can’t have everything! 

Dombeya is a fairly large shrub that can be left to grow unchecked for an informal look that evokes cottage gardens. The plant may also be pruned to any desired shape and can be grown in containers. 

Here in our garden on Sanibel Island, we have two plants of Dombeya burgessiae, also called tropical rose hydrangea “Seminole.” This cultivar was released for commercial use by the USDA Plant Introduction Station in Miami in 1973. 

Our specimens are about 9 feet tall, after growing for several years. They are being used to provide additional screening for our pool equipment, where their spreading, cascading habit has caused them to quickly surround a privacy fence we recently installed.

Dombeya has an extended blooming period that happens to coincide with snowbird season, so part-timers and winter visitors will also be able to fully enjoy the plant. The more sun exposure given to it, the more flowers you will have. Irrigation is required, although the plants are fairly drought tolerant once established, and not fussy about soil or in need of frequent fertilization. 

Once you have acquired plants from a local nursery or mail-order nursery, you can propagate additional plants, if desired, by taking soft wood cuttings that will root easily. Pests have not been a concern with our Dombeya. The plant shares a habit with similar-looking hydrangeas—the flowers, which form in clusters, tend to remain on the plant after fading, turning a light-brown color. This happens gradually, contributing to the plant’s informal look and making deadheading not very effective. 

Unlike hydrangeas, however, the spent flowers do eventually fall off, so you likely won’t be bringing intact dried flower heads into the house. A member of the Malvaceae family (which includes mallows, cotton and hibiscus), Dombeya is an exceptional nectar plant, attracting bees and butterflies. 

The flowers are wonderfully fragrant, and our plants are covered with honeybees while in bloom. It is very satisfying to be able to provide food for our beneficial insects by including this beautiful flowering plant in our landscape. If you think you might enjoy a bit of hydrangea-like heaven in your Southwest Florida garden, give Dombeya a try!

Pianist, instructor and musicologist Erik Entwistle lives and teaches on Sanibel Island. He writes the Stay Tuned column for TOTI Media. A favorite hobby is growing vegetables and fruit using sustainable gardening methods.