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Hibiscus blooms burst with color

The tall hibiscus, a flowering tree rather than a shrub, stands as a centerpiece at the Tampa Bay waterfront home of Mark and Marianne Mahaffey. Laden with large pink flowers most of the year, this hibiscus is like a member of the Mahaffey family. It was transplanted twice, moving to its present location 16 years ago. Facing east on a terrace just outside a screened pool area, it can be seen from most rooms in the large home designed with a wide view.

All the leaves dropped after last winter's freeze but "This was the third time it has recovered," says Mrs. Mahaffey. She and her husband thought it was dead after the serious Christmas freeze seven years ago. "It came back better than ever," she says.

They had not known the name of the hibiscus, but they do now.

Experts from past and present have agreed that this is "Minerva," named by Reasoner's Nursery of Oneco, which ordered seeds for new hibiscus from Hawaii and listed this old-timer in the 1913 catalog.

"Conceived in Hawaii but born in Florida" is its heritage, says Eric Golby of Bradenton, who at 82 continues to work at hybridizing and is known as a walking hibiscus encyclopedia.

Some of the new hybrids with interesting color combinations may reach dinner-plate size, but they do not bloom as profusely as this one and others that grow on their own rootstock and are easy to grow from cuttings.

Mrs. Mahaffey says they do little for the hibiscus. "It just grows and thrives," she says. But this specimen no doubt benefits when they feed the lawn and the nearby plants in the pool area and from good soil brought in over the years. It also getstrimmed three or four times a year to keep its compact shape.

"We brought in flowering plants because the previous owner didn't have much color," Mrs. Mahaffey says. She says they have remodeled, enlarged and added to the nearly 50-year-old home.

With the help of a friend, interior designer Carol Stewart, they enlarged the master bathroom last year. Stained glass made from rose quartz flowers, designed to look hand-painted, is just a little lighter pink than the hibiscus, which can be seen from the bedroom.

Plants displaced by the remodeling were transplanted into the yard and a schefflera has grown huge, Mrs. Mahaffey says.

She says her orchids froze, so now she grows impatiens in pots in the screened area. "I've used Miracle-Gro sporadically. They usually thrive till it gets too hot."

In front, with a western exposure, purslane grows in a courtyard. "It's so hot for anything else. We've tried petunias and you name it." Geraniums work until hot weather, she says, and coleus is the best thing under an oak tree in front.

She usually starts over twice a year, she says, but Florida heather, Allison variety, continues to be colorful. Multi-colored impatiens won't go in until cooler weather. "I trim impatiens to keep them, but some got so dried out from the heat."

She is more the gardener at home but says her husband Mark is particular about colors and plants he chooses for apartments the Mahaffey company develops in Central Florida, from Coquina Key Arms and Carlton Arms in St. Petersburg to Bradenton, Tampa and New Port Richey apartment complexes.

Both are from Indiana, she says, and they moved here when her husband went into the apartment developing business with his father, Tom, 21 years ago.

She says she enjoys gardening at their place in North Carolina and plans to put in Simplicity hedge roses for continual blooms. Several have bloomed here for almost a year, and they also do well for her mother-in-law at her Carlton Arms patio, she says. These pink profuse bloomers do not thrive for long periods in Florida but are pretty while they last.

Reclaimed water irrigates every other day, Mrs. Mahaffey says, but "Dwarf azaleas don't like it." She has put in larger azaleas in front in a deep pink, saying that shades of pink and mauve are her favorites.