Motorcycles, Lumberjacks and Rose of Sharon.

In the horticultural world, Dr. Roderick Woods has become famous for his Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon, Althea) breeding. But in his previous life, Woods was a world renowned physiologist, scholar and researcher at Cambridge University in England. His path to plant breeder was both unexpected and slow, but fortunately for us plant lovers it has delivered three of the most exciting new plants ever developed; plants with superior vigor that thrive both warm and cool climates and plants with large, unique new flower forms. This is Dr. Woods story:

Born in England during a time of war and growing up during post-war austerity, rather isolated in the country, Roderick Woods amusements centered on plants and animals. His family had a large vegetable and flower garden that provided the cash for extras like holidays. He was therefore drafted early into stone picking, pricking out seedlings and weeding. After school he wanted to go into forestry, but after a spell in a Salk vaccine tissue culture laboratory he was sent off, somewhat reluctantly, to train as a medical doctor. It was soon noted he had an aptitude for microscopy and interpreting structures, so he was diverted into research after his undergraduate degree. Woods earned his living for 32 years thereafter by teaching physiology and histology to medical and veterinary students.

In research he worked on nervous system structure with light and electron microscopes, the foetal development of the lungs and other topics in Oxford, Edinburgh and Cambridge. He then drifted into whole body human physiology and particularly temperature regulation. This research lead him into the esoteric field of accident and injury research and into the field of protective clothing. Most every fire-fighter, motorcyclist, horse rider, Police in riot situations, chain saw user, abattoir worker, fencer, and any other person that works in a dangerous profession, is safer today because of the innovations pioneered of Dr. Woods.

In 2002 Woods retired from teaching and research and moved to Norfolk to concentrate on Hibiscus breeding and running a protective clothing consultancy company, aptly named Blue Hibiscus Limited.

As a young child Woods had three Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon) plants in the family garden; red, white and blue. They grew slowly but were always appreciated when they flowered in the summer after almost everything else had finished. In 1974 Woods planted his first hibiscus plants in his garden near Cambridge. They never performed like the ones he saw on holiday in France and Italy; growth was slow and coarse and the flowers did not open well. The English climate was just not warm enough or sunny enough! This spurred him on to start collecting other selections on his travels.

It was in 1981, on his journey to plant breeder, that Woods had a life changing experience. He was in the south of France near Biarritz and happened upon an unusual pink Hibiscus plant growing in a roadside hedge that appeared to glow! Captivated by this glowing vision, he decided he must have this variety for his own garden. So upon retuning home to the UK, Woods began searching at local nurseries only to be told that no such variety existed. This led him to seek out and write various Hibiscus collectors all around the world, but again Woods had not luck. Returning to France for further holidays in the following years Woods searched for this glowing pink Hibiscus, but unfortunately the road had been widened and the plant was gone. He searched the local French nurseries and talked to anyone in the area that was growing Hibiscus but again no luck!

In 1988 his quest had lead him to discover a group of pink flowered Rose of Sharon plants that had grown in a near-wild state in some old gardens, farmyards and around churches in one area of the Pyrenees foot-hills. Woods reasoned that bees must have been at work and that if he wanted the true, pure pink Hibiscus he was going to have to be a super-bee. With permission from the locals Woods collected seedlings. The resultant plants were the beginning of Woods new obsession; Hibiscus breeding.

Initially, Woods breeding came with mixed success. He was not able to replicate the clear, glowing pink flowers he had seen in France, but he had discovered that his wild Pyrenees plants resulted in exceptional plant vigor and branching that he never seen before. Most Hibiscus syriacus breeding has its origins in very warm climates such as France. Many of the common cultivars in the US were developed at the National Arboretum outside of Washington DC. While most of these plants grow well in the South, they just don’t grow or flower as well in cooler, Northern climates. They certainly did not flower well in his Cambridge garden.

Woods, like most others that love Rose of Sharon, was fascinated with the cultivar ‘Blue Bird’. Who can resist blue flowers - but ‘Blue Bird’ is a strange bird; weak growing, poorly branched, course and short flowering. Woods wanted to develop a strong growing blue flowered plant an abundance of bloom. Over the years, Woods redirected his scientific skills that had made him famous in human physiology to breeding plants. He learned what to do and his breeding gave rise to very pure colors across the spectrum and plants with unusually strong flowing and growth.

Woods, of course is most famous for his Chiffon series of Hibiscus; exceptionally flowering plants noted for their large, flat single blooms with a lacy center. Until you grow these plants you cannot believe how unique they are in how they grow. While most Rose of Sharon are ridged and uptight, the Chiffons are finer in texture and more shrub-like with lots of basil stems that produce an abundance of flowers.

The origins of the Chiffon series date back to 1986 when Dr. Tachibana at the Osaka Botanic Gardens sent him some seed in response to a correspondence they had concerning the mythical pink Hibiscus. The resulting seedlings were not pink, but contained the doubling genes have gone on to produce Lavender Chiffon, White Chiffon and now three generations later - Blue Chiffon. Woods has now recently returned to single blues to try to incorporate more vigour to the plants and greater flower size.

It has taken Dr. Woods a long time to fully understand flower color and flower form inheritance in Hibiscus. It was considerably more complex than he imagined when he started out.

To date Woods has made over 600 designed and controlled crosses. Some yield much seed on a few attempts, but some, even after 30 or more attempts have failed to set any seed. There are some sterility problems within hibiscus. Remarkably, Woods has flowered over 8300 seedlings yet has only introduced three varieties to the trade! Amongst the un-flowered seedlings in his poly-tunnel he is sure there are another three perfect plants. Plant breeders always think like this and believe their next flower will be the best ever!

While making more crosses and raising more seedlings might produce new flowers more quickly, Woods has found that it is not physically practical for a lone grower to do this. According to Wood’s, “…from what I have learned from recording numerical descriptions of every new flower and analysing the inheritance of dominant, recessive and suppressed characteristics it would not be quicker. Just as many generations would have to be worked through to divide and combine characteristics in desired ways. The important thing however is that the breeder must be obsessed with Hibiscus and prepared to tend them 365 days a year!”

Indeed, Dr. Woods is obsessed, and it all started with that mystery plant he saw in the South of France 27 years ago.


  1. What a great story. We need to hear about more of these unsung stars. Thanks!

  2. Anonymous5:54 PM

    I tried to fill out your survey, but for some reason my computer rejected sending it. I will try again tomorrow. Love your site. Do you sell cuttings to the public of those gorgeous Hydrangeas you cultivated and the red ones in the picture? Yummy! Thanks, Donna

  3. Anonymous9:47 AM

    Such an interesting life story! It gave me much delight to read of Dr.Woods love-afair with a plant, and, as an owner of the blue,white,and lavendar chiffons, I echo his love and applaud his work. I believe it is these early fascinations and joys that reflect our true selves. Some of us lose our way and return ,at last,to these loves.

  4. Anonymous7:23 AM

    I've never been a big lover of the Rose of Sharon, seeing it as a invasive, lack luster, spindly large shrub who's color leaves alot to be desired..BUT after reading this facinating article I just may give the white Chiffon a go and prove myself wrong...:-)


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