Hibiscus For the Desert Heat

Hibiscus abound in the nurseries now, and no wonder. They are beautiful plants with glossy green leaves, very luxurious looking, reminiscent of tropical jungles. And the flowers are pretty too.

Hibiscus Flowers

Seriously folks, hibiscus flowers are awesome. The large size of the blooms, combined with their exotic appearance and downright durability as a plant has helped them find their way into our cultural world view. Who hasn’t see photos of Tahitian maidens, or the paintings of Paul Gauguin, replete with luscious looking blooms tucked behind the damsels ear? Well, maybe some of you reading this weren’t looking at the flowers.


Botany of Hibiscus – for those Inquiring Minds

Hibiscus is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae. The genus is large, with several hundred species. Tropical genes here – all species are native to warm temperate, subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world.  Several species are widely cultivated as ornamental plants, notably Hibiscus syriacus and Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, and thus to go with several hundred species we have about a thousand named cultivars to select from.

Flashy Flowers

desert-hibiscus-souleIn the wild, hibiscus mostly occur in shades of red. Then the plant breeders got busy. Now there are roughly 20 different lines of flowering tropical hibiscus cultivars that fit into one gallon pots, perfect for indoors or out. Each of these lines comes in a plethora of exotic colors, from white through cream, into pink, red, yellow, golden, peach, lavender, magenta; some with glowing center of various colors, some all one hue.

These tropical flowers characteristically last a single day, occasionally two. Not to worry though, no sooner does one blossom fade and drop than another emerges to take its place. This could cause a litter problem, but they are edible flowers!

Hibiscus Love the Heat

Hibiscus is in the mallow family, the same family as cotton and okra. With those crops, and the Tahitian maidens in mind, you can easily figure out that they love the heat. Sadly, hibiscus can’t take temperatures much below 40 degrees. This means that you might have to grow them in pots and move them to a protected area in the cooler months.

Plants with varigated leaves (not solid green) can be found, but seem no better at surviving our desert sunlight.

Heat but Not Southwestern Sun

Our sun is intense! Be sure your hibiscus are protected from noon-day sun in summer. Mine live in pots – on bricks – under the palo verde trees. They are on bricks so the palo verde roots don’t invade the pot to steal the water.

Water Well

In pots, hibiscus will need water every day in summer. Maybe twice on a hot windy day. Don’t count on rainfall. Their leaves shed the water very well, and a potted hibiscus soil can be bone dry after a soaking rain. In the ground, monitor them well and water before they dry out. Desert plants often recover from a wilt. These tropical plants often don’t.

Avoid getting tap water on the leaves or flowers. Chlorine can burn sensitive tissues.

Note – avoid getting water on the flowers. Two reasons. Chlorine can burn, and water drops can intensify the sun like little magnifying lenses and sunburn the petals.


With water every day, ample flowers, and large leaves, yes you will need to fertilize your hibiscus. I use a rose fertilizer or any other bloom food. Even citrus food will work, as flowers and fruit both need high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous. Fertilize every two weeks for continuous bloom. Avoid general purpose fertilizers, they can lead to salt build-up in the soil, and kill your plant.



The two main pests of hibiscus are spider mites and aphids. Insecticidal soap will treat them. My yard is so full of insect eating birds such as the verdins, lesser goldfinch and hummingbirds, that I have never had a pest problem. It also helps if they have good air movement around the plants.

“Two-fer” Plant

Best of all, hibiscus flowers are edible! A tea made from the flowers is known by many names around the world. Here in the Southwest you often see it as “Jamaica” at Mexican restaurants. It can be served either hot and cold. The tea is known for its vibrant red color, tart flavor, and rich vitamin C content.

When you buy – it is better to select a plant with many young buds rather than flowers. This is true for most nursery plants.

Hibiscus Buying Tips

Look for robust growth, healthy leaves and fewer flowers – but plenty of buds.

Hibiscus will survive and grow for many years if protected from frost. Or you could simply treat is as a bouquet with roots that lasts for a few months, and discard them in fall.

Go ahead and get one of these pretty plants next time one catches your eye. Something bright and beautiful for your yard, why not? You deserve it.



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soule-southwest-gardenMore about overall care of your land and landscape in this book: Month by Month Gardening for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press).  This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.

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