Hibiscus is a lovely shrub, and now that it’s summer – it’s one commonly found in nurseries and big box garden centers. And no wonder! Hibiscus are beautiful plants with a bushy, luxurious looking form, glossy green leaves, and bringing the feel of the tropics to your yard. Then there are the flowers!
Hibiscus Flowers Are Awesome
The large size of the blooms, combined with their exotic appearance and downright durability as a flower 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 hibiscus blooms tucked behind the damsels ear? Well, maybe some of you reading this weren’t looking at the flowers.
A Bit of Science
This is Dr. Soule, the Botany Geek, so I will discuss the taxonomy just a tad. You can skip this paragraph if you want. Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, is commonly called “hibiscus” and also “Chinese hibiscus.” The scientific name translates to “Rose of China.” Not to be confused with the shrubby species of hibiscus called “Rose of Sharon” (Hibiscus syriacus).
These lovely plants are in the Malvaceae, the mallow family. This is the same family as the Southwestern wildflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea), as well as cotton and okra.
Hibiscus are Happy with Heat
Like okra and cotton, hibiscus love the heat. For many centuries the only way to have these plants was to live in tropical areas where it never freezes and grow the really tally shrubs. Then the plant breeders got busy. Starting with these small trees, they bred hibiscus plants to be smaller and smaller at maturity. Currently 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, fuscia, lavender, magenta; some with glowing center of various colors, some all one hue.
Hibiscus flowers characteristically last a single day, or two. Not to worry though, no sooner does one blossom fade and drop than another emerges to take its place. Save these blooms and dry them to make a lemony flavored tea. This tea is called “jamaica” (ham-eye-i-ca) in Spanish and makes a lovely iced thirst quencher in summer.
Hibiscus Grows Best in Containers
These plants like enriched soil, and do not appreciate our alkaline Southwestern soil. For best results grow your hibiscus in containers with potting soil.
Light (in the land of El Sol)
Hibiscus are tropical – but that does NOT mean full Southwestern sun. Filtered shade is best, or a spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade.
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 can be bone dry after a rain.
Fertilize for Flowers
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 type of blooming or fruiting fertilizer, such as tomato or citrus fertilizer. Avoid general purpose fertilizers, they can lead to salt build-up in the soil, killing your plant. Fertilize at half strength every two weeks for continuous bloom.
Pests May Appear
Healthy plants rarely have issues with pests. Pests seem to hone in on plants in poor health, which is why those “bargain” plants rarely are a true bargain – you may bring all manner of pests home. Ample water plus fertilizer to maintain unstressed plants helps reduce pests. Air movement is also good in reducing pest problems.
The two main pests of hibiscus are spider mites and aphids. Inseciticidal 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.
Go ahead and get a hibiscus next time one catches your eye. Something bright and beautiful for your yard, why not? Hibiscus will survive and grow for many years if protected from frost. Or you could simply treat your plant as a bouquet with roots that lasts for a few months. When it gets cold, let your hibiscus go to the compost heap. Start thinking about which colors you might get next year!
Hibiscus Buying Tips – in the Newsletter
More about growing hibiscus in the Southwest 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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