Growing and Caring for Hibiscus

Growing and Caring for Hibiscus

By Michael Jenkins

Hibiscus is one of those interesting plants—we’ve all heard of it and most of us have seen it, but many gardeners don’t know that much about it. A lot of myths pervade the gardening world regarding growing and caring for hibiscus—it can’t grow in containers, it only grows in subtropical climates, it’s too unwieldy for a home garden. Luckily, these are all misunderstandings about an interesting and beautiful plant. So, let’s dig in and explore the world of hibiscus and how you can grow hibiscus at home!

What is Hibiscus?

As there are a number of species referred to as “hibiscus” or some variation thereof, let’s start by defining the plant we’re talking about. There are over 200 species in the Hibiscus spp genus, with the most popular in gardening circles being Hibiscus rosa-sinesis, also referred to as “Chinese rose” or “Chinese hibiscus”. We’ll focus on that one here for simplicity’s sake, but many of the care tips we provide will work for other Hibiscus species as well.

Despite some of its names, Hibiscus rosa-sinesis is native to the South Pacific island of Vanuatu rather than to China—although it is cultivated throughout Asia as both an ornamental and a medicinal plant. This hibiscus grows as a bushy shrub or small tree, and if left untended will reach a height of between 8-10 feet/3-5 meters. This is also a girthy plant—hibiscus will grown to a diameter of around 5-10 feet/1.5-3 meters if left unchecked. The plant prefers rich, loamy soil that is moist but provides good drainage. In most locations, hibiscus prefers full sun in hotter and sunnier climates it may benefit from a bit of shade. As a tropical plant, many species and varietals of hibiscus need protection from cooler weather.

The real joy of hibiscus is its flowers, which are large and beautiful and depending on species and variant may come in a variety of colors—although red is the classic version and the most popular. The blooms are spectacular but short lived; most hibiscus flowers drop within a day of opening. Nevertheless this is a plant that can provide a wonderful touch in your landscaping, offering vertical interest and a splash of seasonal color.

Growing Hibiscus at Home

The first step in successfully growing hibiscus at home is to find a varietal that works for you. The classic Hibiscus rosa-sinesis is a wonderful plant, but it is only outdoor hardy between Zones 7-11 and must be sheltered from cooler weather. However, other hibiscus species including Hibiscus moscheutos (rose mallow) offer a similar appearance with more cold hardiness—in this case Zones 4-9. You’ll need to do a little research to find which hibiscus is right for you, so check with your local nursery, garden club, or agricultural extension office for local guidance. With around 200 species of hibiscus on the books, there’s likely one that can work for your location.

As we mentioned above, hibiscus prefers loamy, rich soil that is moist but well drained. It also needs to be well-fertilized in order to thrive. Most hibiscus species benefit from regular applications of fertilizer, with the recommendation being  a fertilizer that is high in potassium and nitrogen while relatively low in phosphorus—too much phosphorus can cause health problems in the plant.

With these soil requirements, hibiscus can grow quite well in containers, although we do recommend selecting a varietal that is smaller in stature for this purpose. This also makes it easier to move your hibiscus into the shade or out of the cooler weather as needed, which are important considerations in some climates.

Most hibiscus species produce on new growth—meaning that they only grow flowers are the green branches that appeared that spring. As such it’s best to prune or trim your hibiscus plants early in the year before new growth starts. Likewise in the fall removing dead steps and flower heads is a best practice to ensure good growth the following spring.

For the tea fans—yes you can grow hibiscus for tea at home, but there’s a catch. The hibiscus plant used for tea is most often Hibiscus sabdariffa. Popularly known as roselle or red sorrel, this tropical plant originates in West Africa but is now widely cultivated for use as tea around the tropics and even in the US state of Florida. A close relative to okra, it can be grown as an annual is Zones 3-7 and as a perennial in Zones 8-11. It requires a relatively long growing season for the pods to mature, so bear that in mind when selecting this particular plant.

Give Hibiscus a Try!

This is a wonderful family of plants, from the classic Hibiscus rosa-sinesis through the cool-weather hardy varieties or the highly edible Hibiscus sabdariffa. With so much variety and an iconically beautiful flower, there’s sure to be a hibiscus species that works in your garden space. So whether you’re thinking about adding a new touch to your landscaping or growing an interesting container plant, we hope you’ll consider giving hibiscus a try!

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