Hibiscus plant is an attractive plant which produces distinctive trumpet-shaped flowers. While tropical hibiscus varieties are best grown undercover, hardy varieties of hibiscus plant can thrive in a garden. The flowers of the hibiscus plant, in shades including red, pink, peach, orange, coral and white, attract hummingbirds and butterflies to your garden.
This guide will help you to add the hibiscus plant to your garden.
The distinctive flowers of the hibiscus plant make this a popular garden plant. Despite its showy appearance, these plants are pleasingly easy to grow.
Hibiscus Culture and Symbolism
The red hibiscus plant is the flower of Kali, the Hindu goddess. You’ll find it frequently depicted in pictures of her in India and Bengal. Usually, the flower and the goddess merge in form. In Hindu worship, you’ll find the red hibiscus used as an offering to the god Ganesha and the goddess Kali.
In the Philippines, the hibiscus plant is popular for use by children to make bubbles. They crush the leaves and flowers until they form a sticky juice. Then, they stick hollow papaya stalks into the juice and use the straws to blow bubbles. When you mix the juice with soap, you’ll get more bubbles.
This flower is also traditionally worn by Hawaiian girls and Tahitian girls. If the flower is behind the girls’ left ear, the woman has a boyfriend or is married. If the flower is behind the right ear, the girl is either openly available for a relationship or single. The yellow hibiscus plant is Hawaii’s state flower.
Additionally, the bark of this plant has very strong fibers that you can get to by letting the stripped bark set in the sea. The organic material will eventually rot away and leave the fibers behind.
While there are dozens of different species of Hibiscus there are two main varieties of hibiscus plant. The first is the hardy outdoor type, usually classified as Hibiscus syriacus. This will grow in USDA zones 4 and higher.
The other type of hibiscus plant is the tropical hibiscus. Usually grown as an indoor evergreen, the tropical hibiscus will survive outside in USDA zones 9 and warmer. These tropical hibiscus plants are normally named Hibiscus rosa-sinensis.
Indoor Hibiscus varieties will flower from May until October. However those Hibiscus varieties can be more difficult to care for and to flower every year.
These attractive plants come in a range of vibrant colors. Their colorful blooms, and rich green foliage, will add color to containers, borders or window sills throughout the flowering season.
Varieties growing outside are easier to care for. As long as they receive plenty of light they will reliably flower every year.
Popular hardy varieties include Blue River II, which produces attractive white flowers, the pink flowering Sweet Caroline and Lord Baltimore, a red flowering variety. Kopper King, named for its copper colored foliage, produces large pink flowers with striking red centres.
Popular belief says that this plant originated from China, but this is largely unknown. What we do know is that China has some of the most extensive and earliest cultivation of different species of this plant. Europeans picked up this plant when they were exploring China several centuries ago and introduced them to Europe as a whole.
One of the earliest descriptions of this plant from Europe is a double-red variety that was first noted in 1678. The hibiscus plant had a very fast rise in popularity once it was introduced, and Europeans began extensively cultivating various species. They were popular as what is known as stove plants. Since they are tropical plants, they couldn’t survive all year-round outside. However, they could bring them indoors during the winter months and set them by the stove to keep them alive.
The Pacific Islands also have a big role in hibiscus history. In several of these islands, this plant has very important cultural meanings. If you look at these islands, you won’t find a richer history than you will in Hawaii. Hawaii is home to its own native species of this plant, and they came about as crosses with imports from China and other islands to create many of the cultivars that you can still get today. The different species combination gives you gorgeous plants and flowers, and you won’t see this in native hibiscus plants.
A greater interest spiked in cultivating hibiscus plants. The first show featuring these plants was in 1914 in Hawaii. After this show ended, cultivation took off and thousands of new cultivars were introduced to the market. In 1923, the hibiscus plant became Hawaii’s official flower.
The hibiscus plant and cultivating it didn’t gain popularity in the United States until the 1950’s. However, once it took off, interest spread to Australia. Today, some of the most important work with these plants still takes place in Australia.
Where to Site Your Hibiscus
Hibiscus plants thrive in full sun positions. Ideally they need 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight under full sun every day.
Hibiscus flowers are delicate and can easily tear or damage in the wind. For this reason the Hibiscus plants will also need shelter from the wind.
Hibiscus plants are a great choice for container gardens.
Tropical hibiscus varieties, which like the temperature to remain over 45℉ are particularly suited to container gardening. This is because you will be able to relocate the Hibiscus plants indoors in the fall.
These are sun loving flowers, their blooms will turn and twist as they grow towards the light. Placing them in a full sun position will result in happy Hibiscus plants, with a healthy growth habit.
How to Plant Hibiscus
Hibiscus plants are commonly purchased from nurseries or garden centers as young Hibiscus plants. They can also be started from seed. Sow seeds in a modular cell tray filled with damp seed or general purpose compost 12 weeks before the last local frost date.
Before sowing, soak the seeds in warm water for at least an hour. This will soften their hard shells, helping to encourage germination.
After sowing, cover the seeds with a thick layer of soil. Place the cover on the tray, or place in a plastic bag. Place the tray in a light position. Regularly check the soil to make sure that it doesn’t dry out. Following germination remove the plastic cover and allow the seeds to grow on.
Once the last frost date has passed, harden the young Hibiscus plants off before transplanting into their final position.
Before planting you will need to prepare the soil. These Hibiscus plants like rich soil. Before planting work in plenty of compost or earthworm castings. Ideally the soil will also be slightly acidic, a pH between 6.5 and 6.8.
If you are planting in a container, you will need to fill the container with well draining potting soil. Mixtures designed for acidic plants are ideal. The container should be clean and have drainage holes in the bottom.
Prepare the soil properly before planting. This may be time consuming but is well worth the effort. A well worked, enriched soil will help your plants to establish themselves quickly.
How to Plant
Dig a hole in the soil deep enough to hold the root ball. The hole should also be at least twice as wide as the root ball.
Carefully remove the Hibiscus from its container and position in the hole. Backfill the hole halfway, being careful not to overly compact the soil. Water in well. As the water drains it settles the soil, eliminating air pockets.
Fill the hole and gently firm down the soil. Apply a layer of mulch or earthworm castings around the base of the Hibiscus. Water in well, making sure the soil and castings are moist.
If you are planting more than one, space each Hibiscus to a distance of 3-6 ft.
Hibiscus plant can also be planted in containers, either as part of a container garden or to grow as a houseplant during the cooler months. Your chosen container should be large enough to hold the fully grown Hibiscus. It should also be clean and have drainage holes in the bottom.
Fill the container with fresh, general purpose soil. Make a hole in the soil large enough to comfortably hold the root ball and Hibiscus as above.
Position hibiscus plants in a light position. Avoid planting in direct light. The temperature should be consistently between 45 and 50 ℉. The plants also prefer a humid atmosphere.
Plant Hibiscus as you would in the ground. You will need to re-pot every few years to prevent the Hibiscus plants from becoming pot bound and stunted. The best time to plant Hibiscus is in early spring, between March and April.
Indoor Hibiscus plants can be placed outside during the summer. Again, make sure that they are protected from direct sunlight. As the temperatures begin to fall, at the end of summer, remember to bring the Hibiscus plants back inside.
Your Hibiscus will thrive if placed in a light, but not overly bright, warm position. Remember to water and tend to your plant regularly. During the warmest weather the Hibiscus plant can be placed outside, but remember to return it to its regular position when temperatures begin to fall.
Caring for Hibiscus Plants
Hardy varieties, despite their showy appearance, are easy to grow as long as they are in full sun and the soil is well draining.
Remember, also, to regularly weed around the Hibiscus plants. Weeds can quickly emerge, smothering small or young Hibiscus plants. They also take valuable nutrients and moisture away from more established Hibiscus plants.
Water and Fertilizer
Water Hibiscus plants regularly, aim to keep the soil evenly moist. Don’t allow the soil to dry out. In the week after planting you will need to water every day. This will help the Hibiscus plant to establish itself. Slowly reduce this to watering twice a week.
Harvesting rainwater will enable you to cut your water usage. Simply re-use harvested rainwater on your garden plants and crops.
When watering try to avoid getting the foliage wet. Damp leaves are a breeding ground for diseases such as mildew.
Applying an organic mulch, such as homemade compost, will help to keep the root system cool and the soil to retain moisture.
If growing in rich soil you will not need to fertilize plants. However you can apply a general purpose fertilizer in the spring to encourage new growth and flower production. Keep applying this every two weeks.
Liquid fertilizers are easy to use and can be incorporated into your watering routine. A high potash feed, such as rose food, can also be applied. If you want to know exactly what you are feeding your Hibiscus plants there are a range of plant feed recipes that you can make at home available.
Applying an Epsom Salt solution once a month will also help the foliage to maintain its dark green color.
Removing spent blooms will help to keep the Hibiscus plants tidy. This will also promote new flower production. Dead or damaged branches should also be removed. This helps to keep the Hibiscus plants healthy and disease free.
If the hard fall frost causes your Hibiscus plants to die back, prune them down to a height of about 5 inches. The Hibiscus plants will regrow in the spring. Some varieties may not begin to re-grow until May or June, so don’t be disheartened if new growth is slow to appear.
As blooms become spent they should be removed. Deadheading will help to prevent disease from developing on your Hibiscus plant. It will also encourage more blooms to emerge.
Companion planting is the process of planting mutually beneficial plants together. This helps to reduce infestations and disease while promoting healthy growth and flower or fruit production.
Hibiscus plants thrive in butterfly and pollinator gardens. They also make good companion plants. Coreopsis, baptisia, campanula and coneflowers all great companion plants.
Easy to grow plants such as alliums, iris, daylilies, poppies, delphinium and peonies are also all ideal companions. These enjoy similar soil and growing conditions to the hibiscus plant.
How to Propagate
Hardy varieties of hibiscus plant can be easily propagated. You can use the same technique to propagate tropical hibiscus varieties, but this may take a little more practice.
Propagation From Cuttings
This is the preferred method of propagation. Hibiscus cuttings will grow into exact copies of the original Hibiscus plant.
Take a 4-6 inch long cutting. The Hibiscus cutting should be taken from new Hibiscus growth or softwood.
Remove the foliage from the cutting, leaving just the top pair of leaves. The Hibiscus cutting can also be trimmed to just beneath the bottom leaf node.
While rooting hormone is useful in encouraging propagation it is not strictly necessary. Dip the cutting in rooting hormone if you are using it.
Fill a small, clean container with fresh compost. Alternatively an even mix of perlite and potting soil will also work. Dampen the soil.
Place the Hibiscus cutting in the soil. Gently firm the soil around the cutting. Place the cutting in a plastic bag, ensuring that the plastic doesn’t touch the cutting.
Place the Hibiscus cutting in a partial shade location. Keep the soil damp until the cutting has rooted, this will take about 8 weeks. To check that Hibiscus roots have formed gently pull the cutting. If the Hibiscus resists your attempt to dislodge it from the soil it means that roots are in place.
Once Hibiscus roots have formed, repot into a larger container and grow the hibiscus cuttings on.
Hibiscus plant propagated from seed won’t grow true to the parent Hibiscus plant. For this reason this method is less common.
As the bloom becomes spent seeds will emerge. Collect ripe seeds and carefully nick them. This is best done with a sharp knife, Nicking seeds enables moisture to enter the hard shell, encouraging germination. Alternatively gently sand the seeds with fine grain sandpaper. Soak the seeds in warm water overnight. Again this will soften the shells, helping to encourage germination.
Fill containers or trays with fresh compost. Sow the seeds to a depth roughly twice as deep as the size of the seed. Water the soil and place in a light, but not direct sun, position.
Seeds will appear, if germination is successful, in two to four weeks.
Common Pests and Problems
Hibiscus plants are susceptible to a number of pests such as aphids, thrips, whitefly and spider mites. Regularly check your Hibiscus plants for signs of infestations.
Minor infestations, or those caught early enough, can be washed away with a blast of water from a hose pipe. For more persistent infestations a chemical or organic control should be applied. Alternatively you can make your own insecticidal soap.
Leaf diseases are also common. In particular powdery mildew and botrytis can afflict the foliage of your Hibiscus plants. Fungicide treatments should be applied as soon as you notice the problem.
Bud drop is a sign of an unhappy Hibiscus plant. This may mean that the hibiscus plant is unhappy with its location, or is suffering from a lack or water or nutrients.
Bright and attractive, the Hibiscus plant is a popular addition to the garden or a houseplant collection. They are also pleasingly easy to care for.
There are many uses for this colorful and large plant, and you can easily find a way to two to incorporate it into your yard or garden. They include but are not limited to:
Many people grow specific cultivars because they produce very showy flowers, and you can easily use them as bold landscape shrubs. They can easily attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies to your space.
This is a very versatile and hardy plant to have, and planting it when you live in tropical conditions can enhance its beauty. Since it’s versatile, it’ll adapt easily to any balcony garden or in full, crowded spaces. You can grow it in pots as a creeper or put it in a hanging pot and let it cascade down. This is a perennial that will flower throughout the year, and it comes in several colors that can add vibrancy to any landscape.
There is one species of this plant called kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus) that is very prominent in the paper-making industry.
Construction and Rope
The inner bark layer of the Hibiscus tiliaceus (sea hibiscus) is very popular in Polynesia as an ingredient used to make rope. The woody layer is also used in making canoe floats. The ropes featured on the missionary ship called the Messenger of Peace were made from fibers from this plant.
You can make a tea from the Hibiscus sabdariffa leaves, and you’ll find it in many countries around the world called by many names. It can also get served cold or hot. It has a unique flavor, tartness, and a red color that makes it stand out. It’s also a highly nutritious beverage because it has a higher vitamin C content.
You can find this tea in West Africa under bissap, Persian and Urdu as Gul e Khetmi, India as Orhul, and Central America and Mexico as agua de jamaica. Some people call this tea roselle because of the flower. In Trinidad, Jamaica, and islands throughout the Caribbean, the tea called sorrel is hibiscus tea, and Ghana has soobolo.
You can get a cold beverage made with the hibiscus plant in Cambodia, and you can prepare it by steeping the petals in hot water until the colors start to leach out. Once you add lime juice, the color will go from dark brown or red to bright red. You top the drink off with sweeteners like honey or sugar and add ice cubes or cold water. In Egypt, you can get this tea as karkadé, and it comes cold and hot.
Sri Lankans use the hibiscus plant to make ice teas, fresh juices, and syrups to add to a range of beverages.
Did you know that dried hibiscus is edible? In Mexico, it’s often considered to be a delicacy. You can candy it and use it as a pretty and colorful garnish too. Hibiscus sabdariffa is used as a very common vegetable.
In the Philippines in Visayas, this plant has a reputation for being a souring agent for almost all of the local menus and vegetables. It’s also an ingredient called labog, sapinit, and labuag that is common for use in cooking the native chicken soup.
Hibiscus Frequently Asked Questions
Hibiscus by Pauline Rosenberg / CC BY-NC 2.0 Since the hibiscus flower is so striking, it’s common for people to want to experiment with growing them. This leads to a lot of questions, and we’ve picked out the most frequently asked ones below.
1. Will the hibiscus plant come back each year?
This is a very pretty ornamental plant that is easy to maintain. There are several species available, and you can divide them between perennial or hardy ones and tropical ones. Hardy hibiscus will come back each year, but you have to maintain the tropical type of hibiscus by turning them into an indoor plant when the temperatures start to drop.
2. What is the average lifespan of an hibiscus plant?
This plant can easily live up to 10 years when you put it into a 14-inch pot. You want to ensure that you don’t accidentally over-water it, and you want to keep it on the dry side. However, it loves humidity. So, you may want to get a humidifier or mist the leaves every day.
3. When does the hibiscus plant bloom?
If you have a perennial hibiscus plant, you’ll start to notice blooms appearing in mid or late summer. The flowers usually come in lavender, pink, white, burgundy, or red. If you have a smaller area, you can get a dwarf cultivare.
4. Is it a good idea to cut back your hibiscus plant?
If you have a potted tropical variety, you should do an annual pruning in the early spring months. If you keep the plant indoors over the winter months, you’ll most likely end up with a leggy plant that will need a more severe pruning. The tropical species will produce new branches after you prune it, and these branches will produce flowers all year long.
5. How do you tell the difference between a tropical and hardy hibiscus?
Take a look at your plant’s leaves. If you notice a high gloss with a deep green coloring, you have a tropical hibiscus. If you have dull-colored leaves that have a heart shape, this is a perennial one. Perennial plants are also known as hardy hibiscus plants.
Easy to grow, Hibiscus plants produce colorful attractive flowers. These will add interest, as well as attracting butterflies and hummingbirds, to your gardens. Meanwhile gardeners in cooler climates will enjoy growing these colorful Hibiscus plants in containers as houseplant during the winter months, moving them outside during the summer to enjoy the summer sunshine.
Elizabeth learnt to love gardening as a child in her grandparents backyard. Today, she is a trained horticulturist and has maintained a productive allotment for over 10 years. When not growing her own, Elizabeth enjoys helping other people with the plant problems. An experienced writer and editor, away from gardening Elizabeth is also a keen bird watcher, local historian and genealogist, meaning that she can often be found with her dogs exploring an overgrown graveyard.