Hibiscus has become one of my favorite plants in our yardscape. I plan to add more of them as time goes on. They come in various shapes and colors, and both their flowers and plant form are attractive. I’ve seen them in various parts of the continental United States, as well is in the Hawaiian Islands. The foliage color is deep green, and the flowers come in a variety of colors and shapes. Whenever we have guests over, and we take a stroll in the yard, our visitors are sure to inquire about these vibrant plants with their large and richly colored blooms.
There are many other plants we are familiar with that are also part of the hibiscus genus. In fact, there are over 200 species that, while differing greatly in form, are all still legitimately hibiscus.
Some are edible, others are purely ornamental. Some are annual, others are perennial. Some will only live in the tropics, some are hardy down to 30 degrees below zero. Other types are important in agriculture and industry. Did you know that one of the darlings of southern cooking, okra, is a hibiscus family member? Its leaves resemble some other varieties of hibiscus, but it’s the okra bloom that is the dead giveaway to its pedigree. If that’s not enough, cotton and hollyhock are also members of this genus.
Hibiscus tea is served in many of the world’s cultures. In Latin America, the tea is called “agua de Jamaica” or simply “Jamaica.” It’s bright red in color, tart, and very tasty. You can enjoy this great drink at many Latino food places in our area and along the Wasatch Front. It’s prepared from the dried outer leaves (calyx) of the Hibiscus sabdariffa flower.
For landscaping purposes, there are generally two types of hibiscus planted in our climate. One is a shrub or small tree form. This form is commonly known as Rose of Sharon. It’s a hardy perennial and is readily available in a range of attractive colors. It can be kept as a shrub, or pruned as a small tree. It blooms well most of the summer. It can be used in group plantings or even in a loose hedge form.
The second form of ornamental hibiscus is an herbaceous perennial. The root system is perennial, while the plant tops die back to the ground each winter. With moderate care, water, and mulching before winter sets in, your hibiscus will grow larger each year. Because the plant breaks dormancy later in the spring, and there is no trace of the plant above the ground, you may be fooled into thinking your plant has died. Be patient — the wait is worth it. When the plant does begin to put on its top growth, not only will it grow quickly, but it will bloom dependably through the summer and into the fall. For most landscapes, this burst of color, when other colors in the garden tend to be fading, is a very welcome addition. This type of hibiscus is commonly called “rose mallow.”
Hibiscus can do well in sun, but exposed areas that are windy are hard on the tender flowers. They like to be kept moderately moist, and like most plants, benefit from mulch to retain moisture and moderate soil temperature. My plants seem to appreciate some wind break and some shade during the day. Most people start their hibiscus from potted plants. You can readily root them from cuttings, but they will take a season or two to get a sizable plant that will do well. Don’t let that thwart you. Try it and see how well it goes for you if you already have a plant that you’d like more of around your yard. When buying potted plants, make sure you choose varieties that are hardy to zone 5. There are a large variety of bloom colors and foliage types. In my opinion, it’s hard to go wrong with this versatile plant.
Once you do get your plants going, hibiscus do need to be deadheaded regularly. Doing so will not produce more blooms, rather it will neaten the appearance of the plant. While the blooms are sizable and colorful (some might even say spectacular), they are very short lived — usually only lasting a day or two. When they wither, they will darken and dry. They are very easy to remove, as the spent bloom “pops” off the plant easily. I can deadhead a complete plant in about 30 to 45 seconds. In many other flowering plant species, deadheading will lead to more blooming. Not so with hibiscus. This is because all the flower buds are formed early in the season and will mature through the summer. No more buds will form. Once all the buds have bloomed, the floral display is over for the season. Fortunately, there are a lot of them, so the show goes on for many weeks, usually right into the fall. And, because the plant itself is attractive, even when the blooming ends, you still have something that looks nice in the yard.
One last thing. As with the human race, most families have their challenges — and the hibiscus family has one member that you may have had negative encounters with. The common mallow, also known as “cheese weed,” belongs to this genus as well. You can see the family resemblance in its roundish leaves. In fact, it’s hard to distinguish between many hollyhock seedlings and common mallow. The common mallow is used medicinally in some cultures, although one blogger describes common mallow tea as resembling “pond scum.” Whether you think cheese weed is attractive or not, you need to be aware that if it’s not controlled, it will spread readily, putting down deep tap roots that make it difficult to remove. Like most plants, the younger they are, the easier they are to remove or control.
If you haven’t planted hibiscus before, why not give them a try? If you are already enjoying this great plant in your yardscape, why not try propagating some more or buying some new varieties? I look forward to my different varieties of hibiscus awakening late each spring much like a reunion with an old and welcome friend.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.