If there’s one thing that stands out about hibiscus, it’s the flowers. They’re large, colorful, exotic -- and, best of all, plentiful. And nature has done her best to make sure gardeners can enjoy those flowers in a variety of ways.
Although there are more than 200 species of hibiscus, the three most popular can fill practically any purpose: potted annual, houseplant, landscape anchor, background screen, or focal point. Here are three great hibiscus species that offer more than just pretty flowers.
Tropical hibiscus (H. rosa-sinensis) is a tender evergreen that glorifies gardens year-round in the warmest areas of the country. In Zones 9 and below, it thrives as a potted annual, providing a colorful taste of the tropics all summer long.
Gardeners can overwinter tropical hibiscus indoors two different ways: as a living houseplant if there’s a window with plenty of light, or as a dormant plant kept ever-so-slightly moist in a cold basement or attached garage that doesn’t freeze. Too much bother? Treat your tropical hibiscus as an annual, then toss the plant in your compost pile after fall’s first frost.
Tropical hibiscus does best with full sun, although some afternoon shade is helpful in the South. Deep, regular watering is important, and so is good soil drainage. To keep flowers looking fresh, shelter the plant from wind. Plants can grow 15 feet in warm climates and reach 18–36 inches as potted plants. Some are available as small potted trees, which can be overwintered indoors.
There are many tropical hibiscus varieties available, all featuring large, trumpet-shape flowers in showy colors and bicolors. Dainty Daiquiri (pictured) boasts unusual colors that undergo subtle changes as the flowers age, giving you something different to look at each day.
Sunrise Mimosa (pictured) offers intense hues in ever-changing patterns. Both Sunrise Mimosa and Dainty Daiquiri are part of the Tropical Escape line at Lowe’s, featuring even showier and larger flowers than typical tropical hibiscus.
Perennial hibiscus (H. moscheutos) may have a slightly more conventional color palette than its tropical cousin, but the flowers more than make up for it with their size. This hardy perennial makes a bold display in the garden with its huge crinkled flowers -- some the size of dinner plates. Flower colors include red, pink, rose, white, and bicolors.
Also called rose mallow, it is a deciduous perennial growing 4–8 feet tall, depending on how much water is available. This hibiscus likes moist, rich soil and won’t tolerate drought. Consider locating it near a drainpipe where it can get extra moisture. And be sure to mulch around it.
For best flowering, locate perennial hibiscus in full sun. Plants require little additional care other than dividing them every 7 to 10 years. Dig up while dormant, use a saw to cut through the woody stems and roots, then replant the sections, making sure each section has a growing point on it. Because of its size, perennial hibiscus makes a good background plant or living screen. Hardy in Zones 5–10, it dies back to the ground after frost and won’t break its winter slumber till late spring.
Among noteworthy varieties of perennial hibiscus, ‘Midnight Marvel’ (pictured) offers 8-inch scarlet flowers. Its real drawing card, though, is the wine-colored, maple-shape leaves, which look best if given 6–8 hours of sunlight a day. With foliage like that, the flowers are simply a bonus.
For those willing to trade a bit of flower size for a lot of plant size, there’s rose of Sharon (H. syriacus), a woody hibiscus grown as a shrub or small tree. Also called shrub althaea, it is a vigorous deciduous plant with an upright, multistem vase shape. Rose of Sharon typically grows 8–10 feet tall, but since it blooms on current-season’s growth, it can be cut down to 2 feet in spring and kept around 4 feet in height.
Flowers are smaller than other hibiscus -- 2½ to 3 inches in diameter -- but very plentiful, especially in late summer, when few other shrubs are blooming. They are also edible, offering a sweet, mild flavor. Flower colors include white, red, pink, blue, violet, and lavender; some are doubles and bicolored.
Some rose of Sharon, such as the Sugar Tip pictured here, come with variegated foliage, which gives them extra beauty even when the flowers are absent. They are equally easy to grow, needing little more than good drainage and occasional watering. Rose of Sharon is hardy in Zones 5–8 and prefers full sun but can take part shade. It is the most drought-tolerant hibiscus.
While older cultivars tended to become large and leggy, dropping seeds everywhere, newer hybrids remain more compact and don’t develop seeds. As a result, they are better-looking and better-behaved. Because of its size, rose of Sharon makes a good informal hedge or background plant and pairs nicely with lighter-textured ornamental grasses. Or train it into a small, single-stemmed tree to use as a focal point.
Hibiscus are relatively free of problems. Japanese beetles sometimes eat flowers or foliage. Hand pick the bugs off plants and drown them in a bucket of soapy water. Aphids occasionally attack flowers just before they open, as seen here. Spray them off plants with a blast of water, blot them with the sticky side of tape, or smother them with insecticidal soap spray.