Hibiscus Tree: How To Grow And Care For A Hibiscus Plant

The potted tropical hibiscus tree is a popular plant across the US in the springtime. They find a home on front porches, out on back patios and decks.

Personally, I like to see the tropical Hibiscus grown as a tree. For tips on how to care for these colorful flowered beauties. Read on…

hibiscus tree hibiscus care

The flowers of several hibiscus species represent nations. Haiti lists the hibiscus as their national flower. Hibiscus syriacus what we call the “Rose Of Sharon” is South Korea’s national flower, and Mayaysia calls Hibiscus rosa-sinensis its national flower.

Hibiscus comes from the Mallow Family – Malvaceae – of which several hundred species make up this diverse group of plants found throughout the world.

What a difference a week makes. The flowers are starting to pop on the Hibiscus trees. It is truly a beautiful sight to see thousands of plants with red, pinks, oranges, and yellows all starting to bust out to show off their colorful flowers.

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We’ll discuss – Florist Grade Hibiscus – briefly below and then look how to grow Hibiscus, the ones grown as small potted trees for patio or terrace color as well as potted specimens in front yard landscapes.

Growing The Hardy Hibiscus In The Nursery

You’ll find “Florist Grade” hibiscus plants grown as flowering plant bushes in Greenhouses. They display a deeper foliage color providing a dark background for the displaying the colorful flowers.

The outdoor/patio types are grown outside as bushes also, but we find a lot of Hibiscus trees grown or what are called “standards” produced outdoors.

Bush type hibiscus start life from cuttings. Most Hibiscus trees are started from air-layers. Air-layers are a commonly used propagation method for plant material (that is a whole story in itself).

HibiscusGroup

Stock plants grow in the ground and reach a height of 6-8 feet. The branches are trimmed, removing the side branches making one long straight stem (which stays on the tree) about 36 inches long. The base is then wrapped with sphagnum moss and foil to retain moisture.

Roots form and begin growing into the moss. These air-layers are removed from the stock plants and planted into containers. Each stock plant can produce 50 to 100 plants per year.

After planting the plants are trimmed, and shaped into forming a small tree. This process takes 12 months for a 10” plant. Some growers take 3 or 4 air-layers and braid them together.

How To Make A Hibiscus Braid: Video

Characteristics of the Outdoor/Patio Hibiscus

hibiscus-double-flower

The outdoor/patio tropical hibiscus is taller, more open, and has lighter colored leaves than those grown as ‘Florist Grade’.

The facilities producing the outdoor/patio type are:

  • Outside growing areas (acres and acres)
  • Overhead irrigation
  • Some method to keep the plants from blowing over in the wind.

Hibiscus Care

Placing your Hibiscus tree in full sun will produce the most flowers and best growth. Try to keep the plants out of windy areas.

Hibiscus plants will thrive outdoors where the night temperature doesn’t drop below 50 degrees. Hibiscus are used outdoors in tropical climate landscapes. Avoid excessive cold and hot areas. hibiscus-flowers-hand

It is important you keep the soil of the patio hibiscus moist at all times. Saturate the soil at each watering.

To test and see if you need to water, place your fingers on the top of the soil; if it feels dry to the touch, it is time to water your Hibiscus.

When growing outside water your plant at least 3 to 4 times a week.

Hibiscus requires plenty of water. However, they do not like to sit in water. Avoid overwatering and allowing Hibiscus to sit with “wet feet.” To prevent root rot plants should drain completely drain after waterings.

Avoid using cold water, especially during winter months, when watering your hibiscus. This tropical plant prefers water around 95 degrees. Always check the water temperature with your hand to ensure it is not too hot and never too cold.

Patio hibiscus responds well to balanced plant fertilizers like this. If you want lots of flowers, you’re going to need to fertilize your potted hibiscus. Select a balanced slow-release fertilizer such as a 20-20-20 or a specially formulated Hibiscus fertilizer. Trace elements such as iron and magnesium also help hibiscus thrive. A water soluble fertilizer at 1/2 strength can also be applied.

Easy Hibiscus Delivers Colorful Results

Given sun, moisture, good drainage and a temperature which stays above 32 degrees the year round, hibiscus will reward the grower with blossoms almost continuously but most prolifically during the summer and fall months.

Even in the north the gardener need not be without them. They make wonderful large pot plants for a sunny window and may be placed outdoors on the patio in full sun from spring to late summer.

Plants may set too many buds for the root development to support and some or all of the buds will fall for a time. Fertilizing and additional humus will usually take care of this.

Pruning Hibiscus Plants And Roots

Prune the branches of your hibiscus to maintain the desired shape. The only reason to prune Hibiscus is to enjoy more flowers and keep the plant in balance. Pruning will also help to stimulate more growth and more shoots.

To keep your plant looking healthy, establish three to four main branches of the plant. Select the most sturdy and upright branches when pruning and allow those to become the main stems of the plant. Remove any weak or sideways growing branches.

When repotting, you may want to root prune the root ball. Remove any weak, sick looking or ailing roots gently but firmly. When pruning use the rule of thirds. Never prune more than one-third of the root or the plant. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and don’t remove it.

Hibiscus flowers open daily and last for only one day, after which they die. Your plants will probably have flowers which opened during transit, fallen off and started to rot.

This is normal! Simply remove all wilted or unsightly flowers and keep grooming daily.

Aphids occasionally attack new growth, use neem oil or an insecticidal soap as an option to control them.

While visiting your garden center keep this in mind. Hibiscus plants are heavy drinkers and aggressive feeders. Look for plants that are full with good color. I’ve never seen plants get the care they need during their brief visit at the garden center. They will probably need a good drink when they get to their home.

Plants losing their bottom leaves can be a sign of not enough water and drying out, or plants being in transit too long.

Lots of Sunshine

Plenty of sunshine is necessary to make hibiscus plants grow sturdy and to produce blooms. To insure good branching, pinch growing tips when small.

If the pinching is done just above an outside bud, the new growth will branch out into a desirable bush.

Hibiscus flowers are borne on the young wood, and a heavy pruning is in order every year so that plenty of new growth can develop without the bush becoming too large for indoor growing.

Hibiscus thrive under fluorescent light culture. Place plants under the tubes, so the top of the foliage does do not quite touch the tubes.

Hibiscus matensis, a species with variegated pink, silver and green leaves, has been known to thrive and flower all winter under fluorescent lights.

A fluorescent unit can be made of two 48-watt tubes. Given much humidity and 12 to 15 hours daily illumination, Hibiscus does well under the lights.

Growing temperatures should range from 60 to 65 at night to 75 during the daytime.

Growing Hibiscus As Patio Trees

A tall, bushy plant, three feet tall, will thrive in an eight-inch pot.

Hibiscus is not particular about soil or potting mix. It will combat root rot and nematodes best with plenty of humus added, and maintaining a neutral pH.

Soil with perfect drainage with a rich and humusy growing medium will yield excellent results. An African Violet soil like this is usually satisfactory for hibiscus.

Here is a recipe for hibiscus potting soil:

Hibiscus use significant amounts of water, and outdoors during the hot summer plants may require watering every day. This free use of water quickly leaches out plant food in the soil. When using a liquid plant food, fertilizing is necessary every week.

A plant food with too much nitrogen will produce lots of foliage, and not enough flowers. A well-balanced food or special Hibiscus fertilizer will help plants produce large, well-colored blossoms, and in usual quantity.

If you purchase a plant that comes in a small pot and the leaves are rather banged and bruised, cut the top back partially to give the roots a momentary rest and then a chance to grow.

A plant without a good root system cannot be expected to continue to produce a floriferous plant.

Hibiscus Propagation – Making Cuttings

Although the shrub first came from eastern Asia, it has proved its adaptability in subtropical areas where gardeners are enthusiastically searching for new types to add to known varieties.

Hibiscus propagate easily from softwood cuttings or leaf bud cuttings from March to September. Use hard wood cuttings almost any time of the year. Many commercial growers propagate Hibiscus from air-layers.

Use a rooting medium of sand or peat moss and perlite and treat the cuttings with rooting hormones. Or, if the grower is a green thumber, 6 to 8-inch lengths of stem with two or three leaves or half leaves at the top may be put into a bed which will be kept moist and, presto, they’ll grow and bloom.

The rooted cuttings then may be potted until they are transferred to larger containers or to permanent beds.

They will root in water, or they may be started in a moist mixture of peat moss and sand, or in vermiculite. When roots form, they should be potted into regular soil.

Cuttings rooted under fluorescent lights can be potted in six weeks’ time, and flowered in less than a year.

Grafting is done to secure blooms from rare varieties on older rootstock more vigorous than its own. If grafting fascinates you, graft five or six Hibiscus varieties onto one root stock.

Starting Hibiscus From Seed

Hibiscus seeds are large enough to handle easily, and blossoms come in about 18 months. Plants seeds in vermiculite, peat moss, or sand – best of all, a mixture of the three.

To spare the plant from future transplant shock, plant each seed in a small individual pot or peat pot.

To set seeds on a plant, simply place loose pollen from one bloom into the little pads of stigma at the top of the pistular column of another bloom.

All varieties are not fertile, but a little experimenting will teach which ones will set seed. You can purchase Hibiscus seeds here.

Winter Protection Of Hibiscus

When temperatures dip to the 30’s hibiscus may freeze to the ground. In such cases it may recover slowly or not at all.
Plants may be covered and protected. Sudden changes in temperature are not easy to meet since warm days are interrupted by chilling, blustery north winds called “northers.”

Hibiscus thrive outdoors in the summer. When moving them outdoors in May or June, thin out weak wood and prune to make the plant as shapely as possible. Keep the plant in partial shade to acclimate.

How To Overwinter Tropical Hibiscus Indoors

Move your hibiscus indoors before the first fall frost.

Before moving your hibiscus plant indoors check it over for any potential insects like whitefly, spider mite and mealybugs.

Personally, I would give the plant a thorough spraying with Neem oil making sure to get the underside of the leaves.

Once you move your hibiscus indoors DO NOT get upset if your plant starts losing all of its leaves. Leaf loss is normal with reduced light levels. New growth will soon.

While overwintering your hibiscus indoors provide as much bright light as possible, along with warm temperatures.

Keep the root ball soil moist, but DO NOT allow the plant to stand in water.

In late winter, prune back all the leggy growth and start fertilizing with a well-balanced liquid fertilizer every two weeks.

It is recommended in the spring to repot your hibiscus tree in a good quality, well-drained soil and apply a balanced slow-release fertilizer.

Once all danger of frost passes in the spring, begin to slowly acclimate your hibiscus plant to the outdoors.

Using Hibiscus As Landscape, Hedge and Foundation Plantings

When used as a hedge Hibiscus may be kept trimmed for a semi-formal look but will produce few blooms. Planting Hibiscus in clumps looks most attractive.

Hibiscus make fine specimen plants but are not well suited for foundation planting, especially if the landscaping plan calls for formal or semi-formal design. Plant them along the sides or the back of a house where a tall plant is needed.

When used in this way near the house, most homeowners cut them to two feet or less in height late each fall or cut back the older wood to the ground.

If not done many Hibiscus varieties grow too large for the average house. Take your pruners (we love our Felco #2 for pruning) and cut back the older wood. This does not decrease bloom since hibiscus flowers on new wood.

With no standardized names for hibiscus varieties, especially in the newer hybrids, a name may prevail in one section of the country for a red and to a yellow in another area.

If you’re looking for a particular variety the safest method, unless you see the blooming plants in a nursery, is to beg a cutting from a friend, who has the variety.

Flowers Alone Deliver Garden Color Interest Indoors

These brilliant plants add color interest to the garden and are equally useful as cut flowers.

Gather blooms without foliage to use in a cluster on a mirror or tray, or to string along some willowy bamboo straws or palm ribs to add tropical charm to daytime decorations.

Cut flower buds early, on the morning they are to open, and placed in the refrigerator until a few hours before they are to being used. Brought into the light they will open and hold their beauty for almost the twelve hours nature intended for them.

This method “tricks” them into evening use. They give a wide choice in color from white through delicate pinks, yellows, peach and lavender tints, to the most brilliant red and orange shades.

In Mexico, these and other hibiscus or mallows are called Tulipan. Down in southern Texas, Hibiscus syriacus is known as althea, Hibiscus palustris (moscheutos) is mallow, rose mallow or Mexican Hibiscus and Hibiscus mutabilis is Confederate rose or flower-for-a-day. The hibiscus is the only one called by its genus name.

The hibiscus is known as shoe-black plant in China because of the use made of a dye from the petals. It is said that the flowers can be rubbed on shoes in place of shoe polish when one needs a shine.

The botanical name, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, or rose of China elevates it above this association with us.

Vibrant and Colorful Hibiscus

I do not think I have ever seen a hibiscus with a flower that was not colorful and vibrant. You can select from reds, maroon to rosy red, pinks, lavender and white shades along with orange tones.

Each grower who specializes in hibiscus can add names to the list, and each collector will continue to admire new hues and search for new types. “Hibiscus-mania” is developing rapidly and growers are not always able to supply the demand for newer types.

Other hibiscus grow in the south, but die to the ground in the winter or loose their leaves.

Northern gardeners who grow these shrubs in pots move them inside during the winter. Pot and tub grown plants cannot develop to outdoor size and beauty except under special conditions.

The hibiscus will continue to be a shrub for the extreme south and an increasingly popular one.

The hibiscus is of the shoe-flower family, and closely related to hollyhocks, the rose of Sharon, okra, and cotton.

Hibiscus Pests Control The Usual Suspects

The pests on Hibiscus are the usual suspects – aphids, red spiders and mealybugs are about the worst that attack.

There was a big outbreak of whiteflies a few years ago which commercial growers experienced.

Control aphids with a natural pest repellent like our favorite Neem Oil or one of the houseplant sprays; red spiders hate high humidity which hibiscus need to thrive, and mealybugs can be wiped out with a spray neem, or by dabbing them with alcohol.

Weekly spraying with tepid water keeps the foliage clean and attractive.

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Hibiscus Tree Plant Trivia, Questions & Answers

TRIVIA: Did you know that Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is the national flower of Malaysia?

At one time the famous “Hawaiian lei” was made only of green material until the brilliance of hibiscus bloom impelled the bronze-skinned maids to add color to these tokens of friendship.

Rosa-sinensis have numerous medical uses. It is also grown as an ornamental plant. Women in some countries use it for hair care purposes. Children in the Philippines use it for their bubble-making game.

In fact, George Washington ordered hibiscus from Philadelphia nurseryman John Bartram in 1792. These plants had single, red flowers, similar to the present day variety.

Both the flowers and leaves of the Hibiscus bush can be used to produce a lovely reddish Hibiscus dye. [source]

Question: A hibiscus plant is one of the plants we brought back from our Hawaiian vacation. Can Hibiscus be grown indoors? We also saw small hibiscus trees that were interesting but like the bush type much better. Can hibiscus be grown outdoors in a pot on a patio or deck? Courtney, Nashville, Tennessee

Answer: Hawaii and Hibiscus – picturesque words bringing to mind a vision of sunny skies and hula dancers adorning their dark tresses, exotic blossoms and tropical climate.

Dropping Buds or Blooms?

Question: Why do the flower buds and leaves of my Chinese hibiscus turn yellow and drop off before blooming time? RR, CA

Answer: Perhaps there is something wrong with the location of your hibiscus. It should have good light and a well-drained soil.

The hibiscus (hy-BIS-kus) lends itself beautifully to pot culture, and because there is no dormant season for the potted plant, it may be kept in bloom the year around.

It ranks high in popularity along the Gulf Coast in Florida and Texas and in Southern California as well as a colorful spring time plant for the northern patio.

The “Talk” Of Hibiscus 60 Years Ago

I always find it interesting how plants we think of as “new” happen to find their way back into popularity over time. The hibiscus like many other plants.. is no different.

Here’s how the humble Hibiscus found themselves described back in January 1956 from the pages of Horticulture Magazine titled:

Hibiscus In Hawaii

Thirty-three years ago, the lovely hibiscus was officially proclaimed the flower emblem of the Territory of Hawaii. It was described as “a beautiful, indigenous blossom which grows luxuriously on all the islands, appearing to be most generally representative, no other flower having so great a variety of color, of form or such continuous bloom.”

It literally grows everywhere, tumbling in cascades of bright bloom colors over verandas, on the tops of lava rock walls, as hedges, windbreaks and screens and most effectively as a specimen plant in gardens. Every yard boasts at least one hibiscus, which may vary in height from a good-sized herbaceous plant to a big scale shrub or small tree, 20 feet high. The wide variety of color and form and the case with which it grows accounts for its popularity.

Since hybridizing of these spectacular flowers is easy, both single and double varieties appear in all hues but blue. They range from clear white through palest pink and yellow to bright orange or gold, as well as glowing scarlet, deepening to rich tones of dark crimson. In recent years, hybrids have been produced with several hues to a single flower, but some of these polychromes are more interesting than beautiful. The large pinks with stamens modified into petals suggest old-fashioned cabbage roses or peonies.

Individually, the flowers resemble those of its relative the hollyhock. They open at dawn, remain crisp and fresh for a single day and close suddenly at nightfall, whether left on the shrub, picked and put in water or laid out dry on a table. Since fresh buds open every day, the hibiscus blooms on the islands throughout the year.

Hawaiian women wear the blossoms in their hair, a charming substitute for earrings, while men tuck one over an ear at festivals. Blooms in profusion are strewn down the length of leaf-covered tables, prepared for native feasts, or laid out in colorful array on counters in the island banks. They vary in size from an inch across, to hybrid giants, a foot wide. Some are ornately ruffled. Actually, the larger ones are almost artificial in appearance.

A sacred flower with the early Polynesians, many references to the hibiscus can be found in their ancient mythology and folk lore. Six or seven species native to Hawaii have been found. A native white form (Hibiscus arnouianus) flourished in isolated areas on Oahu and Molokai for many years, until it produced varieties which now appear quite different from each other. These whites are the only kinds with fragrance and they remain open longer, sometimes lasting three days. Both these characteristics, sought by hybridists, are apparently difficult to transmit in crossing.

The common red hibiscus or China rose (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) of Asiatic origin has the greatest number of variants botanically and is the species used most frequently for hedges.

The pink hibiscus (Hibiscus cameroni) from Madagascar is also a common hedge plant on the islands. Deep pink with a white area near the base of each petal, its attractive, wide spreading flower is larger than that of the common red. It is used frequently in crossing since the plant is vigorous, well branched and abundant in foliage.

The coral hibiscus (Hibiscus schizopetalus) differs from the others, bearing a small blossom with strongly-recurved, deeply-fringed petals. The staminal column is long and conspicuous, and swings like a pendulum in the breeze. A tall, slender plant, almost vine-like, it has small, delicate leaves. The weight of the flower, on its very slender stem, causes it to fall over and hang in bell-like fashion. This parent of many of the island hybrids imparts to them its grace, its lengthened staminal column and its frilled petals. Coral hibiscus is frequently used to make arbors, since its slender branches can be trained easily to cover a support.

Fifty Years of Hybridizing

Keen interest in hibiscus culture on the islands began about the turn of the century, when Walter M. Gifford began crossing strains. Enthusiasm spread and as the island people traveled they sent or brought home new varieties. In 1914, A. Gerrit Wilder held the first hibiscus show where he exhibited some 400 kinds. During the years that followed, amateur breeders found much pleasure in this fascinating pastime. Then Agricultural Experimental and Extension Services on the islands published literature on the subject for beginners. One grower claims to have produced over 2,700 distinct hybrid varieties.

Five is a magic number in the makeup of the hibiscus flower. There are five, stiff, papery 5-toothed staminals with a column rising in the center, five stamens and five lobes to its calyx. The stigma of five parts is usually a bright crystalline red, like a bit of coral at the top of the central staminal column. Stamens grow on the sides of the staminal column yellowing it with their pollen. Usually it is stiffly upright but sometimes it sweeps outward in a graceful curve, indicating that it is a hybrid and has the coral hibiscus in its ancestry.

The flowers lend themselves readily to hand pollination. Pollen of one flower is dabbed on the pistil of another after its own pollen has been removed. To keep the bees from in terfering, a bag is used to protect the newly made cross. Seeds ripen in about a month and, when planted, may be expected to bloom in about a year. The outcome is a suprise of mixed and unexpected characteristics. By careful selection some amazing hybrids have been produced. Since the seedlings vary greatly, both cuttings and grafts arc made to increase desired kinds.

In 1947 the late John A. Johnson, one of Hawaii’s leading hibiscus breeders and fanciers, gave his large collection to the University of Hawaii Experiment Station. From this collection, the University has selected some excellent new varieties for the market with special emphasis on the type of plant, its vigor and habit of growth, as well as the quality and color of the flowers.

Periodic pruning is important and at pruning time many new hibuscus plants are propagated by means of cuttings. This method is frequently used in planting new hedges. Varieties that do not root readily are multiplied by grafting, budding or layering.

From 400 varieties in 1902 more than 5,000 have been developed. Visitors to the islands are so fascinated by some of the varieties, they want to take hibiscus plants home with them, but quarantine regulations prohibit the shipment of cuttings or plants. However, seeds can be shipped. Some of the Hawaiian varieties are cultivated in greenhouses on the mainland and florists who have featured them have discovered they make popular, decorative house plants and have profited by growing them.

A Round Up On Caring For Potted Hibiscus

  • Hibiscus thrive in the warm weather and lots of full sun.
  • Avoid setting potted plants outside if the temperatures dip below 50 degrees Fahrenheit or if they exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Keep the soil moist but make sure your plant does not sit in water.
  • Use a balanced slow-release fertilizer and/or apply liquid food weekly.
  • Prune plants to maintain shape and produce new flower buds.
  • Check regularly for pests, use Neem oil for control

If you follow these tips, you should enjoy plenty of gorgeous flowers and a happy healthy plant.

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