Hibiscus: the Blooms with a Hue

Are hibiscus difficult to grow?
Not especially. They do like a nice sunny spot, and you have to keep them well watered. Deer don’t especially like them. They’re a multi-stemmed shrub — though you also can prune them to look more like a tree — and they can grow as tall as seven to ten feet. You can plant them as a single specimen, or in a grouping, or as a hedge, but keep in mind the leaves fall in winter, so they won’t provide much privacy then.

Can you give us growing specifics?
To transplant them, work up the soil in a spot a little larger than the container. Keep it loose and free of rocks to about a foot beneath the roots. Mix in compost and organic fertilizer. Plant the hibiscus so the root ball is just about flush with the surface, then fill in with soil and tamp it down. Give it a good soaking, let it rest, then add about an inch of mulch around the stems. A new plant needs a couple of good soakings each week for the first month, then should be kept consistently moist for the first year or two. Add a shot of fertilizer in the spring and some bone meal in the fall, to help build a good strong root system to get them through the winter.

How would a neophyte get started?
Healthy plants are easy to find at local garden shops. Be sure to ask for the hardy variety that lasts outdoors through the cold weather, otherwise you may get a container plant that needs to winter inside. Even a stressed plant will bounce back to life when you move it outdoors again in the spring, however. The best time to plant is in the fall, when there’s plenty of moisture in the soil, but spring is okay as long as you give it plenty of water. Be sure to choose a warm, sunny spot!

What are the varieties?
Hibiscus syriacus is also known as hardy garden hibiscus or Rose of Sharon. (Not to be confused with plants with similar-looking flowers also called Rose of Sharon, not hibiscus.) Hibiscus has white, pink, red, purple or lavender flowers, and returns year after year. It will self-seed and spread. The tropical variety Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is a showy, spectacular container plant for the deck or by the pool. You can bring it inside in the winter, but it won’t grow much and it may get leggy and lose leaves without plenty of sun, heat and water. A greenhouse is the best place, but even a stressed plant will bounce back to life when you move it outdoors again in the spring. Hibiscus moscheutos, also known as Swamp Rose Mallow, has huge, dinner-plate-sized flowers that will knock your socks off! The flowers can be as big as twelve inches across. None are especially hard to grow if you give them plenty of water and direct sunlight. And the hibiscus has a kind of traditional, old-fashioned look that people like.

The flowers are so decorative. Do they have any practical uses?

In parts of India, the petals of tropical hibiscus flowers are used to shine shoes! And in your garden, they attract butterflies and hummingbirds. You can use the cut flowers in flower arrangements; they last a long time in water. Some varieties are edible and are added to salads or may be brewed in tea. Another kind is used extensively in making paper. And in Polynesia, the strong fibers from the bark are an ingredient in the making of grass skirts. Hibiscus varieties are the state flower of Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and the national flower of South Korea and Malaysia.

Is there a gardening group to join?
There’s no group in Rhode Island dedicated specifically to hibiscus, but URI Master Gardeners love to give advice at www.urimga.org, or you can call the URI Extension and Outreach Center at 874-2900. URI experts also offer programs for plant lovers at the new Roger Williams Park Botanical Center, in Providence. That’s a good place to see specimens of tropical hibiscus growing in a greenhouse.