Fall in Love with Hibiscus: This Popular Bloom Brings Out the Passion in GardenersMay 10, 2022 07:32AM ● By DIANE YORK
When Nancy Kopp moved to Fort Myers, she was looking for new friends. As a retired United Airlines flight attendant, she was a member of Clipped Wings, the association for former airline employees. At the Southwest Florida chapter, she made a friend in Wanda Schmoyer, who was active in the James E. Hendry Hibiscus Society the local chapter of the American Hibiscus Society. She introduced Kopp to the group.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like to go into a show and see hundreds of spectacular blooms in all colors and varieties,” says Kopp. “I had to have one, then another, and another.” Then she began showing her flowers at the meetings. “Once I began to get ribbons, I was really hooked!” Soon, she found herself going to conventions, and before she knew it, she had new friends in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas.
Her love affair with hibiscus has led to her becoming a board member of the American Hibiscus Society, as well as the local chapter. Today she has 65 hibiscus plants of multiple varieties, designs, and colors flourishing in her yard in Fort Myers.
Jack Bernatz of Cape Coral, the current president of the local Hibiscus Society, says he initially joined for the fun of membership, but soon was hooked by the flowers, which he says are like no other. “They are exotic, gorgeous blooms, ten inches across and every color imaginable.” Obviously enamored, he cares for 75 plants of his own.
The plant that so many people fall in love with has as many varieties as there are combinations of colors, is relatively easy to grow, and produces fantastic, large pinwheels of color all year long. The tropical hibiscus is a lush, fat, raucously colored, over-the-top flower. In every shade of red, yellow, orange, and purple, its blossoms, some as big as a dinner plate, can be as spectacular as a sunset over the gulf. And like a sunset, each lasts only one day.
They look good enough to eat—and actually are good to eat. The leaves make a medicinal tea, and the flowers can be dried and eaten with sugar like a lovely candy, filled with cream cheese like squash blossoms, or put in a salad to add an exotic touch.
Hibiscuses can be found in backyards and landscaping projects all over Southwest Florida. Not to be confused with the northern perennial hibiscus, also known as “swamp mallow,” tropical hibiscus plants are not frost tolerant. They can survive in temperatures only above 32 degrees.
According to Kopp, the soil in parts of Southwest Florida, especially near the beach like Sanibel, is too sandy for many plants. You can ameliorate the soil with humus, but it might be easier to grow hibiscus in pots. In Fort Myers, the yard soil works just fine for Kopp’s plants.
Using pots also makes it easier to move the plants to a shadier spot if needed, such as when the temperature goes above 96 degrees for an extended time. The plants like a tight fit, so there’s no need to move them to larger pots all that often.
To plant hibiscuses in the ground you need an open space with six to eight hours of sunlight, according to Terri Kelley, general manager of Sunfire Nurseries in Sarasota. It should be planted at the same depth as the original pot and should be kept moist. Use a slow-release fertilizer such as Nutricote or Osmocote, and apply it 6 to 10 inches from the stem. “If you put the fertilizer closer, you run the risk of burning the roots,” says Kelley. “If you find insects such as aphids, mealy bugs, and mites, you can spray with insecticidal soap. You can also use a systemic such as Bayer Advance,” she adds.
Plant hibiscuses during the spring, summer, or fall, spacing plants three to six feet apart. If a rare, hard frost is expected in Southwest Florida, the plants can be covered with plastic or a drop cloth. If the frost is too deep or lasts too long, the plants will not survive. High winds are also a problem for hibiscus plants, as they can damage the roots and result in root rot. Heavily mulching the base of the plant will help prevent this.
Part of the fun of growing hibiscus is the variety of things you can do with them. “You can graft them, (splicing one branch onto another plant), you can take a branch and root it in soil, or you can hybridize them by mixing the pollen from one plant to another to change the color and design of the flowers,” explains Bernatz.
To make new plants from cuttings, make your cuttings about four inches in length. Cut the wood on the bias and dip the end in a rooting powder or hormone. Slide about a third of the plant into the soil. Take off all of the big leaves and all of the buds to let the plant put more energy into growing roots; leave just a little green top and a few small leaves. After about four weeks, the plant should be developing roots. Night temperatures should be above 60 degrees.
If you want to try hybridizing, the experts recommend the following: Take two different colored plants in bloom and remove the stamens from the “mother” plant. With a small, clean paintbrush, swipe the yellow pollen off of the stamens of the “father” plant and brush it onto the stigma of the “mother” plant. Cover the bloom with a paper bag tied to the plant to prevent any other cross-pollination from occurring. The ovary of the plant will swell if pollination has occurred. When the seed pods turn brown and dry, take them off to prevent the seed from going into the ground.
New growth produces flower buds, so hard pruning in the spring that leads to the production of many side shoots makes hibiscus plants flower prolifically. Every sub-branch springing from the main framework that is cut back will produce four new shoots in three or four months, each bearing clusters of flower buds by late summer.
Hibiscus flowers are fragile and fall off the plant easily, but they can be removed from the plant and will remain perfect without water for that day. You can pick them, put them on a table without stem or water, or add them to an existing bouquet without fear of wilting.
Want to get in on some hibiscus action? The James E. Hendry Chapter of the American Hibiscus Society welcomes new members. Kopp explains that there are several categories of members. If you have been growing hibiscus for less than two years, you are an amateur. If you have fewer than 75 plants, you are a collector. If you have more than 75 plants, you are an open collector. There is also a commercial grower category.
The local chapter meets monthly in Fort Myers. Members share cuttings of their best plants and trade cultivation and breeding secrets. To join or get more information, see hendrychapterhibiscus.com.
Diane York is a freelance writer and avid gardener who splits her time between Richmond, Virginia, and Sanibel, Florida. Her articles on health, lifestyle, and travel topics appear in numerous periodicals in central Virginia. She is the author of the book It Ain’t You Babe! A Woman’s Guide to Surviving Infidelity and Divorce.
How you will use your hibiscus plant will help you decide which type to buy. Hibiscuses can be dense and bushy to make a hedge or screen, or they can be tall and thin for a potted plant or specimen planting in a garden. Some examples:
Fort Myers Yellow. This is a brilliant, true yellow—sometimes almost gold—with dark green, glossy leaves in a shrublike plant. It grows easily from cuttings and will also set seed from October through March in a warm climate. It can reach six to eight feet in height and will bloom all year.
Belle du Jour. This plant’s pinkish-lavender, fluffy, frilled flowers are so fat and lush that they look like Chinese peonies. One of the best all-around pink flowering hibiscuses is a single that looks like a double. The heavy, crinkled texture makes it very different from other hibiscuses. A constant bloomer, it does especially well as an indoor plant. Give it extra potassium while growing in the house. The flowers will be a bit smaller, but the colors and texture are as beautiful as any Belle du Jour grown outside.
High Voltage. This is a startling flower, with its white-pink blossoms and contrasting dark rose center that bleeds out to the edges. Blooms can be up to nine inches across. This strong bush plant will produce flowers all summer, even in extreme heat, and into the fall. It can be potted or used as a landscape plant. High Voltage is a good performer and consistent winner at flower shows.
The President. This plant produces bright, clear, red blossoms with glossy dark green foliage. The President is very popular with landscapers because of its dependability as a healthy, consistent, and easy-to-care-for bloomer. Blooms can be as large as 10 inches across and will produce flowers from early spring until frost.
Looking for Love
On the islands of the Pacific, women wear a red hibiscus behind the ear. If worn behind the left ear, the woman is looking for a lover. If behind the right ear, she is already spoken for. If she wears two flowers, one behind each ear, she has a lover but would like another.
Agua Fresca Flor de Jamaica (Hibiscus Flower Iced Tea)
- 2/3 cup dried hibiscus flowers
- 4 cups cold water, divided
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar, to taste
Makes 4 servings.