Hibiscus

Looking through files of photos on my computer, I ran across the picture of a Hibiscus shown above. Other than photographing them when we were on vacation, I never really thought much about Hibiscus. But this photo made me wonder. Hibiscus is a tropical plant, right? I’ve only seen them in very warm locations. That is, until I saw this one at Michigan State University, which is definitely not located in a tropical area. How would a tropical plant survive the winter here?

Trying to find an answer, I was surprised to find that not all Hibiscus are tropical. In fact, there are wild Hibiscus which grow in swamp wetlands. Plus, there are also hardy Hibiscus, plants that can survive up to Zone 5 or even 4. By the way, I was curious what you call more than one Hibiscus, but there is apparently no straight answer for that. Some say it is the same, Hibiscus, while others use the awkward Hibiscuses. If you don’t mind, I’ll stick to the former.

Hibiscus is a genus in the Malvaceae family that includes 200 or more species. These include annuals and perennials, woody shrubs and small trees, native to warmer areas worldwide. Hibiscus are related to Malva, Hollyhocks, Cotton and Rose of Sharon. There are numerous common names, including Sorrel, Rosemallow, Roselle, and Swamp Cotton. Most Hibiscus have large flowers with 5 or more petals that are attractive to bees and butterflies. A primary ingredient in many herbal teas, Hibiscus is also used for food coloring, papermaking, as a garnish, as a vegetable and in jams. Hibiscus tea contains vitamins and minerals and is thought to lower blood pressure, cure coughs, prevent hair loss and grey hair.

Wild Hibiscus can be found in freshwater marshes, ditches and wetlands from Maryland to Indiana and South to Texas. Dying back to the ground each year, the plants can reach up to 8 feet tall. Once the 5-6 inch wide flowers open in mid-July, it would be hard to miss this plant.

Tropical Hibiscus are often used for landscape shrubs in warm areas. They have large showy flowers that come in all shades of pink, orange, red, purple, yellow and white and are sometimes multi-colored. The flowers also come in four different forms, single, crested single, double and cup & saucer double. Many of them have a dark red center, and some have ruffled edges. Tropical Hibiscus flowers are about 5-6 inches in diameter, but some varieties can have blooms up to 10 inches. They cannot tolerate temperatures below 25 degrees, so they cannot be grown outside all year north of zone 9. Most sources say to take your Hibiscus indoors before the night time temperatures get down to 45 degrees. Here in Michigan, a tropical Hibiscus would probably have to spend more time indoors than out.

On the other hand, Hardy Hibiscus are ideal for Michigan. These are hybrids of swamp Hibiscus that will grow in drier areas and can survive winters up to zone 4.  Perennials that die back to the ground each winter, they come up again late in the spring, very late. You have to be patient, because they may not appear until late May or early June. Depending on the species, plants can be from 2 to 7  feet tall. The blooms will start to appear midsummer and continue until frost. At first, flowers were only red, pink or white, but now there are numerous colors, including yellow. Hardy Hibiscus require little care, just full sun, decent soil and a pruning once in a while. The flowers are the largest of any perennial, up to 12” in diameter!  Blooms only last a day, but are quickly replaced by others. Too bad that I don’t have any space left in my yard, because I think a hardy Hibiscus would look great out there.

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2 Responses to “Hibiscus”

  1. Allegra Says:

    The hibiscus is such a bold and beautiful flower! I’ve always associated it with the tropics, but I learned by reading your post that it grows in different places too. Thanks for the great info and pictures!

  2. Aunt Mary Says:

    We had a hibiscus on South Warren when I was a kid. I remember breaking off the buds and using a toothpick to hold three together. The bottom one was a big skirt, a smaller one was the torso and the top was a big hat. It always looked to me like someone from “Gone With the Wind”. I have one that grows nicely in my yard here in NY.

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