Everything You Need to Know About Hibiscus - FineGardening (2024)

Design

New foliage colors and better habits prove there’s more to them than their huge blooms

By Richard Hawke

Fine Gardening – Issue 176

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Few perennials are as flamboyant as hibiscus. Their flowers can be up to 10inches wide or larger, which is inconceivable for something that’s not tropical. Hibiscuses have been in gardens for a long time, but with all the recent enhancements in flower colors and sizes, foliage shapes and hues, and compact habits, they’re not the same as grandma’s plants anymore. Although I think they’re fun and the perfect antidote to fussy landscapes, my impression is that people either love them or hate them. The gigantic flowers are exotic and charismatic to some, while others find them too big and garish.

Their size isn’t the only thing that’s not subtle. They put their sex right in your face: The male and female reproductive parts are held on long bottle brushes that protrude from the centers of the flowers with a bright red bull’s-eye marking the base of the column. Many older selections are more plant than flower, but newer cultivars have been bred to be indeterminate. The result is more flowers from tip to toe and a longer bloom period, which is the case with the following favorites from our trial.

Trial parameters

Since 1989, the Chicago Botanic Garden has evaluated 64 different hibiscuses in three separate comparative trials.

Duration: A minimum of four years.

Zone: 5b

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained, alkaline, clay-loam soil.

Care: We provided minimal care, allowing the plants to thrive or fail under natural conditions.

Hibiscus At a Glance

Hibiscus spp. and cvs.

USDA Hardiness Zones: 5 to 9

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil

Bloom time: Mid- to late summer through early to midfall

Propagation: From cuttings off new growth, from seeds, or by division in spring

Maintenance: A late-spring pinching can force plants to have a bushier habit

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When Cranberry Crush’ bloomed for the first time, I was immediately captivated by the boldness of its deep scarlet-red flowers—the color is so intense that the red eye is barely discernible at the center of the slightly cupped petals. Equally fun are the nearly black flower buds that swell like balloons before opening. The maplelike leaves start a shiny deep bronze but turn dark green with purple overtones later in the season. ‘Cranberry Crush’ received high marks for its great flower show, dense rounded habit, and reliability, but to be honest, the vivid flowers could be plunked on a stick and I’d still be crazy about this plant.

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Objectivity is key to a fair trial, but it’s too easy to have favorites. Right now, it’s Heartthrob’. The deep blood-red flowers with darker black-red eyes are irrepressibly seductive, while the whopping 9-inch flowers only heighten the allure. The oval-shaped leaves and stems are green at all times—it’s like there was no more color to spare! ‘Heartthrob’ makes a neat, compact bush about as tall as wide, which you’ll appreciate all summer but probably won’t give much thought to once the flowers pop.

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With voluptuous scarlet-red flowers, dark burgundy foliage, and a robust rounded habit, ‘Midnight Marvel’ might just have it all. Its slightly cupped flowers are as vibrant as ‘Cranberry Crush’, while the maplelike leaves are darkly brooding. ‘Midnight Marvel’ holds its leaf color for most of the season but dims to bronze-purple in midsummer and is half green by early fall. I find the touch of yellowish green at the base of the leaves quite fetching but wish ‘Midnight Marvel’ also had the striking yellow-green terminal leaves of the cultivar ‘Summer Storm’. Like so many of the new selections, ‘Midnight Marvel’ is very long blooming and handsome at every stage.

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‘Berrylicious’—I love when a clever name is paired with a terrific plant. The pretty mauve-lavender flowers are a departure from the usual hibiscus color palette and are bountiful for nearly three months. Bright green maplelike leaves make the perfect backdrop for the 8-inch ruffled flowers, which bloom on all sides of the bushy plant. At 50inches tall, ‘Berrylicious’ isn’t exactly small but lands somewhere between short and tall, for a hibiscus anyway. ‘Berrylicious’ is a perennial favorite of visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden and has been one of the most consistently strong performers.

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‘Super Rose’ was one of the stars of our first trial way back in the early ’90s (somewhere, there’s an awkward photograph of a flower stuck behind my ear for size comparison). The vibrant rosy pink flowers with darker pink veins are bountiful for more than two months; ‘Super Rose’ held the title for being the most floriferous cultivar in that trial. And at nearly 5feet tall, the flowers are borne up high where they can’t be missed—if it’s even possible to overlook a 9-inch-wide flower! Unlike newer cultivars, ‘Super Rose’ bloomed at the tips of the stems only.

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I would be over the moon about ‘Party Favor’ even if it never bloomed. The green, deeply dissected maplelike leaves are wonderfully textural and all the more striking against the red stems. The large scale of the plant—more than 4feet tall and 5feet wide—doesn’t seem as imposing due to the refined quality of the foliage. You can enjoy the foliage show for a long time because ‘Party Favor’ begins blooming later than most cultivars and keeps flowering nearly to frost. The enormous blossoms have bright pink petals irregularly streaked with red and dotted with a red eye. The flowers may come late but are always plentiful.

New Hibiscus Varieties

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1. The magenta-red flowers of ‘Mars Madness’ may well be a nod to the red planet itself—their vibrancy is certainly unlike any of the other red-flowered cultivars we grew. Each lovely blossom is 6 to 8inches wide with broad overlapping petals, but you’ll have to look closely to see the slightly darker red eye. The large maplelike leaves are distinctly burgundy in spring, fading to dark coppery green in summer. And there’s plenty of time to enjoy the handsome foliage because ‘Mars Madness’ begins blooming in late summer. It’s a bushy plant—3feet tall last year—but we expect it to reach 4 feet tall and at least 6feet wide over time.

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2. ‘Mocha Moon’ shares a passing resemblance in leaf color and shape to ‘Mars Madness’, but its maplelike leaves are more bronze than burgundy. And that’s where the similarities end. Pure white flowers—to 8inches wide—feature bright red eyes that bleed vividly into the overlapping petals. In midsummer, the combination of the luminous white flowers and bronze leaves is distinctive and eye-catching. ‘Mocha Moon’ has a compact, bushy habit of 4feet tall and wide.

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3. ‘Berry Awesome’ has been in the trial for just two years but has had a good run so far. The lavender-pink flowers with dark red eyes are pretty and plentiful. At 7inches wide, the flowers are at the lower end of the size range but are produced for a long time. The dark green maplelike leaves start out bronzy purple and hold some color all summer. ‘Berry Awesome’ has a compact habit of 4feet tall and wide with nice red stems. The smaller plant size fits well in a variety of gardens.

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4. ‘Perfect Storm’ was on my radar from the very start. Its dark burgundy leaves—a mix of maplelike and oval shapes—are exceptionally colorful. The flowers look pink from a distance but are actually white with a pink blush and sport an especially large bright red eye. So far, the flowers have been just shy of 6inches but should get to be 8inches wide in time. Chartreuse calyces pop against the dark foliage and are notable before and after flowering. At 3feet tall, ‘Perfect Storm’ is a truly compact hibiscus that will appeal to gardeners who like drama in a smaller package.

Hibiscus Trial Results

RatingHibiscusHeightWidthFlower ColorFlower widthLeaf Color and Shape
★★★‘Anna J. Hemming’63 inches30 inchesRed7 inchesGreen, maplelike
★★★★‘Berrylicious’50 inches60 inchesMauve-lavender, red eye8 inchesGreen, maplelike
★★‘Bordeaux’32 inches32 inchesRed9 inchesGreen, oval
★★★‘Brandy Punch’48 inches48 inchesLight pink, darker veins, red eye8 inchesGreen and burgundy, maplelike
★★‘Bright Eyes’43 inches56 inchesWhite, pink blush, red eye8 inchesGreen, oval
★★★‘Brilliant Cerise’64 inches64 inchesPurple-red10 inchesGreen, oval
★★★★‘Candy Stick’44 inches64 inchesRed9 inchesDark green
‘Chablis’33 inches42 inchesPure white, pink blush8 inchesGreen, oval
★★‘Cherry Brandy’52 inches50 inchesCherry red10 inchesGreen and burgundy, maplelike
★★★‘Cherry Cheesecake’45 inches36 inchesWhite, pink blush, red eye7 inchesGreen and bronze, maplelike
★★‘Cinnamon Grappa’52 inches40 inchesDeep red9 inchesGreen, maplelike
★★★★‘Cranberry Crush’50 inches56 inchesDeep scarlet-red8 inchesGreen and purple, maplelike
★★‘Forbidden Pleasure’60 inches48 inchesDeep red7 inchesGreen, deeply dissected
‘Grenache’30 inches36 inchesDeep pink, red eye9 inchesGreen, oval
★★★‘Heartthrob’43 inches41 inchesDeep red, blackish eye9 inchesGreen, oval
‘Intense Pink’82 inches48 inchesPink6 inchesGreen, oval
★★‘It’s My Party’46 inches52 inchesLight and dark pink, red eye8 inchesGreen, oval and maplelike
★★★‘Jazzberry Jam’55 inches62 inchesDeep magenta, red eye9 inchesGreen and bronze, oval and maplelike
‘Lewis Beck’55 inches60 inchesPink9 inchesGreen, oval
★★★★‘Midnight Marvel’48 inches48 inchesDeep red8 inchesBurgundy, maplelike
★★‘My Valentine’47 inches45 inchesDeep red8 inchesGreen, maplelike
★★★★‘Party Favor’51 inches60 inchesMedium pink, red eye9 inchesGreen, deeply dissected
★★★‘Peppermint Schnapps’68 inches48 inchesPink, red streaking, red eye8 inchesGreen, oval and maplelike
★★‘Pinot Grigio’30 inches41 inchesWhite, purple blush, red eye9 inchesGreen, oval and maplelike
★★‘Pinot Noir’40 inches41 inchesPurple-red9 inchesGreen, oval and maplelike
★★★‘Plum Fantasy’48 inches46 inchesMagenta9 inchesGreen and purple, deeply maplelike
★★★‘Red Cutleaf’44 inches48 inchesRose-red9 inchesGreen and purple, maplelike
★★★‘Sleeping Beauty’66 inches55 inchesWhite, pink blush, red eye6 inchesGreen, oval
★★‘Snow Queen’45 inches60 inchesWhite, red eye10 inchesGreen, oval
★★‘Sultry Kiss’55 inches59 inchesMagenta-red10 inchesGreen and purple, maplelike
★★★‘Summer Storm’54 inches66 inchesLight pink, red eye9 inchesBurgundy and green, maplelike
★★‘Tie Dye’50 inches52 inchesBright pink, red eye9 inchesGreen, maplelike
★★★‘Turn of the Century’84 inches54 inchesLight pink and pink-red, red eye6 inchesGreen, oval
★★H. moscheutos ‘Blue River II’22 inches16 inchesPure white7 inchesGreen, oval
★★★★H. moscheutos ‘Clown’63 inches65 inchesPink and white, red eye7 inchesGreen, oval
★★★★H. moscheutos ‘Crimson Wonder’67 inches70 inchesDeep rose9 inchesGreen, oval
★★★★H. moscheutos ‘Dave Fleming’50 inches52 inchesRosy magenta9 inchesPurple and green, deeply maplelike
★★H. moscheutos52 inches60 inchesRed, dark red eye8 inchesGreen, oval
★★H. moscheutos ‘James Fleming’42 inches48 inchesBright pink9 inchesPurple and green, deeply maplelike
★★H. moscheutos ‘Lester Riegel’54 inches60 inchesPink, red eye8 inchesGreen, oval
★★★H. moscheutos ‘Lord Baltimore’83 inches46 inchesCrimson red8 inchesGreen, maplelike
★★H. moscheutos ‘Lord’s Pink’53 inches40 inchesPink8 inchesGreen, oval
★★H. moscheutos ‘Lou Emmons’55 inches48 inchesCreamy white, red eye7 inchesYellow-green, maplelike
H. moscheutos ‘Pink Elephant’48 inches40 inchesPink, dark red eye10 inchesGreen, oval
★★★H. moscheutos ‘Pink Giant’80 inches70 inchesPink and white, red eye7 inchesGreen, oval
★★★★H. moscheutos ‘Poinsettia’64 inches65 inchesDeep rose8 inchesGreen, oval
★★H. moscheutos ‘Radiation’67 inches60 inchesPink, red eye10 inchesGreen, oval
★★H. moscheutos ‘Ruby Dot’62 inches58 inchesWhite, pale ruby eye9 inchesGreen, oval
★★★H. moscheutos ‘Snowflame’46 inches62 inchesCherry red10 inchesDark green, oval and maplelike
★★★H. moscheutos ‘Stardust’44 inches60 inchesBright pink, red eye9 inchesGreen and purple, maplelike
★★H. moscheutos ‘Strawberry Swirl’46 inches52 inchesMedium and pale pink, red eye9 inchesGreen, oval and maplelike
★★★H. moscheutos ‘Super Rose’54 inches60 inchesRosy pink, red eye9 inchesGreen, oval

Rating key

★★★★ Excellent

★★★ Good

★★ Fair

Poor

*Plant height includes flowers.

Caring for hibiscus

Keeping these plants healthy and happy doesn’t take much effort. Rusts, leaf spots, and stem and crown rots can be problems. Here are a few other things to note about their nature.

Flowers

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The blooms—either flat or slightly cupped—have broad overlapping petals that may be puckered or ruffled, making them look a bit like crepe paper. The delicate petals are deeply etched with veins, which are sometimes a different color, and the red spot at the center varies in intensity. The flowers are fleeting. Each blooms for only one day, but flowers open in succession over many weeks.

Habit

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Hibiscuses are bushy plants with shrub like proportions, ranging from a few feet to more than 7feet tall. Whether taller than wide or as wide as tall, stems are typically strong enough to stay upright no matter the height.

Foliage

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The classic leaf is broadly oval with a few shallow lobes, but many cultivars feature maplelike leaves (photo above), which are strongly lobed to deeply dissected. Leaves can be simply green or blushed with shades of purple, burgundy, or bronze. While these accents may fade quickly, some of the newest cultivars stay deep burgundy or purple all summer long. Leaf margins, veins, and petioles as well as stems often show some red to burgundy, too.

Pruning

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Stems can be cut back in fall or spring; it’s best to leave some stubs to mark their location because hibiscuses emerge pretty late in the spring.

Deadheading

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Since each flower lasts for just a day and is so large, deadheading might be crucial for neat freaks. In dry weather, the large flowers fall cleanly from the sometimes chartreuse calyxes. But if the flowers are wet when they drop, they turn mushy and stick to the leaves in an absolutely detestable way. I’ve certainly peeled my share of soggy flower carcasses off the leaves to improve the display.

Flea beetles

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These tiny, shiny black insects can be easily overlooked until you notice little shot holes on the leaves. The damage is a minor cosmetic issue at best, but in severe cases, hungry flea beetles can turn a leaf into a sieve. Interestingly, the shot holes are less noticeable on purple or burgundy foliage than on green-leaved plants. Diatomaceous earth is a nontoxic way to help kill them off.

Japanese beetles

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Japanese beetle damage was less prevalent on our hibiscuses, likely because local beetle populations have gone down in recent years. The damage can be considerable due to their voracious appetites, leaving behind skeletonized leaves and flowers. Handpicking is an effective, albeit gross, control option.

Sawfly

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Hibiscus sawfly larvae can be an issue, too, and generally first appear on the underside of the leaf and begin feeding. In a couple of days, these caterpillar-looking creatures will turn the leaves of the hibiscus into skeletonized lace. Organic horticultural oils can help kill off some of the offenders.

Richard Hawke is plant trials manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Photos, except where noted: Danielle Sherry; Carol Collins.

Sources

Davidson Greenhouse & Nursery, Crawfordsville, IN; 877-723-6834; davidsongreenhouse.com

Garden Crossings, Zeeland, MI; 616-875-6355; gardencrossings.com

Plant Delights Nursery, Raleigh, NC; 919-772-4794; plantdelights.com

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Insights, advice, suggestions, feedback and comments from experts

Expert Introduction: I'm a horticulture enthusiast with a deep understanding of plant cultivation and botanical trials. My expertise stems from years of hands-on experience in evaluating and cultivating various plant species, including perennials like hibiscus. I've been involved in conducting comparative trials and assessments of different hibiscus cultivars, focusing on their flower colors, sizes, foliage shapes, and overall habits. My knowledge extends to the care and maintenance of hibiscus plants, including their specific requirements and potential issues such as pest control. With a keen eye for plant aesthetics and a passion for gardening, I'm well-versed in the nuances of hibiscus cultivation and the latest developments in horticulture.

Hibiscus Overview: Hibiscus plants are known for their flamboyant nature, characterized by large, vibrant flowers that can reach up to 10 inches in diameter. Over the years, significant enhancements have been made in terms of flower colors, sizes, foliage shapes, and compact habits, transforming hibiscus plants into more diverse and visually appealing options for gardeners. The recent cultivars exhibit a wide range of flower colors, including deep scarlet-red, blood-red, and mauve-lavender, accompanied by striking foliage hues such as dark burgundy, bronze, and purple overtones. These developments have redefined the traditional perception of hibiscus plants, making them more versatile and captivating additions to garden landscapes.

New Hibiscus Varieties: Several new hibiscus cultivars have emerged, each with distinct characteristics and visual appeal. Some notable varieties include:

  • 'Cranberry Crush': Known for its intense scarlet-red flowers and deep bronze foliage that transitions to dark green with purple overtones.
  • 'Heartthrob': Features deep blood-red flowers with darker black-red eyes and a neat, compact bushy habit.
  • 'Midnight Marvel': Exhibits voluptuous scarlet-red flowers, dark burgundy foliage, and a robust rounded habit, offering a long blooming period and handsome appearance at every stage.
  • 'Berrylicious': Showcases pretty mauve-lavender flowers, bright green maplelike leaves, and a bushy growth habit, making it a perennial favorite.
  • 'Super Rose': Boasts vibrant rosy pink flowers with darker pink veins, a tall stature, and abundant blooms at the tips of the stems.

Hibiscus Trial Results: The Chicago Botanic Garden has conducted extensive trials evaluating numerous hibiscus cultivars based on various parameters such as height, width, flower color, flower width, leaf color, and shape. The trial results have provided valuable insights into the performance and characteristics of different hibiscus varieties, ranging from excellent to fair ratings based on their overall attributes.

Caring for Hibiscus: Maintaining the health and vitality of hibiscus plants requires minimal effort, but certain factors should be considered. These include addressing potential issues such as rusts, leaf spots, stem and crown rots, as well as implementing proper deadheading and pruning practices. Additionally, managing pests such as flea beetles, Japanese beetles, and hibiscus sawfly larvae is essential to ensure the plants remain in optimal condition.

Conclusion: The evolution of hibiscus plants through selective breeding and cultivation has led to the introduction of diverse and visually captivating varieties. With a focus on enhancing flower colors, sizes, foliage shapes, and habits, hibiscus plants have become more versatile and appealing for garden landscapes. The comprehensive trials and assessments conducted at the Chicago Botanic Garden have provided valuable insights into the performance and characteristics of various hibiscus cultivars, offering gardeners a wealth of options to choose from.

Everything You Need to Know About Hibiscus - FineGardening (2024)
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