Hibiscus Care: Not All Hibiscus Are Created Equal

Know which hibiscus are hardy and which are annuals.

Nothing says summer like one of the many varieties of yellow tropical hibiscus.

Nothing says summer like one of the many varieties of yellow tropical hibiscus.

Nothing says summer like one of the many varieties of yellow tropical hibiscus.

Photo by: Image courtesy of the Atlanta Botanical Garden

Image courtesy of the Atlanta Botanical Garden

Nothing says summer like one of the many varieties of yellow tropical hibiscus.

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The question comes up all the time: Why didn't my hibiscus come back this year?

The answer is quite simple: You probably didn’t know which type of hibiscus you were planting; more than likely, yours was a tropical hibiscus—the ones lining garden center shelves this time of year. They’re the annual ones that can’t tolerate cold temperatures. The other type is perennial. It dies back in fall and returns the following spring.

So how do you know the difference? If the plant has glossy, deep green leaves and produces flowers that are mainly yellow, pink or red—both singles and doubles—it’s probably a tropical hibiscus, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis.  The other type of hibiscus, the hardy kind, is a deciduous shrub that has dull medium green leaves with dinner-plate size blooms in red, pink or white. Also, unlike the tropical hibiscus, the perennials—commonly known as rose of Sharon and rose mallow—do not produce the bloom color of orange, peach or salmon—or doubles.  Regardless of the type, the huge, funnel-shaped flowers typically don’t last more than a day; yet the plant blooms profusely!

And unlike the hardy hibiscus, which require very little care, the tropical types are a bit more demanding. They won’t tolerate light freezes—typically not surviving outdoors any farther north than zone 9—so many fans of the plant bring them indoors in fall for overwintering. For that reason, tropical hibiscus are popular container plants.

Give them plenty of space if planted in the ground and plenty of water. They prefer loose, moist but well-drained soil and lots of sunshine.

A few of the newer tropical varieties to consider include ‘Seminole Pink’, ‘Spin the Bottle’ (a tri-color of red, orange and pink) and ‘Hugs and Kisses’ (silver-blue with ruffled peach edges). Among the perennial type, look for ‘Kopper King’ (coppery red and pink), ‘Disco Belle Pink’ (bright pink with red eye) and ‘Blue River (10-inch-wide pure white).