The hibiscus family is at home in the Miss-Lou

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 10, 2000

What do cotton, hollyhocks, okra, and hibiscus have in common? They all belong to the same family (Botanically speaking). The Malvaceae family is a group of at least 250 species of herbs, shrubs, and trees found growing from the tropics to temperate zones. The tropical or Chinese hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) is one of the most highly prized ornamental species belonging to this botanical clan.

Each year, hundreds of new cultivars are hybridized by hibiscus enthusiasts throughout the world. Blooms range from 4- to 12-inches in diameter, and in colors from white, pink, red, orange, yellow and apricot. Exquisite combinations of colors on individual flowers in both single and double forms are widely available. The glossy, green foliage provides a lovely contrast to the stunning flowers.

Having been grown in tropical and subtropical gardens for so long, the exact origin of the hibiscus is unclear. The flower described and classified by Linnaeus in 1753, was that of a double red variety found growing in China, India, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. The single red was introduced to Europe from the South Indian Ocean.

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By the nineteenth century, the hibiscus had become extremely popular in the homes and greenhouses of Europe. This illustrates the fact that it can be acclimated to the home environment, if the proper conditions exist.

Unfortunately, it is not known how many cultivars have been developed over the centuries, or how many have been lost since being introduced. Early hybridizing efforts combined with the discovery of new varieties, have been key in producing the modern hybrids we enjoy today.

Hibiscus can be grown in containers or planted in the ground, although the latter may result in death of the plant under frost conditions. Container grown specimens should be protected from freezing temperatures. Those planted in flower beds should be heavily mulched in winter to increase chances of survival. In mild winters, hibiscus may freeze to the ground and sprout new growth with the arrival of warm temperatures.

The American Hibiscus Society suggests that although &uot;hibiscus will grow in a variety of soils, they do best in mixes with high levels of organic matter&uot;. In addition, the soil should be well drained. Hibiscus are tolerant of the high summer temperatures of the Miss-Lou and prefer a location with at least six hours of full sun.

Feeding with a complete, well-balanced fertilizer is important, although it does not matter whether it is in the liquid form or granular. When using a liquid fertilizer or powder diluted in water, a weekly application is not too much. During summer, container plants must be watered almost daily, therefore leaching away the nutrients quickly.

Leaves sometimes turn yellow on hibiscus plants. This is usually caused by lack of water, too much water, or a sudden fluctuation in temperature. Lightly pruning the plant after leaf drop will result in the production of new foliage.

Occasionally, hibiscus flowers will drop before the bud opens. Temperature, lack of water, sudden change in temperature, improperly balanced fertilizers, mineral deficiencies, wind, insects or unsuitable pesticides may contribute to this problem. Some cultivars are more prone to bud drop than others. If you plant does this once in a while, don’t worry, it happens to all of us.

Pests can be a problem on hibiscus. Aphids, spider mites, scale and caterpillars may feed on the plants and even cause serious damage if not controlled. The application of pesticides can be effective, although you must choose a product that is labeled for use on hibiscus. Always read and follow the directions on the label.

Many times, a strong spray of water on the top and undersides of the leaves may prevent or take care of problem pests, especially aphids, spider mites and scale. Mr. J.T. (aka the rose man) says this works well on roses also. Caterpillars can be hand plucked from the plants.

In general, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis are propagated from cuttings, layering, or grafting. Summer through fall is the best time to accomplish this project. Four to five inch cuttings with two or three leaves should be placed in an area out of direct sunlight. Treating the cuttings with growth hormones has been shown to be very effective with hibiscus.

Most recommendations suggest sticking the cuttings in a rooting medium such as sand, vermiculite, perlite, peat or a mix of any of these, although I have had success with a pine-bark based soil mix also. Covering the plants with a plastic bag or plastic bottle with a hole in the top will aid in moisture retention, although this is not absolutely necessary. A minimum of 35 to 40 days should be expected for rooting to occur.

The numerous, magnificent, hybrid hibiscus available today, make these plants rewarding for garden enthusiasts throughout the world. For a spectacular plant that easily beats our Miss-Lou heat, color your world with these tropical beauties.

I know it has been hot and dry lately, but hang in there Miss-Lou gardeners. Fall is just around the corner. My husband always says that when they start writing about football in the paper that fall is just around the bend. I don’t now what Joey Martin will have in the sports section today, but I hope it has a lot about football!

Gardening Miss-Lou Style is a weekly column written by Traci Maier of Natchez. She can be reached at Fred’s Greenhouse at 445-5181 or by email at