Garden Guide: Hibiscus are MORE than just pretty flowers

These iconic tropical flowers can also have colorful leaves and some survive the winter too.

Alex Calamia

Jul 10, 2024, 9:55 AM

Updated 3 days ago


Hibiscus are tropical flowers sold in our climate as summer annuals, but those are only one of the more than 200 different species of hibiscus. These plants include edible plants like Okra, which produce edible seed pods used in southern cooking, and Roselle - which makes a delicious tea. Cacao (chocolate trees) and cotton are also close relatives to hibiscus.
Not all hibiscus are tropical. There are several hibiscus native to North America that survive our winters and make fantastic perennials.

Common Tropical Hibiscus

The vast majority of hibiscus available as annuals in our climate are hibiscus rosa-sinensis. There are 1,000s of different varieties that have been developed over hundreds of years. Interestingly; botanists aren't actually sure where exactly the plant originates from because it is not found in the wild, but it's origins are somewhere in Asia.
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis were only introduced to the United States in the 1950s, around the time Hawaii became a state. Now you'll find them all over the tropics and in containers up north during the summer. They are low maintenance plants that are capable of overwintering indoors for decades in cooler climates.
Other Tropical Hibiscus:
There are several other noteworthy tropical hibiscus that are worth growing here.

Edible Hibiscus

Some hibiscus can grow from seed to flower in just one season. Roselle and Okra have requirements that are similar to sunflowers, but take about 8 months to mature so it's best to start these seeds indoors. Although gardeners grow them for their edible seed pods, the flowers are beautiful too!

Variegated Sea Hibiscus (Hibiscus tillaceius)

These tropical trees have beautiful flowers in their native climates, but they have to become quite large before they bloom. That's why up north, they will probably never bloom, but are still well worth growing as container plants for their leaves . The new growth starts off with reds and pinks that fade to white. It's like they're each individually painted! Sea hibiscus are native to coastal parts of the tropics, where they are exposed to extreme wind, salt, and sunshine. Surprisingly, despite their love for the heat, they are about as easy to keep inside during the winter as any other hibiscus for foliage.

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