Growing exotic hibiscus is not an easy task and takes several years to master. There is a learning curve that spans multiple growing seasons.
A Quick Bit of Hibiscus History to Understand What is Needed
So Why Does Where They Come From Matter?
Soil & Feeding
Being that hibiscus originate in tropical climates for many millennia they are genetically programmed for the unique conditions of such regions.
These are volcanic areas where the soil is rocky and extremely porous. Such soils are very rich with minerals and abundant with air. Your soil needs to be the same – we recommend a light potting mix and add ample amounts of perlite and/or pumice stone
Do not add composted materials and very little worm castings as these will lose all air when wet and deplete the soil of the needed air to sustain hibiscus root systems.
Before you water or feed your hibiscus plant always first look at the top leaves of your plant’s branches. If they look veiny and/or chlorotic you need to first investigate your plant further to see if it is having issues at the root level. Those type of leaves indicate that there is not enough air in the soil which usually comes from too much water. Use a water meter to probe the soil, many times the top is bone dry but as you get deep down it is saturated. Any additional water can lead to root rot which you will see the effects when your plant has branch tip die back and leaves start to yellow and drop. For more info check out our webpage: Root Rot & Branch Tip Die Back
Hibiscus roots are tender and need constant air so native soils like clay are a recipe for root rot and a quick demise of your plant. Make sure to dig as large of a hole as possible. We recommend at least 2-3 ft around and about 1 ft deep in ground.
For potted plants make sure you use pots that have many drainage holes and do not layer the bottom of your pots with any type of rocks as they will actually form a seal. Also hibiscus roots can quickly plug up those drainage holes so you will need to root prune. We have a great video on how to do that: SCHS Root Pruning Video
Volcanic soils are high in minerals so hibiscus are used to high amounts of nutrients all the time that are easy to get. They have unique requirements that differ from other flowering plants. Lots of potassium, very low phosphorus and low nitrogen. We recommend the fertilizer from Hidden Valley Hibiscus which is formulated just for hibiscus Hidden Valley Hibiscus Fertilizer
Temperatures, Metabolism and Sunlight
Tropical climates do not have seasons so temperatures are normally 60-95F. Hibiscus thrive in these conditions and get stressed when living in extremes on either side of this spectrum
Temps below this range will start to slow your plant’s metabolism. Here in So Cal we have observed when under 50F you will start to see a significant slowdown which show through monotone blooms that are smaller, reduced or no growth and the pads on your blooms might disappear.
Reduce watering proportionately with the drop in temps. Your plant is not up taking as much water and if it rains that will start to remove the air from your soil which is worst case scenario for hibiscus.
Also reduce fertilizer since less water is being absorbed it will build up in the soil and when your plant returns to normal metabolism this will lead to severe fertilizer burn which can even kill a plant.
Hibiscus leaves are not genetically developed to be in direct sunlight over 95F so that will start to stress your plant. You will notice yellow leaves appearing, buds dropping and smaller sized blooms.
Your plant’s metabolism will continue to accelerate as the temps rise which means not only is it up taking more water but also more fertilizers. So it is important to also reduce the amount of fertilizer your plant is getting. We recommend for every 5 degrees you reduce the amount of ferts by 1/4. This is a good rule of thumb for both when it is hot or cold.
If temps exceed 105F we recommend just water only
Always prune off (dead head) any spent blooms as your plant will waste valuable energy growing pods with non-viable seeds instead of producing new blooms
Always keep the soil under and around your plant cleaned up and clear of fallen leaves and debris. This is important as your soil can become overly saturated when covered in debris and cannot evaporate water. Also pests like spider mites love dirty messy locations.
Never spray your hibiscus with any products containing soap. Soap or detergent eats away the protective waxy coating of hibiscus leaves leaving them exposed and vulnerable to infections and pests.
Do not treat your hibiscus like your other landscaping plants. They have unique needs and require constant attention and will decline without it.
Growing Exotic Hibiscus requires a time commitment so make sure you are ready to dedicate a portion of your time going forward.
Hibiscus get stressed in direct sunlight over 95F so take action to give them shade in those temperatures.
Do not plant more than one hibiscus in the same pot. They will compete for root space and one will eventually kill the others or all won’t survive at some point.
Use a water meter and slowly probe down below the surface to see how wet the soil really is. During hot weather the top layer can dry out while the bottom of a pot is still completely saturated. Perfect recipe for root rot.
Always disinfect all pots and tools used treating a diseased plant. Throw out all contaminated soil, never reuse or you will infect a new healthy plant.
Proper Growing Locations & Conditions
Hibiscus need proper space and do not do well when competing with other plants including hibiscus for space and sunlight
Hibiscus roots need space too – not only away from other plants but from tree roots that can come from far away, tangling up your hibiscus roots and crowding them out
Never plant and grow hibiscus under pine trees
Avoid from growing hibiscus under trees that heavily shade beneath them and/or drop leaves and other debris on a daily basis
Walls and fences that soak up heat from the day are a good thing in cooler locations but can be much too intense in hot, sunny locations
Most native soils are too clay like here in Southern California so dig holes at least 2-3 feet across and around 1 foot deep
Hibiscus do not do well in Santa Ana winds so if you live in a wind prone area best to grow them where there is a wind break
Be on the lookout for your gardeners interacting with your hibiscus. They do not understand they are special needs plants and will usually prune them and try to fertilize them in ways that are harmful for them
Southern California Hibiscus Growing by Region
The Southern California Coastal Plain is the most ideal area for hibiscus to grow due to the strong marine air influence of the Pacific Ocean which acts as a moderator for temps.
Coastal areas that see less sunlight and cooler temperatures should have hibiscus growing in maximum sunlight year round. Hibiscus thrive on heat to grow and create colorful blooms so shady areas are not going to work well for them near the coast.
Inland Valleys are a challenge during the winter and summer as the temperature extremes can be significant. Also these areas are prone to Santa Ana wind events which are enemy #1 for hibiscus – cold and dry is the exact opposite of what they need. Winter hibiscus need full sun especially in the morning after a cold night. Summer they need dappled shade to protect them from direct sunlight over 95F
Inland Empire and Desert areas are a challenging region to grow hibiscus. They cannot tolerate freezing temperatures plus the strong Santa Ana wind events during winter. The summer extreme heat is also too much for them to tolerate in direct sun. Growers of exotic hibiscus in these areas grow their plants in pots and move them indoors during winter and under shade in summer. Garden variety hibiscus are more hardy and if planted in less vulnerable areas might be able to make it year round but is a risky decision by the grower.