Tropical Hibiscus Mistake

Tropical Hibiscus Mistake
tropical hibiscus.png

From my window I can see into my neighbor’s garden that they started this year. I’ve been admiring a tropical hibiscus they planted because it has been blooming and the flaming red flower screams out for admiration. From the sidewalk the blooming shrub is hidden by a morning glory vine that has ensconced their fence. From my window I have a clear view of the plant. I keep meaning to catch one of the new gardeners and point out a sad fact about the hibiscus that they planted and are probably admiring as they go in and out of their home. When the first frost hits Chicago in a couple of weeks, that hibiscus is a goner! 

Years ago, I too, fell for a showy hibiscus in a garden center. It was late summer and desperate to extend the gardening season I bought one on impulse and brought it home, and planted it. It was a beautiful standard and the blooms caught the eye of many at the time. When winter came the hibiscus froze and died. The following spring one family member asked why the hibiscus hadn’t returned. I was too ashamed to admit that I had done something so dumb as to plant a tropical hibiscus in the ground in Chicago. So I pretended like I didn’t know what plant they were referring to. Mostly my embarrassment stemmed from the fact that I paid upwards of fifty dollars for the plant. 
Sometimes garden centers in Chicago clearly label them as TROPICAL and other times there’s no label. The only warning for the newbie gardener that their plant will die (if left outside when winter hits) is the fact that they’re sold with the annuals. I wonder how many gardeners buy these plants every year and assume that because they look like a tree or shrub they’ll survive our winters? 
If you’re one of the many gardeners in Chicago who bought a tropical hibiscus and planted them in the ground or in containers on a deck or patio garden, you’ll have to bring the plant indoors. If it is planted in the ground you can attempt to save the plant by digging it up (disturbing the roots as little as possible) and potting it. If the hibiscus is planted in a pot, bring the pot indoors before the first frost. They will require a lot of sunlight and humidity over the winter to be kept healthy. Many will probably lose their leaves from the shock of being moved indoors, but with some care you can overwinter the plant just fine.
Hibiscus moscheutos, hardy hibiscus rose mallow, swamp mallows.png
You can get your fix of tropical looking blooms by planting Hibiscus moscheutos, also commonly referred to as ‘dinner plate hibiscus’ (due to the large blooms), ‘hardy hibiscus,’ ‘rose mallow,’ and ‘swamp mallows.’ These, unlike their tropical cousins, will return the next year in our northern climate and provide the showy blooms that their tropical cousins are known for. Hibiscus moscheutos is a herbaceous perennial; the stems will die down to the ground in the winter and new growth will emerge from below ground in the spring.They bloom in the garden during late summer and look almost identical to the tropical hibiscus. If you look closely you’ll see the leaves of Hibiscus moscheutos are larger and aren’t glossy like the tropical hibiscus pictured above. 
I’m currently leaning towards not telling my neighbor to dig their hibiscus up and bring it indoors. I think there are some lessons every gardener needs to learn on his/her own. This was one of mine.  


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  • My pink hibiscus must be intended for our climate because it does come back every year, thank goodness. I have bought the tropical ones for posts outside in summer, then tired of lugging them indoors I think. The frost got to them before I did. It's good you point out the difference. Maybe your neighbor will read about it here. :)

  • In reply to jtithof:

    Hehe, maybe I should post this article on their facebook wall. :0)

  • I did that early on, too, except I made the mistake of buying one as a gift for my mother in law. And then she kept asking why it didn't come back. I finally had to 'fess up that it was my mistake and not her gardening skills, but I was tempted to let her think it was all her :-)

  • In reply to ColleenV:

    Ha. The person who kept asking me about the hibiscus was my mom, and I sort of may have lead her to believe she imagined it existed. My poor mom. :0)

  • I did have a tropical hibiscus come back for 2 or 3 years but it died eventually. I overwintered one last winter and let it go mostly dormant. It's still alive but didn't really revive outside like I was hoping. This winter I'll keep it watered and green and see what happens. I think I'm better off just replacing it in the spring!

  • In reply to bintie:

    That's awesome. Where did you plant the one that kept coming back? Did you mulch it heavily? I'm usually pro-replacing annuals but I think these tropical hibiscuses are too expensive to do that with. When I have a house with an attached greenhouse I'm going to grow hibiscus plants like they're going out of style.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    It was planted in the raised garden by the west-facing wall of the garage. Probably no mulch (I was too young a gardener at that point to think of such a thing) and while our yard does tend to be a warmish microclimate, it still has winter! I'm trying to overwinter a warm-climate verbena this year; I planted it against the south wall of the house. Fingers crossed.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    Hardy hibiscus is one of my my favorite perennial for the last several years. I have one tropical hibiscus. I wouldn't have bothered, except it was on clearance for 10 bucks in the Walmart garden center. It was INFESTED with white flies. I had to hose that thing down like 10 times plus neem oil to get it clear. It looked like hell all last winter, and this year got off to a healthy start. It is a standard with light red blooms. A very attractive plant, but it lives in a very large pot, and comes inside in the winter. No chance of it making it outside, and I knew that, getting into the relationship. It has flowers exactly the like your picture, except for the color. Definitely worth bringing in.

  • Ah yes, who hasn't had a failed summer romance? It's nothing to be embarrassed about. And, go on, unless your neighbor is a pain in the ass, be their hero and tell them!

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    They're nice enough. When I saw them starting their garden this year I gave them some divisions to get them started. I resisted the urge to be THAT gardener telling them what they were doing "wrong." People need experience so they can learn from their mistakes.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    I'm all for letting them jump out of the nest and fly on their own, in general, but I'd personally make an exception this one time just to save the plant. OK, I'll shut up now and mind my own bidness. :)

  • I knew, and also knew the unlikelihood of it blooming in part sun; and I was still seduced. And I still bring the damn thing in every year.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    I've seen yours on your blog and every time I see it I weep a little for my standard. Gosh, I wish I'd have been able to overwinter it indoors. It was beautiful.

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