By Justin Butts
The Coastal Bend is a lovely desert landscape, with heady summer winds rolling off a wine-dark sea and occasional Arctic blasts of icy wind from the wintry north. Tropical plants, like the hibiscus, cringe in these conditions.
The hibiscus is a perennial bush with glossy green leaves and striking, richly colored blooms. They tend to struggle in our area, but these tips will help your hibiscuses reach their full potential of towering height and dazzling daily flowers.
To understand the hibiscus, it helps to know the conditions under which hibiscuses grow in the wild. I once stayed in a tent for three weeks in a tropical jungle in Central America. This experience living close to the earth helped me feel the conditions tropical plants require to thrive.
The days were oppressively hot, humid, and still under a hazy blue sky. Each afternoon, a torrent of rainfall drenched the withering landscape. The rainwater drained immediately into the rich, black soil and the sun returned to bake the steamy jungle until the monkeys called through another dark night.
To grow magnificent hibiscuses in The Bend, match these tropical conditions for your plants as closely as possible. The keys to maximizing hibiscus growth and flowering are rich, well-composted soil, perfect drainage, and regular watering and fertilizing.
Any freeze, or even a frost, can kill hibiscuses, but they can regrow from the trunk or branches if tended well the following spring. Protecting the plants during winter is essential to achieving a towering growth over time. Hibiscuses also make gorgeous potted plants.
Growing Up: Space hibiscus at 4’ apart and 2’ from walls or buildings; full sun. Plants grow to 8’-plus with proper care. Plant in heavily composted, well-fertilized, well-drained soil, on the southeast side of a building or fence to shield from winter winds. Water deeply three times per week or more as needed. Fertilize monthly with four cups pastured poultry manure and one cup homemade wood ash per plant to keep perpetual blooms.
Profiling: Not all hibiscus varieties are edible. Chinese hibiscus (H.Rosa-sinesis) and Texas Star hibiscus (H.Coccineus) are for landscaping only. For edible hibiscuses, shop a trusted local nursery for “edible hibiscus” with the Latin name Hibiscus sabdariffa. All parts are edible – the leaves, flowers, and calyxes. Use the dark green leaves for a bitter, medicinal tea; the flowers for a delicious, healthy tea; and the calyxes for tea, sauces, jam, and fruit-like spreads.
Local Recs: "I’m always thinking about how the foods I consume effect my gut or my skin. Hibiscus is high in alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). Topically, it helps to exfoliate and control oily skin and clogged pores—all of which encourage fresher, smoother looking skin. Hibiscus tea is packed with antioxidants that promote healthful skin and fight all kinds of sicknesses." - Jessica Gignac, @eleanorscctx
Fun Facts: Okra is closely related to hibiscus! Okra grows in similar conditions and sports vibrant yellow hibiscus-like flowers. Okra pods are edible, just like hibiscus calyxes. Okra leaves can be sautéed (when the plant is young) for a tangy, brassy flavor. In olden days in the Deep South, during lean times, okra seeds were ground into coffee. But beware of okra leaves on mature plants; they can be itchy to the skin!