Hardy hibiscus is a one-way ticket to the tropics, without ever leaving home. This featured flowering shrub of the year of the National Garden Bureau, is packed with flair and color, and now you can grow your own from seed.

Native Hardy Hibiscus are deciduous shrubs that are perennial in Zones 4-9. They are comprised of the species moscheutos and of cultivars of the species syriacus. H. moscheutos is native to the wetlands of North America, thriving in marshes and floodplains of the mid-west and northeastern America all the way down to the coastal lands and swamps of Florida and Texas according to the bureau.

Commonly known as rose mallow or swamp mallow, H. moscheutos is a statuesque shrub, with multiple stems born of a single crown. Native types reach three to seven-feet in height and two to four-feet in width. H. moscheutos has a rounded open branching habit and pleasing architecture.

The large dark leaves provide a perfect backdrop for massive, bold flowers. The dinnerplate-sized blooms can reach eight to 10 inches in diameter. The handsome flowers are composed of five overlapping petals, and as with all flowers of the Malvaceae family, a fused columnar stamen, white to light yellow in color.

Flower petals range from white, pink, swirled rose bicolor, to deep red, often with a highly contrasting eye. Like their cousins the tropical hibiscus, their flowers are fleeting, only open for one to two days, but the profusion of showy blooms continues throughout its long season of mid-summer to fall. In-ground shrubs can have as many as 20 blooms per day.

Being an herbaceous perennial in many growing regions, the plant dies back to its crown in the fall, remaining dormant through the winter. With a bit of pruning and a few inches of mulch to protect the crown, it will return with a flowery vengeance the following season, ready to put on a show bushier and more prolific than the last, the bureau advises.

New breeding

Hardy hibiscus has been commercially hybridized from the start of the 20th century but has enjoyed the greatest progress from the 50s onward, the bureau notes. One of the most daring objectives can be appreciated in the improved compact habit, which brought the naturally tall and rangy stature down into a much more manageable form, thus allowing for expanded applications and greater consumer enjoyment. (Check plant tags for exact plant height.)

Increased flower size, expanded range of flower and leaf color, and increased cold tolerance have also been high priorities, often achieved by reaching into adjacent species to pull in wanted traits.

Grow from seed:

Sow seed indoors six to 12 weeks before the last frost depending on your zone.

Seeds soaked overnight help jumpstart the process.

Sow the large seed half-inch deep into well-draining soil and keep at 60% humidity in full sun or under lamps.

After four to five weeks, transplant into larger pots, taking care not to disrupt the taproot.

As the last frost approaches in the spring, harden off the transplants during the day to achieve a stronger and more weather-resistant plant.

Better branching and thus more flowers can be achieved by pinching back the tips when the young plant is around six to eight inches in height.

Planting hardy hibiscus

In the Northern areas, hibiscus works best in full sun and will thrive in south facing plantings. In the hot southern regions, you may want to give it a little reprieve with partial shade. Hibiscus excels in high heat and humidity. A balance of light, good air circulation and protection from harsh winds will keep diseases and structural damage at bay.

Hibiscus enjoys well-hydrated, slightly acidic soil with lots of organic matter. It prefers nutrient-rich soil, and adequate potassium is a must for ultimate flowering.

In sandy or poor soil, you will want to amend, working in some organic matter to hold in the nutrients and moisture. A well-balanced slow release fertilizer applied twice a year usually does the trick, but this is of course dependent on your initial soil quality.

How to use

Hibiscus can add a tropical flair to planters, be featured as a showy garden specimen or contribute height and drama to garden beds. It’s a great accent choice for low-lying landscapes with water features since it is native to wetlands. It’s also a fantastic addition to pollinator gardens, as it is an effective attractor of butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds- with the added benefit of being deer resistant.

Thanks not only to the inherent qualities of this North American native but also to breeders and horticulturists throughout the decades, Hardy Hibiscus offers many avenues of use and enjoyment in our modern-day gardens.

Seed sources: Park Seed, True Leaf Market, Pinetree Garden Seed and American Meadows.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement, the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. She is a member of GardenComm and the National Garden Bureau. Her gardens are in Camden.