Chinese or tropical hibiscus
Evergreen shrub with showy flowers
When I was growing up in the Midwest, three plants would always make me think of Southern California: palm trees, orange trees and hibiscus.
This is ironic, because the hibiscus is a tropical shrub that won't grow to full majesty in our dry climate. In its natural habitat, the hibiscus can zoom up to 30 feet; here, we're lucky to get 10 or 15. But sandy soil, with its excellent drainage, is very agreeable to hibiscus, as are the sun and heat (except in the deserts, where the plants should be sheltered from the noonday blast).
Hibiscus will not survive temperatures below 30 degrees, but it will grow nicely in containers taken indoors for the winter. Feed it monthly from about April to late August, and in spring and summer pinch or cut back the stem tips to increase flower production. Hibiscus should be pruned (but not sheared) to keep its shape.
Some Downright Unsightly
While some varieties are neat and well-mannered, others are rangy, and a few are downright unsightly. But the flowers are spectacular, whether huge, modest, double or single. Some varieties produce flowers 8 inches across--almost a bouquet in themselves. Except for one blue hibiscus, which is not truly a hibiscus but an alyogyne, the flowers range from white to deep red, including orange and yellow; a few are bicolored.
My favorite hibiscus, though, seldom bears flowers. Introduced to Southern California by the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis Cooperii has beautiful white-and-green foliage tinged with pink and rose; there are small red flowers when it does decide to bloom.
Unlike its cousins, it should not be in full sun. Partial shade brings out the highlights of its gorgeous leaves. A native of Hawaii, Cooperii is very small and slow growing, which makes it a good choice for a sheltered perennial border where its leaves can show off the bright colors of other flowers nearby.
Most nurseries stock several varieties of hibiscus; if you want but can't locate Cooperii, check with the Arboretum to see if plants are available there.