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GARDENING : Hibiscus, the Queen of Tropical Flowers


Wendi Steinman shares her love of hibiscus with her party guests. Each guest departs with a colorful hibiscus flower, which artist and garden enthusiast Steinman uses as table decorations.

She and her husband Neil have surrounded their Laguna Beach house with 75 hibiscus shrubs of 60 varieties in addition to a multitude of other tropical and subtropical plants.

"I fell in love with the hibiscus when I first visited Hawaii," Wendi Steinman said. A resident of New York at the time, Steinman promised herself that if she ever lived in a warm climate, she would grow these colorful shrubs.

There are more than 200 species of hibiscus. One of the most popular is H. rosa-sinensis, also called Chinese Hibiscus or Tropical Hibiscus. These are the large shrubs that are planted by many Southern California residents because they thrive in this warm climate.

Technically, they're subtropical plants that thrive and flower prolifically in warm climates but can also tolerate some cold weather, too.

Originally from China, India and Southern Japan, ornamental hibiscus have graced gardens worldwide for centuries. But today's vast variety of flower forms and colors is due to the work of hybridizers in Hawaii, California and Florida.

Fondly regarded as the queen of the tropical flowers by hibiscus fanciers, the flowers range in size from a diminutive two-inch diameter to a whopping 10-inch diameter. Colors range from pristine white through pink to red, from yellow and apricot, to orange. New varieties include color blends.

"The trend in hibiscus now is for gaudier colors," explained Scotty Graham, president of the California Hibiscus Society.

Formerly a resident of Newport Beach, Graham now lives in Bonsall, where he grows avocado and lime trees on his three-acre site. He's also growing about 200 varieties of hibiscus.

"It's possible to plant a landscape where hibiscus will always be in flower by selecting varieties with different blooming periods," Graham said.

Most varieties produce blossoms that only live for one or two days. A few varieties can produce blossoms lasting up to three days. Since the flowers are so short-lived, they can be used as table decorations or worn as hair ornaments since they don't need to be kept in water during their short life span.

One of the showiest of all flowering shrubs, the plant size can range from four feet to a towering 30 feet. Some can be grown in containers, trained as trees or used as espaliers or screen planting. Some varieties will produce 200 to 300 flowers during a bloom cycle.

October is one of the peak blooming periods for these shrubs and this is also a good time to select and plant them in your garden.

"Hibiscus isn't a fussy plant, but it does require a sunny location with good soil drainage," said Dale Kolaczkowski, manager of Stallings Nursery in Encinitas.

Stallings is a specialty nursery featuring exotic flowering plants on its three-acre site. It offers more than 100 H. rosa-sinensis hybrids in one- or five-gallon containers.

Although they're considered an easy-care plant, they are very susceptible to frost.

"They can be severely damaged or killed by frost," Kolaczkowski said. "It's the length of time of the frost that's more damaging than the frost itself."

For this reason, hibiscus need frost protection by an overhanging roof or evergreen tree. If prolonged frost does happen, flooding the soil around the plant can raise the soil temperature and may safeguard the plant.

Kolaczkowski prefers this method rather than wrapping the plant with burlap or some other protective covering.

"If burlap is placed around the hibiscus plant, it shouldn't touch it or it will drip on the plant and damage it. It's better to flood the soil with water."

Hibiscus require fast-draining soil because they're susceptible to root rot if they're over-watered. They require large amounts of water in the hot summer and fall months, but prefer soil that's slightly dry in winter.

The first sign of root rot is individual stems turning brown and the leaves withering and falling off. Unchecked, this disease will kill the plant.

Hibiscus are also susceptible to aphids. These can be controlled with spray solutions made from insecticidal soaps or washing them off with water.

The plants require regular fertilizing. Kolaczkowski recommends a balanced-formula granular fertilizer or a foliar-feed fertilizer like Miracle-Gro.

Graham uses specific fertilizer formulas according to the time of year. In late fall, he recommends a fertilizer low in nitrogen and higher in phosphorus and potassium to promote strong and sturdy plant growth and prepare the plant for the next bloom cycle. In spring, he changes to a formulation higher in nitrogen.

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