Hibiscus Plant Care

Common Mistakes

Watch out for these Mistakes ~ They can be Fatal for your Hibiscus!

We frequently get requests to provide care information for brand new novices in the hibiscus world, and we look at each other and scratch our heads. We already have so much information on our care pages! Do we really need to add more to them? We've racked our brains trying to figure out what the newbies mean. But when this request was repeated by Cindy's own sister just this last week, we questioned her about what she meant. She started describing all the things she did to try to take care of her hibiscus plant, and we started to see the light. A quick run through the daily email illuminated us even more. Duh!!!!!! People are struggling everywhere with some very basic things that seem completely obvious to us deep into decades of growing, but they don't seem obvious at all to newbies in the hibiscus world. And it's our fault! We need to help more! So for Cindy's sweet and patient sister, and for everyone else who is frustrated with our lack of help, here are some of the most common mistakes we all make as newbies.

Transplanting into Pots

This baby plant drowned in this very large
pot because the soil stayed too soggy.
Photo Credit: Trixie Johnson
You order your hibiscus. You've planned and planned where you want to put them on your patio. While you're waiting for the plants to arrive, you rush to your nearby garden center to pick out the perfect pot for your new beautiful babies. You find beautiful matching pots that fit your decor and you make sure they are big enough to accommodate your hibiscus when they are full grown. The minute the UPS truck drops off your hibiscus, you transplant them into their brand new, lovely pots so they will quickly acclimate. Isn't all of this right? Sadly, it isn't.

Pot is too Big.
If you buy a pot that will be big enough for the full-grown hibiscus plant, it's too big for the baby. It's like letting a human baby swim in a large, deep swimming pool instead of sitting safely in a tiny baby wading pool - literally! Hibiscus literally drown in pots that are too big. Their tiny little roots are not nearly big enough to spread through all the soil in a big pot. So after you water the pot, the water just sits there, soggy, with no roots to suck up the water in all the giant space around the little plant. The baby roots sit in this soil that stays soggy, and they slowly drown. In the end, you have a brown stick, a large dead twig, the classic sign of a baby that drowned in too large a pot. Buy a pot that is only one size larger than the original pot. If you buy plants in 4" pots, then you should pot up to a 6" pot (1 gallon) - no bigger! This means the plant has no more than 1 inch of new soil all around all sides. That is an amount that its roots can quickly grow into, and it's not enough for the plant to drown in.

Never Transplant a Stressed Plant.
No matter how healthy, crisp and green your new hibiscus looks, just the act of traveling across the country in a shipping truck, then emerging in a totally strange, new place - all of this means one thing: STRESS! The plant may not show the stress, but you have to realize that it has indeed experienced stress. So don't transplant yet! Many other things also stress hibiscus, such as high heat, cold weather, drought, heavy rain and saturated soil, and pest attacks. Hibiscus should NEVER be transplanted under any of these circumstances. After any kind of stressful situation, give hibiscus the safety of their nice, comfortable, familiar pots until the stressful situation is completely gone and the plants have had a few weeks to recover before you consider transplanting. Remember, transplanting is stressful for a plant, so you never wanted to add a new stressor to an already-stressed plant.

Transplanting into the Ground

This green, healthy baby plant was planted
in the ground 2 days after shipping. The
multiple stresses of shipping, immediate
transplanting, full sun, and being in the
ground as a baby did this to it.
If you live in a warm, tropical climate, you plan where you will put your hibiscus into the ground to star in your garden. You dig the holes and prep the ground, eagerly waiting the arrival of the plants. You know you have to wait a bit to transplant them into the ground, so you wait a couple of days, then put them out in your garden in their special spot, water them well, make sure a sprinkler reaches them, and let them grow. Right? Sadly, these are mistakes that even we have made.

Greenhouse Plants will Sunburn Badly if Put Directly into Sun.
Greenhouses are intensely hot places in the summer, so hibiscus have to be protected from the kind of 120°F (49°C) temps that build up in them on summer days. This means, almost all greenhouses grow plants under shade to protect them from getting cooked in the high heat. So although hibiscus end up loving to be in the sun in typical summer temps in the more moderate or cooler parts of the world, they do have to gradually get used to the sun or they will burn. Sunburn is both ugly and stressful for the plant. The sun burns big white spots all over the leaves, making it hard for them to photosythesize and produce food for the plant. In order to prevent sunburn, hibiscus need to start in bright shade, then be inched slowly out into the sun, a little further each day, over the course of a couple of weeks.

Baby Plants can Struggle or Die in the Ground.
Although some very experienced hibiscus gardeners can be successful with putting baby plants straight into the ground, we strongly caution novice growers that a high percentage of baby plants can die if put straight into the ground. Hazards that barely affect a tough, older plant with a large root system can kill a tender baby plant with a tiny root system. Sudden frosts, extreme heat, pouring rain, insect pests, gophers, and even cute little animals like deer and bunnies can destroy a young plant in minutes. It is much safer to pot baby plants up to a pot that is one size larger and grow them outside in their pots for at least their first few months, and in many cases, for as long as their first year. Then if anything goes wrong, you can scoop up the pots and move them to a safe location very quickly.

Water Systems need to be Monitored & Adjusted
Sprinklers are notoriously variable in the amount of water they provide to any one spot in a yard or garden. Even drip systems, with their targeted streams of water, can vary from one emitter to another and deliver variable amounts of water to each of your hibiscus. Plus, the hibiscus themselves need variable amounts of water. A younger plant will need less water, and an older plant will need more. Hibiscus in full sun will need more water, hibiscus in shade will need less. So always monitor and adjust your sprinker or emitter daily at first, then weekly for at least a month after transplanting into the ground, to make sure the hibiscus is getting the right amount of water. The soil should always be moist, but never squishy or soggy.

Removing Soil & Giving Fresh Soil to Roots

When something goes wrong with your hibiscus plant, and you're very worried about it, you decide that it needs fresh soil to help it recover. So you very carefully remove all the old soil from the roots of your plant, gently wash the roots, then repot the clean, naked roots into fresh, clean potting soil. Surely this supply of fresh potting soil for the roots will be a helpful tonic for your plant, right? This is one of the most tragic hibiscus mistakes you can make! First, you're breaking the cardinal rule of never transplanting a stressed plant. But what is even more lethal . . .

Removing Soil from Roots is a Sure Way to Kill Hibiscus.
Some plants have very hard, tough roots and survive bare-rooting, although even for the toughest of plants, it is still at least somewhat stressful. But hibiscus have soft, tender roots. No matter how gently you try to remove the soil, the tiny, root hairs at the ends of the roots will be scraped off by the soil - and these are the living, functioning parts of the roots! Even soaking and swishing the roots in water very slowly and gently to remove the soil damages these tiny root hairs. Any disturbance breaks them off or makes little cuts and wounds in them. Once these root hairs are damaged in any way, the entire root system will slowly start to die. It may not happen fast. We've seen it take as long as 6 months or more to fully kill the plant, so people usually don't realize that removing and replacing the soil was what actually did kill the plant. Each tiny spot where a root hair was scraped off, broken, or damaged is a microscopic sore on the roots of the plant in the same way that small cuts on a human could kill him with infection in the days before antibiotics. Imagine if there were small cuts all over every part of the skin of a human! This is what we do to hibiscus when we remove the soil! It is an extreme assault on the plant. Each of these many tiny wounds leaves the plant open to germs that enter the roots, and these germs very slowly grow inside the roots, spreading slowly through the entire root system, until they eventually kill the plant. We cannot say this strongly enough: NEVER remove soil from the roots of hibiscus! Disturb the roots as little as possible when you transplant. Transplant only when necessary and handle the root ball as gently and quickly as possible.

Pest Treatments

This poor hibiscus has multiple pests on it
despite repeated, multiple treatments by its
distraught owner. Multiple treatments cause
damage that invites MORE pests to the plant!
You see some bugs on your hibiscus and you immediately start treating with as many things as you can think of to kill the bugs. You look for everything you have in your garage, and go to work: soap, neem oil, limonene, any pesticides you have around. You wait a day or two, and the bugs are still there. So you repeat all these treatments. In a few days, the bugs are still there but you start to see yellow leaves that fall off the plant, or your hibiscus starts to look a little stressed and wilty. After a couple of weeks, you might even see new bugs that weren't there before! What could have gone wrong?

Modern Pesticides Target Very Specific Pests Only.
Pesticides are becoming increasingly selective and targeted to very specific bugs. You can spray three different pesticides on your plant, but if the bug you have is not a targeted bug for any of those pesticides, the bug will continue to thrive. So stop, take a breath, and don't panic. You have time to get this right. Bugs don't kill hibiscus quickly. They look ugly, but their damage to the plant happens very slowly and gradually. Take your time to accurately identify the pest, then identify the exact pesticide you need to get rid of it. We have a lot of information on our website to help you do this. Use it to get an accurate diagnosis or you will waste a lot of time and money, as well as stressing your plant, and the bugs will just laugh at you and continue crunching away on your hibiscus.

Multiple Pest Treatments Damage Hibiscus Plants.
Hibiscus leaves and petals, like those of most tropical plants, are soft and full of sap. Leaves and stems are covered in a thin waxy layer, called the cuticle that is a protective covering for all the green parts of the plant. The cuticle keeps moisture and sap enclosed in the leaf, and is an extra layer that pests have to drill or chew through to get into the tasty part of the leaf. Flower petals have their own kind of waxy protective covering that is even more fragile. If you panic and use multiple pest treatments, you will damage all these waxy coverings! Then if you repeat these treatments a time or two, you can completely strip the wax off the plant and fully expose it to its environment. This opens the plant completely to pests. It is like uncovering all the food at a huge banquet and inviting the pests to come have a feast! If you use the wrong treatments on your hibiscus, you will often get new pests and more pests, plus your plants will ooze out moisture and sap with the covering, stressing them even further, and inviting more pests to drink their tasty sap. To prevent this, take your time to accurately identify the pest, then identify the exact pest control product you need to get rid of it. Use only that one pest control product, following the exact directions for how often and how many times to use it. When it comes to pest control products, more is not better!


Overwatering or drought & flood watering
causes sudden wilt disease that kills plants.
You water your potted hibiscus every few days when the soil on the top feels dry to the touch, then you water it deeply and make sure you have a saucer or outer pot without holes in it to catch the water and continue to water your plant from underneath. Then you wait until the soil at the top feels dry to the touch to water again, and repeat this cycle. Or you water your potted hibiscus a little bit every day. The plastic pots are inside deep ceramic saucers or pots without holes in the bottom, so they catch and retain their water. In either scenario, suddenly one day you start to see wilted leaves. It might be a single branch that is wilted, so you cut that damaged branch off. Then a week or two later, there's a second damaged branch. Slowly, one branch at a time, your hibiscus goes downhill and dies. In the worst-case scenario, your whole plant might be crisp and healthy-looking one day, then the entire plant suddenly wilts the next day, and is dead in a week. How did this happen?

Standing Water is Very Dangerous for Hibiscus.
Standing water in saucers or outer pots is very dangerous for hibiscus. The water sits there and stagnates, which means microbes are starting to grow in it. The soil stays very soggy, and the sogginess starts to stress the roots. The microbes in the water are able to invade the stressed roots, and they slowly start to grow inside them. You won't see this or notice it. It is all happening down in the soil, inside the roots, where nothing is visible. When the microbes inside the roots grow to the point where they completely block up all or part of the roots, water is blocked from moving up into the plant, and despite the soggy soil, the above-ground part of the plant can't get any water. All or parts of the plant wilt, and you think the plant is thirsty, so you give it more water. This is catastrophic. The microbes completely overcome the whole root system, and the plant quickly dies. It is easy to prevent this though. Never allow your hibiscus to be in any standing water for more than an hour or two. Check your saucers or outer pots a few minutes after watering to make sure there is no standing water. If there is any, pour it out.

Drought & Flood Watering Increasingly Stresses Hibiscus.
Hibiscus do best with a small, even amount of water every day. Drying out, even briefly, stresses the plant. Frequent cycles of drying out can actually damage the roots. Then when you flood the plant with water, the soil is suddenly very soggy, and the drought-damaged roots now experience a bit of drowning damage too. When you repeat this cycle over and over, the root damage increases to the point where microbes in the environment can easily enter the roots and slowly spread through them, eventually killing the plant. Water a little bit every day or two so the soil always stays moist. For potted hibiscus, make sure any excess water trickles out the bottom of the pot and does not stand in saucers. For hibiscus in the ground, make sure the soil is moist, but not squishy or soggy. If a pool of water builds up in a well at the base of the plant, make sure it drains away in less than an hour.