The Recalcitrant Hibiscus


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Healthy hibiscus plants yield  large, luxurious blooms, in vivid shades from red to pink, yellow , orange, purple and white. The flowers of some species are also fragrant.  Hibiscus belongs to the mallow family of plants,  Malvaceae , which has several hundred species that are native to warm-temperate, subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world   Many species are popular  because of their showy flowers and their attractiveness to bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.


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My very first plant here in Florida was a Chinese hibiscus,. H. rosa-sinensis, which has many beautiful hybrid varieties and is the most common ornamental hibiscus in subtropical and tropical regions. It was the start of my hibiscus collection, the creamy yellow blossoms of the hybrid, Hibiscus brackenridgei being my favorite.


The original hibiscus was a gift.  Little did I know at that time that the  plant was a pest- and pestilence- attracting, aged specimen that would spread disease throughout the many  hibiscus I would later acquire. I should have realized that something was not right when our friend dropped off the plant , shot out the front door, sprinted to his car,  and then pealed out of our driveway. I soon became so preoccupied with keeping the gifted hibiscus from kicking the bucket  when, in hindsight, I should have tossed it in the trash bin and  been done with it.

The sorry-looking plant has required a bit of diligence on my part just to control  pest and disease issues. I quarantined  it most of the summer because of  an unidentified  affliction which rendered it  nearly leafless and, naturally, no growth or budding took place.  And  still it lived. It has had spider mites, white flies, aphids, snowy scale, fungus and a pH problem, not to mention stress because of all its issues. Yet, it lives. This is one ridiculously stubborn plant.

I have treated every one of my hibiscus for one or more of the aforementioned  afflictions, yet there’s more. Grasshoppers, caterpillars– snails and slugs have all chomped, chewed, nibbled, and sucked  each of  my hibiscus.  Daily, I inspect the plants down to their skivvies, picking off the culprits and grinding them into the ground with my flip-flop adorned foot.  The appearance of the plants’ leaves, which were  always affected during the night,  lent me to believe  we were being visited by very tall, nocturnal or cleverly disguised rabbits with a taste for hibiscus leaves.



ImageAt one point, near the end of summer, I considered just backing off and letting “survival of the fittest”  take the lead. My yard, which once looked like a plant nursery, looked more like a nursing home for dying hibiscus.  Every morning  I  callously  greeted  that infamous first hibiscus, as “Surely”  as in “surely you should be dead by now”.   I was at the end of my rope:

When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.”  – Thomas Jefferson

I had given it my best. I  even read Sun Tzu’s  “The Art of War”  for tips on fighting my battle. I can honestly say that most of the time the General states the obvious and has little to offer someone trying to defend her hibiscus from the harsh selective pressures of nature.

“He who is prudent and  lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious”.  –  Sun Tzu

I decided to try the General’s way just for the hell of it. I went out  three nights in a row to reconnoiter.  On the third night, I found the enemy. I was stunned.  The Eastern Gray Squirrel is mostly vegetarian but typically cannot digest cellulose.  They didn’t exactly feed on the leaves like locusts, but they must have needed a little salad with their fruit, nuts and seeds. I hadn’t thought about squirrels being the perpetrators  because they sleep through the night.  However, that particular incursion of mine took place just before  sunrise. Who knew they are early risers and  nibble on hibiscus leaves for breakfast?

“Knowing the enemy enables you to take the offensive, knowing yourself enables you to stand on the defensive” –  Sun Tzu


ImageAt present, the hibiscus are hanging on, some by only a few leaves.  And the original, troublesome hibiscus?  Well, it ‘s crippled, but it ‘s not dead yet.  It has so few leaves I’m not sure how it can carry out photosynthesis. Curiously, it has more buds and blooms than ever before.  This behavior has given me pause.  I’m reminded of the rather dated, British movie “Day of the Triffids”.  Surely the hibiscus is from outer space.

ImageOrnamental hibiscus plants produce beautiful ,exotic, colorful, and (depending on the variety),  fragrant flowers.  If you live in a suitable climate and you’re  thinking about growing hibiscus, I recommend  you follow General Sun Tzu’s advice:

“Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.”
-The Art of War



Sun Tzu is believed to have lived from 544 B.C. to 496 B.C.  and was a Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher during the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.)  His historicity is uncertain, but he is attributed to be the author of  “The Art of War”, an influential book on military strategy that has been popular throughout East Asia since its writing about 2500 years ago.  The book has gained popularity in Western society, benefiting not only modern warfare but  many of  society’s competitive activities as well.


2 thoughts on “The Recalcitrant Hibiscus

  1. Pingback: Trees and Flowers of Australia | Cultural Adventures

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