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4 Heavenly Hibiscus Plants That Add a Touch of the Tropics to Your Desert Garden

Add a touch of the tropics to your garden with these desert-adapted hibiscus and hibiscus lookalikes—no hothouse required. These ornamental shrubs are prolific bloomers ideally suited to the low desert.

By Lori A. Johnson | Photography by Lori A. Johnson

San Marcos Hibiscus  

(Gossypium harknessii) 

• Perennial, shrub n Yellow blooms; spring through fall • 3′-4’H by 5′-6’W • Native rocky soil • Zones 9B-11 • Full sun • Low water; low maintenance • Attracts butterflies, moths

A native of Baja, California, and Mexico and ideally suited for the low desert, this adaptable evergreen shrub features heart-shaped glossy green leaves and yellow flowers with five distinctive red dots in the center. It thrives in full sun and performs best in native, rocky soils.
WHY WE LIKE IT: The rounded mounds of the virtually litter-free San Marcos hibiscus with thornless stems makes it an ideal ornamental shrub when planted in beds near walkways. A member of the mallow family, it’s technically a wild cotton and is related to domesticated cottons.

Blue Hibiscus  

(Alyogyne huegelii) 

• Perennial, shrub • Lavender flowers; spring through summer • 3′-8’H by 3′-8’W • Well-drained soil • Zones 10-11 • Full to partial sun • Low water; medium maintenance • Attracts  bees, butterflies

Although drought-tolerant, this ornamental shrub may need supplemental watering and afternoon shade in the heat of summer. It requires some pruning to keep its shape and to promote flowering and performs best when protected from drying winds.
WHY WE LIKE IT: A native of Western Australia previously known as Hibiscus huegelii, Alyogyne species are no longer classified as hibiscus, and the flowers are actually lavender, not blue. The plant can produce hundreds of blooms each season; each 3- to 4-inch purple flower with hints of blue lasts one to two days.


(Hibiscus sabdariffa) 

• Perennial, shrub • White-to-pink flowers; late summer through fall • 3′-6’H by 6′-12’W • Well-drained soil • Zones 8-11 • Full sun • Medium water; low maintenance • Attracts butterflies, hummingbirds

Also known as Jamaica sorrel, parts of this West Africa native have medicinal uses or are made into fiber and food products. The deep red fruitlike calyces can be harvested about three weeks after blooming and are used to make a tea high in vitamin C with a flavor similar to cranberry.
WHY WE LIKE IT: In addition to the attractive red calyx, the roselle also features 2- to 3-inch, creamy yellow-white blooms that darken throughout their one-day lifespan to a dusty rose color. Roselle is easy to grow in either the ground or in containers.

Heartleaf Hibiscus  

(Hibiscus martianus) 

• Perennial • Red flowers; spring through fall • 1′-3’H by 2′-3’W • Well-drained soil • Zones 8A-10A • Full to partial sun • Medium water; low maintenance • Attracts butterflies, hummingbirds

Native to Texas, this ornamental plant is also known as heartleaf rosemallow or Tulipan del Monte and features silvery, heart-shaped leaves that serve as a larval food host for hairstreak butterflies.
WHY WE LIKE IT: This highly drought-tolerant, prolific bloomer produces 2- to 3-inch red flowers throughout the hottest part of summer, when not much else is blooming, and the plant is small enough to perform well in containers. The flowers also serve as a nectar source for butterflies and hummingbirds.


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