ASK CARIANNE – Can I plant Hibiscus flowers in my desert garden?

Posted Aug 10, 2021

Liz asks: I was just vacationing in Hawaii, and the hibiscus flowers everywhere were really enchanting. Can I plant them in my desert garden?

Dear Liz,

Hibiscus is a genus in the mallow (Malvaceae) plant family that is generally tropical in distribution. But guess what? The Sonoran Desert is a tropical desert, and there are three native species of hibiscus native in Arizona as well as a few lovely near-natives. During the monsoon season I often have them all blooming at once in my yard! These plants are built for our climate and I have found them to be very low-maintenance.

Arizona Rosemallow (Hibiscus biseptus). A very attractive small shrub with large yellow flowers and dark green foliage that grows naturally between 3,000 – 4,000 ft in elevation.

Rock Hibiscus (Hibiscus denudatus). As its name implies, this one is often found growing among rocks in the mountains around Tucson, below 3,500 ft in elevation. A diminutive shrub with gray foliage and pink flowers that does well without much attention.

Sonoran Rosemallow (Hibiscus coulteri). A scraggly shrub that will grow up through other plants and bloom at different times throughout the year. A lower-elevation (1,000 – 4,000 ft) plant than the other yellow hibiscus shown above.

Heart-leaf Rosemallow (Hibiscus martianus). A near-native from Texas that does well in filtered shade in the ground or as a potted patio plant. It is reportedly difficult to germinate from seed, so if you see it in a nursery, scoop it up! The flowers are a really distinctive candy red-pink color.

San Marcos hibiscus (Gossypium harknessii). Ok, I am cheating here a bit, as it is not a hibiscus species, but belongs to a closely-related genus. Native to Baja California, this is a mounded shrub with semi-succulent bright green foliage and yellow flowers. Despite its tropical look, it is surprisingly drought tolerant. 

Look for these beauties at native plant nurseries and sales this monsoon and fall, and I hope they remind you of your fabulous trip to Hawaii!



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