Tropical Hibiscus and Winter

I admit it. Not only am I sucker for plants, but I am really a sucker for clearance plants. Most of the time these are plants that are perfectly fine, but have reached the end of their welcome in store. 

There are several reasons that I love clearance plants, but the main reason is that they give me a chance to try my hand (or thumb) at plants I wouldn't normally purchase and not worry about spending a ton of money on a plant that I might end up killing.

One of the plants I "splurged" on was a tropical hibiscus earlier this summer. It is not zoned for Minnesota and will definitely need to be brought in for the winter. So far I have kept this clearance plant alive, pest free, and flowering. In fact, I've been so impressed with my newbie skills (you know: watering it and leaving it alone on the deck) that I picked up two more (much smaller) tropical hibiscus for $1 each. 

So what happens when the temps dip below what's safe for this tropical plant? This is when you have to decide whether to move it indoors or leave it outside to succumb to the cold and just purchase a new plant next year. 

I'm cheap (hello: clearance plants) so my goal is always to bring in what I can. Last year I was successful with two peony bushes that will eventually be planted in-ground yet this summer. So this year my list of annuls that will become house plants is growing. 

The cool thing about a hibiscus is that it doesn't need to "go to sleep" or go dormant for the winter, which means that you can enjoy flowers all winter long. The reason is that while garden centers market these plants as annuals, they are really tender perennials that can easily overwinter indoors. For those of us living in Minnesota, there are actually hardier versions that can handle zone 4. But today we are talking about those that are meant for zone 10 and above. 

There are 3 ways to overwinter your tropical hibiscus.

  1. Bring it inside and enjoy it as a houseplant. Find a sunny window and (hopefully) enjoy the flowers all winter long.
  2. Allow the plants to go dormant and store for the winter.
  3. Root cuttings in water and replant in the spring.

As will everything when it comes to gardening, do what works for you and understand that what works with one plant may not work for another.

Option 1: Making your hibiscus a houseplant

If your plant is already in a pot, then simply bring it indoors when outdoor temperatures start to drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. These plants are not terribly fussy, although they can be susceptible to pests and diseases like powdery mildew, aphids, scale insects, mealybugs, and whiteflies so it is a good idea to regularly check your plant.

If your plant has had a prolific season, you may want to prune back the branches to accommodate the space you have. You can trim back the branches by as much as half without causing any harm.

When inside, place it a warm spot near a sunny window. Keep in mind, any time you move plants from one environment to another or transplant into a new pot, your plant may experience some shock. Don't be surprised if some of the leaves or buds yellow and drop off. Once the plant acclimates to the new surroundings, it should bounce back in a few weeks.

Option 2: Dormant hibiscus

Allowing your hibiscus to go dormant may be appealing if you don't want to worry about caring for another live plant. 

To achieve dormancy, you can either wait for it to occur naturally (cool temps and drought are main triggers) or you can force it.

To force dormancy, reduce watering in the fall and leave the hibiscus outdoors until temps drop into the 50s. This is when the plant will likely start to drop leaves and flowers. At this point, move the plant indoors to a dark location. As the hibiscus continues to move into dormancy, it will drop the rest of its flowers and leaves. 

Maintain dormancy by keeping your plant in dark, cool room through the winter. Check on it once a month and water sparingly - just enough to prevent the soil from becoming bone dry or void of any moisture. 

To encourage your plant to "wake up," increase waterings and keep an eye on any new growth. This should be done 1-2 months before the last frost date in your area. Once you start seeing new growth, repot and start acclimating the plant to warmer, brighter conditions. Remember, take your time and don't be discouraged if the process takes a few weeks. Moving too fast may kill your plant. Do not move your plant outdoors until overnight temps are consistently back into the 60s or higher.

Option 3: Wintering Cuttings

This option is best if you are limited on space. 

Take cuttings from you hibiscus before temps fall below 60 degrees. The cuttings should be about 4" in length and include several leaves.

Before placing the cuttings in water, be sure to remove the bottom leaves to prevent rotting. Overtime, the cuttings should develop roots that can either be left in water until you are ready to plant or you can place your rooted baby hibiscus in fresh soil.

If you opt to keep the cuttings in water, be sure to refresh the vase or container regularly. Remove any scum that may develop and replace any water that evaporates. Always keep water levels above the roots to ensure that they do not dry out.

A couple reminders and tips

  • Bring your plants in before temps drop below 60 degrees, unless you are letting your plant go dormant naturally. ALWAYS bring plants in before the first frost.
  • Before bringing in your plant for the winter, it is a good idea to clean it first. This will get rid of any bugs that might be hanging out on the plant.
  • Have the location picked before bringing the plant indoors. Remember, plants can be moody and the less you have to move them, the better. This reduces stress on the plants that might lead to it dropping leaves and/or flowers.
  • Give your hibiscus as much light as possible. In a perfect world, it should receive at least 6 hours of light a day. If you aren't able to place it somewhere that allows this, a grow light that is set for about 16 hours (use a timer) is a good idea.  Adequate light will help keep the plant more compact and encourage blooms. Most plants get leggy when they do not receive enough light.
  • Keep the soil evenly moist and never allow it to dry out completely. But don't over water because this can cause root rot.
  • Keep things humid. Run a humidifier nearby, mist the leaves regularly with lukewarm water, or use a humidity tray. Added benefit, your house will feel warmer if there is more moisture in the air and your skin won't feel as dry.
  • Hibiscus can suffer from bugs/pests. It is a good idea to regularly check them for unwanted tenants. This will also help prevent your other houseplants from acting as hosts to destructive pests. 

As usual, this is a quick overview and it is definitely beneficial to do a little extra reading to make sure you are picking the method that will work best for you. Also, don't hesitate to reach out to your local nursery with questions. 

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