I love growing tropical hibiscus. The many challenges that come from the endeavor are certainly subdued once you witness them in flower. The beautiful blooms attract attention from a great distance in the garden and some flowers have such unique colors and patterns that you’d think only an artist could come up with them.
Currently my two favorite hibiscus hybridizers are Charles Black with Hidden Valley Hibiscus and Richard Johnson of Hibiscus of Tahiti. For those that frequent my blog you already know that most of the tropical hibiscus planted in my garden are Charles Black’s plants. However, having admired the many famous hybrids of Richard Johnson over the years, I recently decided it was to time to spread my wings and mix in a little variety. Currently the only Richard Johnson hibiscus I grow is ‘Tahitian Princess,’ but it is also likely his most famous.
The issue when buying these Richard Johnson hibiscus seed is that Richard lives in Tahiti. So unless you buy plants from other growers that have his Tahitian hibiscus here in the United States, your only other option is to roll the dice and buy seed from Richard direct. So that’s just what I did…
You can see from the picture above that Richard puts his Tahitian hibiscus seed up for bidding on eBay. Some of his hybrid seed packs are in big demand and bidding can turn into a real battle. I left the price I paid for each seed pack in the picture just to show you how nuts I am. I also need to point out that the price you see is for only five seeds!
I mentioned that you “roll the dice” when you buy hibiscus seed. The reason for that is because tropical hibiscus are hybrids of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis and each seed is genetically different from every other hybrid seed. That means you will never get flowers that look exactly the same as the mother plant you just got the seed off. Unfortunately there is no way to know in advance what the flowers of the plant you grow from seed will turn out looking like. It is possible that you can take two gorgeous flowering parents and create an ugly offspring. It is also possible that parents with great structure can give you an offspring that prefers to grow leggy or floppy. The reality is that just a very small fraction of all the tropical hibiscus offspring ever turn into something worth keeping. For every hybrid that grows into a plant worthy of your garden, ten, twenty or thirty end up in the compost pile. So you do indeed “roll the dice” when you grow Hibiscus rosa-sinensis hybrids from seed.
While you never know how the offspring will turn out, genetics still come into play, so in most cases the offspring will have some resemblance to the parents. This is why you see from the picture above that some seed packs went for a lot more money than others. Bidders were making educated guesses that some of those crosses will come out quite spectacular some day.
Once the dust settled on all the bidding and payment was made, Richard sent me my Tahitian hibiscus seed. After a few weeks my parcel arrived from Tahiti. In it were just these fourteen seed pouches.
Because the names of the parents can be quite long, making labels seemed too difficult a task. So instead I decided to create a key and assign each seed pouch a number starting with “101” and work my way to “114.” I then created a key in Apple Notes. I like using Apple Notes because it is cloud-based so I can find what I need on my Mac or iPhone.
Once the key was made it was time to sow the seed. When I have seed that has what I consider a hard impermeable shell I like to scarify, I nick my seed to help it germinate. Nicking the seed coat will allow water to enter and force the seed to germinate.
Because different seeds need a varying amount of nicking, you will find many techniques used. These range from lightly rubbing with sandpaper or a nail file to actually cutting off the seed coat with a knife. The goal is to remove the least amount of seed coat that will allow water to enter and cause the seed to swell and germinate. Because I had a lot of seed to nick and I was not in a patient mood, I went with an old method I have used in the past with similar seed. I used toenail clippers. Warning: Don’t use toenail clippers unless you have had a lot of practice nicking seed with one. Many failures have come from over-nicking and damaging the seed. Using a toenail clipper greatly increases this risk. With a steady hand I went through all 65 of my Tahitian hibiscus seed this way.
Hibiscus seed looks somewhat like a small kidney bean. The location to nick the seed is on the center of the back of the seed. Pick the spot right on the round hump of the seed, not where the pointed ends of the seed are. If done right you should have exposed just a small amount of the endosperm, as seen below.
After all the seed was nicked, I labeled individual bands that would house one sowed seed each. I find that these bands are great for hibiscus because they are large enough to provide room for the plants to root so that when ready to pot up they move easier without risking transplant loss.
The grow medium I used was my go-to mix for germination – FoxFarm Light Warrior. It contains sphagnum peat moss, perlite, granite dust, oyster shell (for pH adjustment), plus mycorrhizae, earthworm castings and humic acid. Perfect for seed germination and transplanting.
I can put 32 bands into each tray. Once the two trays were filled, they were moved into the greenhouse. I put the tops on to ensure the humidity remained high. These inexpensive germination hot houses really come in handy.
If you have the space, patience and the time, growing your own hybrids can prove very rewarding. For now it is just a waiting game. Some of the seed should start to germinate within a few days, so I won’t have to wait long for some action. Patience comes in waiting for the first flower to appear. These Tahitian hibiscus must be grown anywhere from one to three years before they first bloom. Of the fourteen different Richard Johnson hybrids I bought, I would be happy if just two grew to become a hibiscus worthy for my garden. Time will tell.