Q: I have four rose of Sharon bushes. The two that get southern sun have leaves on all branches. The other two that are in partial shade have begun leafing out on some but not all branches. Do you think they will still leaf out? The branches are flexible–not dried out.
A: Those of us in the garden Q&A world know that there are certain questions we will get every year, guaranteed. Besides how to control Creeping Charlie in the lawn, and how to get a poinsettia to rebloom, the issue of rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) not leafing out is one that returns like clockwork! But don’t feel badly about asking–we have a Rose of Sharon in our front yard (in partial shade) and every year around this time I ask my spouse if he thinks it should have leafed out yet. It’s really more a question of patience than anything else.
As you have noted in your own garden, plants that are in full sun will leaf out earlier than those in partially sunny areas. But no matter where it is planted, one of rose of Sharon’s other disadvantages is that it is susceptible to winter injury and twig die-back. For example, on my own plant two branches died over the winter and were pruned off. That is not to say that your “unleafy” branches are dead and won’t come back; as you noted, they are still flexible. So it is indeed possible that they are even later than the rest of their siblings.
One theory that I cannot verify without seeing the plants is that the bare branches may be the ones getting the least amount of sun, so are still playing catch-up.
In any event, we need to have a bit more patience (as if we had a choice!), and if those last branches absolutely refuse to leaf out, consider pruning them off, if for no other reason than cosmetic value. Rose of Sharon is such a pretty plant, and is worth the worry!
For more information you can visit our Web site: web.extension.uiuc.edu/cook/urbanhort.html
University of Illinois Extension Chicago Master Gardeners
The Rose-of-Sharon is an deciduous, upright, occasionally spreading shrub or small tree with multiple trunks. The branches grow upright and wlll not droop except when in flower. The leaves emerge late in the spring.Leaves are medium to dark green in summer with no or poor yellow fall color. The bark is light brown and thin, and the wood itself is weak.The trumpet shaped flowers are 2-4″ across in colors of white, pink, red, violet or purple. They stay open for one day and close at night. Single-flowered varieties are hardier than the double-flowered types. The roots are located just below the soil surface. This shrub is tolerant of many soil textures, moisture conditions, and acid to alkaline pH if it is in full or nearly full sun. However, it requires ample moisture and some protection from midday to afteroon sun to flower at it’s best. The shrub will keep its upright form as it grows, so little pruning is required. While shaping or pruning can be done at any time, pruning in late winter or early spring will minimize the loss of the emerging flower buds on the new growth. Pruning heavily in early spring or pruning back to 2-3 buds will produce fewer but larger flowers. It can be pruned to to create a single trunk small specimen tree. Transplanting should be done in the spring as the shrub takes some time to get established. Plant about 2′-3′ apart for a single row hedge.
Tips on pruning a rose of Sharon
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When I moved into my current home and started to get to know my garden, I discovered I had five rose of Sharon plants on the property. We moved in the fall and the trees had been meticulously pruned, so we didn’t need to worry about pruning them that first year. Fast forward to our second spring and I couldn’t figure out what all these tiny little weeds sprouting up in my lawn were. I soon discovered they were miniature rose of Sharon plants—hundreds of them trying to make their way in the world. So this is both a lesson in pruning a rose of Sharon and a cautionary tale.
I did a little reading and discovered that all those seed pods that appear at the end of the summer open up and drop their seeds to the grass or garden below. If you want to start a rose of Sharon nursery, you’re in business. If you don’t, you’re going to be spending some time pulling up all those earnest little seedlings. (I mentioned this in a piece the Savvy Gardening team wrote about our garden blunders.)
Hundreds of little seedlings at the base of a rose of Sharon. It took forever to pull them all out!
Here’s a video showing what I do to keep my Rose of Sharons from self-sowing all over the garden:
Rose of Sharons look great in perennial gardens—mine have all been pruned to be trees—but they can also be trained into a hedge. My parents inherited a rose of Sharon hedge in front of a fence at their current home and it looks really pretty when it’s in bloom. Mine are scattered throughout my property—two as foundation plantings (beside a lilac and alongside a cedar for a bit of privacy); one is surrounded by lily of the valley in a backyard garden; one is in front of a fence leading into the backyard, and one is in my perennial garden in the front yard.
The pollinators love rose of Sharons! I’ve seen bees coming out of a bloom covered in pollen and hummingbirds flitting about the blooms.
This bee was so covered in pollen from a rose of Sharon bloom, he could could barely fly!
Pruning a rose of Sharon
Once I was aware of the rampant seedling population that develops from ignoring the seed pods, I started pruning my rose of Sharons in the fall after the seed pods developed, but before they opened (or rather my husband did as he enjoys anything that involves getting out the loppers and pruners and electric trimmer). However, upon checking my trusty Pruning Answer Book (a similary guide also came out recently called How to Prune Trees & Shrubs), I discovered that rose of Sharons should be pruned in the springtime.
Rose of Sharons are best pruned when dormant because the blooms will grow on new wood. It’s also one of the last trees to get its leaves in the spring, so every year I think I’ve killed mine, but they always come back (despite following an incorrect pruning schedule). However, this past spring, part of one of the trees didn’t come back, so when I consulted my manual, I discovered that we shouldn’t be pruning in fall and may have inadvertently killed the tree.
So, my new schedule is shear the tree in fall and prune in spring. My book says to shear after the tree has bloomed, but before the seeds set. I usually don’t get to them in time to do that, so I will just be snipping off those seed pods in the fall (mid to late September here in southern Ontario) and then doing the rest of the pruning come spring.
This is what the rose of Sharon seed pods look like. They eventually dry out and open, dropping their seeds to the ground below where you will undoubtedly get a small forest of rose of Sharons.
Spring pruning will involve pruning out any branches that form at the base of the tree, as well as thinning out dead or damaged wood, or any unruly branches that affect the tree’s shape.
Rose of Sharon (Althea Bush)
Add some summer and fall color to your shrub borders and mixed gardens with a traditional favorite the Rose of Sharon shrub.
You, the butterflies and the hummingbirds will enjoy the hibiscus type flowers from mid-summer into fall. The flowers can be single or double and white to red, purple, violet or blue.
This vase shaped upright shrub is multi-stemmed and grows 8 to 12 feet tall and nearly as wide. This makes it a great shrub for hedging or screening. Or create a focal point by pruning it into a small-scale tree.
Be patient in the spring as this shrub is late to leaf out.
Grow the Rose of Sharon in full sun to part shade. It prefers moist well-drained soil but is drought tolerant once established. It’s hardy in zones 5 to 9, tends to be deer resistant and tolerates the black walnut’s toxic juglone.
A bit more information: Rose of Sharon blooms on the current season’s growth. So pruning, if needed, during the dormant season will not interfere with flowering. They do tolerate heavy pruning. Cut plants back to 2 to 3 buds per branch if you want to encourage larger blooms.