Landscape Edible: Growing Hibiscus for Tea

Hibiscus sabdariffa in August in container

Hibiscus sabdariffa (or roselle) in August

Fall is beginning to show its face: the nights are cool, the days are short, and stores are stocked with Halloween candy. Two of my tomato plants, Abraham Lincoln and Rutgers, are downright ugly. The leaves are brown and yellow and the large, green tomatoes sit there, defiantly, not bothering to ripen for me. I wait for them to change color, I even offer to take one that has a hint of red, but no, they never seem to change.  I am torn between pulling the plants out in anger and disgust (but I raised them from seed!) or keeping them there in hopes I will get just a few more tomatoes before frost takes over. Stupice, however, is much nicer. The plant is green, the small tomatoes keep appearing, and the older ones turn red every day.

Fall also marks the end of the vigorous lemon cucumber plant; we laid it to rest about two weeks ago. The eggplants never really took off so that was not as heart wrenching. The peppers are finally coming into their full glory with yellow and red pendulous fruit. The pole beans just keep producing beans. Nothing seems to deter them, not even when a critter munched on some leaves.

My real stressor now is a plant new to my garden: Hibiscus sabdariffa, commonly known as roselle or Florida cranberry. For a month now, I have been anxiously watching my plants, waiting for a hint of a flower bud. Because they are tropical plants, they grow like annuals in my Zone 7 Virginia garden. In other words, they are “terminal,” their days are numbered.

The flowers are supposed to be yellow, about 3 inches across, and more like okra or cotton in shape, not like those large tropical hibiscus flowers you see in Florida. Lasting one day, the flowers withdraw into the calyx to form a seed pod.  As the seed matures, the red calyx, which was originally at the base of the flower, grows to cover the seed pod. It is this red covering, the calyx that is harvested for tea, jams, and jellies. Rich in anthocyanin, the red calyxes serve as a natural food color and are responsible for the “zing” in Celestial Seasonings’ Red Zinger tea. I grew them because I had read that I could make my own herbal tea so I had started my plants from seed in the beginning of the year.  Later I learned that it is a true landscape edible – the leaves can be cooked, maybe with a chicken stir fry, to add a citrus/tangy flavor.

The plant itself is pretty, about 4 feet high and 2 feet wide, with maple like leaves. I grew mine in large plastic containers and if I had known, I would have added flowering annuals at the base to complement the red and green colors in the stems and leaves. Because mine were in containers in full sun, I had to make sure they received enough water all summer long. I had grown ornamental hibiscus plants before and knew they had “healthy appetites” so I had mixed fertilizer in the soil before I planted the seedlings.

By August, I had not seen any flowers and I was anxiously watching the calendar. I did some research and discovered that the flowering is initiated by short days, i.e., autumn. Sure enough, in the beginning of September I saw small buds, almost too small to capture by the camera. I read that I need to harvest the pods while the calyxes are still tender and juicy, about 10 days after the flowers appear. The seed pods have to be harvested, cut off the plant, and the calyxes have to be taken apart and dried.

Hibiscus flower buds in September, note red on stems and buds

Hibiscus flower buds in September

I also learned that Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, only a few hours south, has a variety called Thai Red Roselle that will start blooming earlier in the summer to ensure plenty of calyxes before frost. Needless to say, that went on my 2015 wish list! I will continue to keep vigilance. In November, surely after our first frost has occurred, I will let you know how these plants perform plus I will list a quick summary of successes/lessons learned from my 2014 season.

4 responses to “Landscape Edible: Growing Hibiscus for Tea

  1. Cool! I just saw a photo of this cultivar of the plant the other day. We’ve been growing the Thai Red Roselle (which has different shaped leaves) in the Montgomery County MD MG demo garden for several years, and yes, it flowers earlier – in full production mode now. You can eat the leaves too. -Erica from GIEI

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  2. My wife is the hibiscus grower and yes she has a couple, although I am not sure of the variety … I do love fall gardening though. As for your tomatoes, pick them when they are green, put them in a brown paper bag and leave them on a window sill. They will ripen.

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  3. Pingback: October In My Garden – A Weekly Report | pegplant

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