Tag Archives: Rutgers

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.

Abundant Tomatoes!

Last year, all my tomatoes ripened at the same time, in August. But the seeds (Rutgers) and the plants (grafted Mighty ‘Matos®) were given to me so I couldn’t complain. I had three EarthBox® containers, each with a Mighty Mato and a Rutgers side by side for a total of six plants. Between the two types, I saw no difference. Both performed well, both grew to the same height, and both had the same yield. However, I think this is because they were grown in EarthBox® containers on the deck. I have been growing tomatoes in EarthBoxes® since we have lived in this house and have never had issues with tomatoes.

Abraham Lincoln as a young boy in May

Abraham Lincoln as a young boy in May

Abraham Lincoln as a young adult, end of June

Abraham Lincoln as a young adult, end of June

This year, I had planned to space out the harvest time so I bought a seed packet of an early season tomato, Stupice. Before I was able to buy more seed, I was given seed packets of Abraham Lincoln and Rutgers so what could I do but plant all of them. Growing tomato from seed is easy; you can even do it in egg cartons indoors. These particular tomatoes are called “slicers,” fruit large enough to slice for sandwiches. Tomato plants also are classified as determinate and indeterminate. Determinate plants stop growing after the flower buds set fruit so you harvest tomatoes for a few weeks tops. The plants are bush-like, 2 to 3 feet tall. Indeterminate plants are vine like; the plants will keep growing and producing new blossoms even after the fruit sets. You can harvest all summer long. Stupice, Rutgers and Abraham Lincoln are heirloom indeterminates so I will be picking for a while but this year, I may try saving seed to grow more tomato plants next year.

Candelabra-like clusters of flowers on Stupice

Candelabra-like clusters of flowers on Stupice

Tomato hornworm, plucked off tomato plant

Stupice spilling over EarthBox

So far, they are all doing well. I have two of each in each EarthBox for a total of six plants. There is so much lush green growth that I tie the vines to the wooden deck rails with torn up old shirts. As of mid-July, there must be a hundred little green tomatoes. Every day I look for that first blush of red. The Stupice is the best so far — great shape, does not flop over too much, and candelabra-like flower clusters that seem to hang in mid-air. Usually I have no diseases or pests but last week I spotted one tomato hornworm which I picked off and have not seen any more. Yesterday, tomato man peaked out from under the foliage but he’s a friendly.

Tomato hornworm, plucked off plant

Tomato hornworm, plucked off plant

We like to use the tomatoes in BLT sandwiches, salads, or just cut up raw with herbs. If I get too many I boil them for a few minutes, peel off the skin, and freeze in a bag. Later they go in the bean stew. For a special treat, we make bruschetta: top slices of French bread with a slice of tomato, a basil leaf, and a little cheese and broil for a few seconds. That’s summer!

Tomato Man

Tomato Man