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How to Grow and Use Tea Hibiscus/Florida Cranberry

I get excited about foods I’ve never grown before and for a few years now I’ve tried my hand at growing Hibiscus sabdariffa, which you may be familiar with as the “zinger” in Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger tea.

Tea hibiscus form calyxes when the days become shorter in the fall.

Photo Caption: These are the calyces I harvested my first year growing H. sabdariffa. Tea hibiscus plants form fleshy calyces around their seed pods when the days become shorter in the fall.

H. sabdariffa is also known as tea hibiscus, red tea, Florida cranberry, roselle, and sorrel (unrelated to the leafy French sorrel).

It is, as the botanical name implies, a species of hibiscus. It is also in the same family as okra. Two varieties of H. sabdariffa are grown — one for fiber and the other for food.

I was interested in this plant mostly as a novelty to make tea and jelly from. This year I am planning to try it as a home-brewed beer flavoring. It can actually be eaten in many different ways — including raw in fruit salads. It is very tart, like a cranberry, with a crisp and succulent texture.

The entire calyx is used, minus the seed pod. Tools exist to remove the seeds for mass production but you can do it with a paring knife (or possibly a cherry/olive pitter):

Photo Caption: This tool is made to quickly remove seed pods from hibiscus calyces.

Here some other uses (from this Purdue University article):

“Roselle fruits are best prepared for use by washing, then making an incision around the tough base of the calyx below the bracts to free and remove it with the seed capsule attached. The calyces are then ready for immediate use. They may be merely chopped and added to fruit salads. In Africa, they are frequently cooked as a side-dish eaten with pulverized peanuts. For stewing as sauce or filling for tarts or pies, they may be left intact, if tender, and cooked with sugar. The product will be almost indistinguishable from cranberry sauce in taste and appearance. For making a finer-textured sauce or juice, sirup, jam, marmalade, relish, chutney or jelly, the calyces may be first chopped in a wooden bowl or passed through a meat grinder. Or the calyces, after cooking, may be pressed through a sieve. Some cooks steam the roselle with a little water until soft before adding the sugar, then boil for 15 minutes.Roselle sauce or sirup may be added to puddings, cake frosting, gelatins and salad dressings, also poured over gingerbread, pancakes, waffles or ice cream. It is not necessary to add pectin to make a firm jelly. In fact, the calyces possess 3.19% pectin and, in Pakistan, roselle has been recommended as a source of pectin for the fruit-preserving industry.

Juice made by cooking a quantity of calyces with 1/4 water in ratio to amount of calyces, is used for cold drinks and may be frozen or bottled if not for immediate needs. In sterilized, sealed bottles or jars, it keeps well providing no sugar has been added. In the West Indies and tropical America, roselle is prized primarily for the cooling, lemonade-like beverage made from the calyces.”

The plants are also extremely ornamental with tropical green leaves, mahogany stems, and beautiful late summer/early fall flowers. If their tops are pinched off when they are 12″ or less high they will have a bushy, sturdier form throughout the season. Otherwise they are prone to flopping over. Their growth habit, height, and preferences are quite similar to okra.

Photo Caption: Young H. sabdariffa plants in my 2009 garden.

You can direct-sow your plants but I prefer to start mine indoors about 5 weeks before the frost-free date. You can keep them indoors 8-10 weeks if you have bright greenhouse conditions. Be sure to harden off your plants before setting them out.

Rich soil and full sun will produce the largest, most fruitful plants but they are tolerant of poorer conditions and some dry weather. The most confusing thing about H. sabdariffa is that it does not begin to set flowers and fruit until the days become short. Therefore, your summer length is less relevant to production (although long summers grow larger plants that produce more fruit at the end of the season). Once the days begin to wane it does matter how much time your plants have before the first frost.

If your plants haven’t quite finished when freezing temps are imminent you can pull up your plants, roots and all, and store them in a bucket of water indoors to finish off the ripening process. Calyces are at harvest stage when they are between the size of a large marble to the size of a golf ball.

Use or preserve your harvest quickly, they will mold if left untended for long.

If you are interested in giving this unusual crop a try, here is where I buy my seeds:

“Roselle” from Nichol’s Garden Nursery

I have also bought and grown the named variety ‘Tea Time’ but variations of this plant have become increasingly difficult to find.

Good luck!

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