10/14/13

Grow a Zinger of a Plant

One of my favorite new plants in the garden this summer has been a flowering shrub called "Roselle Hibiscus." Did you ever hear of Red Zinger Tea? Part of this plant forms the main ingredient of the tea, and gives it the distinct red color. Roselle's reputed health benefits - lower blood pressure, weight loss, lower cholesterol, improved hair health, and more - are important, and it is high in anti-oxidant bioflavonoids. I'm a tea drinker and was intrigued to learn I could grow this unique and beautiful plant in my own garden.

The idea to grow my own Roselle came from a lecture I attended on herbs for boosting the immune system by herbalist Juliet Blankespoor of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange was my source for heirloom seeds for Thai Red Roselle Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa). This is a sub-tropical plant, native to India and Malaysia, so I suspect it will grow as an annual here in my Zone 7 gardens. The seed company noted that, of the many varieties they tested, the Thai Red Roselle was the only one which began flowering by mid summer at their location in Virginia. Growers south of me have called the plant "Florida Cranberry" because of the tart taste and ability to substitute for northern cranberries. The seed company advises to grow Roselle with conditions similar to growing a tomato plant. Since I didn't learn about Roselle until March, I didn't start my seedlings until April. Only 2 of about 10 seeds I planted germinated, but two plants have turned out to be plenty for me. I started the seedlings indoors in a pot, in my south facing window.

The Roselle Hibiscus plant grows best in full sun, and I transplanted my 4" seedlings outdoors well after the last frost, into my new front yard edible garden, about 5 feet apart. Don't fertilize heavily or you'll get lots of leaves and no flowers. A bushy shrub with red stems and green leaves grew rather quickly for me, with lots of branching. A bonus to me is that the citrus-tasting leaves are edible, so I've been harvested the tender new ones for my green smoothies. The leaves can be added to salads and can be air-dried for later use too. Lovely pale yellow 2" flowers, deep red at the center, began blooming around mid July. Sadly, each pretty bloom lasts just one day, like other members of the hibiscus family. Even the spent flower is pretty though, with petals of pale coral soon dropping off.

The pod which grows after the flower dies is dark red and shaped like a big teardrop. This is the plant part which gets harvested. A developing seed pod is encased in this pod, in the "calyxes" (aka "calyces"), which are bright red points formed from the "sepals" of the flower. When these calyxes grow about 1-1/4" tall and full - which happens within a week after the flowering stage - they are harvested by snapping them off by hand or clipping them off so as not to damage the plant stem if they don't release readily. As of early October (our annual average first frost here is Oct. 15), I have harvested about 150 calyxes. The lovely shrubs, with a few stems now reaching 5 feet tall, are still flowering aggressively, so if I cover them on our coldest nights I can extend the season. I plan to leave some of the calyxes unpicked so the heirloom seeds inside can mature on the plant and I can save them for planting next year, even if I have to cut off a stem and let it continue to mature and dry indoors.

Iced Roselle Red Zinger tea - yummy!
Harvesting frequently increases the continued production of flowers. Commercial growers have hollow tubes to remove the inner pod, but, for my small harvests, I simply tear off the dark red calyxes at the base where they join the seed pod. (The seed pods are discarded or saved to dry for the seeds.) These tart, fruity pieces can be used fresh, frozen, or dehydrated. I boiled about 6 calyxes in a pint of water, simmering for 10 minutes, to make a fruity red tea. They've gone fresh into my smoothies too. I'm air-drying most of my harvest, to make my own tea blend, and I've tried freezing some in zip bags. I intend to try chopping some fresh calyxes to try substituting for dried cranberries in a quick bread recipe, so I'll let you know how that works. The plant naturally contains pectin, so it is often used to make jam or jelly.

I've started saving the Roselle Hibiscus seeds to share with friends, so let me know if you want some. I expect to have a few to sell or trade at our local Farmers Market plant and seed swap, coming up on Friday, Oct. 18 2013. Try growing red zinger in your garden next season!