In August 2011, I was on a tour of the gardens at Acorn Community, home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, when we came upon the hibiscus plants—specifically Thai Red Roselle. This was entirely new to me and the Acorn residents were visibly excited about it. Well, you know how it is when you see your friends really excited about something. I just had to give it a try. I put it into my 2012 garden plan.
Hibiscus is what puts the color and zing in Red Zinger tea. Hibiscus tea could lower your blood pressure, boost your immune system and supply you with antioxidants. Since it has an effect on your blood pressure, if you are taking medication for that, you might want to check with your doctor before making it a part of your life. The leaves can go into your salads, but I was after tea ingredients—whatever it was that would give me a red, zingy tea.
This plant is a perennial in the tropics and grown as an annual as far north as New Jersey. The variety Thai Red Roselle is the variety you want to grow if you live north of the Sunbelt. It matures earlier, which means more harvest before frost. Even at that, my harvest didn’t begin until late in August. I’ll pay more attention this year and make it a priority to get the transplants in the ground around the time of the last frost, or soon after.
When it began to flower, I realized I didn’t know exactly what I should be harvesting. I learned to harvest the calyx, which is the part beneath the flower. When the flower fades, the red calyx grows into a pod that holds a green ball. The seeds that are beginning to develop are in that ball, but I only needed the calyx. The seeds are not yet mature at the point you want to take it for tea. I left some to grow larger and harvested them for the mature seed later. I bought seeds to start from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, but will be planting my saved seeds this year.
Once the harvest began I would check every 3-7 days for something to pick, prepare it at my garden washing station and put the calyx pieces in the solar dryers. After a day or two, when they were dry, I’d bring the trays in and store the dried pieces in a jar. It’s just that easy and it was a good use for the solar dryers in September and early October when my vegetable drying slowed.
Hibiscus should be planted at least three feet apart, but as much as five feet between the plants may increase your yield per plant. They need plenty of sun. I had three plants in 2012 and was really encouraged by my experience. I’m looking at my yard for just the right microclimate to plant them in this year.
You can make hot or cold tea from just your dried Red Thai Roselle or add it to different herbs. It is interesting to make herb mixes for tea. Using spearmint or bee balm as a base, you could add any number of things. Hibiscus is great alone, and its red color and fruity taste is a nice addition to blends. Sometimes I’ll make a jarful of a mix, putting the ingredients in a blender, then storing them in the jar, ready for tea-making.
Lent is approaching—it begins February 13—and as I’ve done the past few years, I’ll be observing Homegrown Fridays. Homegrown Fridays is a personal challenge of mine when, during the Fridays in Lent, I only eat (and drink) what I’ve grown. Water from our well, of course, and salt in the pickle ferment is allowed in my challenge. Although I don’t necessarily do it for religious reasons, Lent is an appropriate time, since it is a time for reflection. Also, doing this in February and March makes it more challenging and fun. I’ve written of my Homegrown Friday experiences in 2011 and 2012. This year Red Thai Roselle tea will be on the menu!