May 23, 2020

Cranberry Hibiscus - A Tasty Beauty

Cranberry hibiscus provides
garden color (left)
Many new arrivals to Florida find that summer puts the wilt in the stoutest of garden-grown salad greens. Any iceberg lettuce, romaine, kale, or cabbage that might have kept producing into May is not likely to survive the continuing onslaught of summer. You might be tempted to scurry off to the supermarket for all your summer greens. Not so fast. Romaine calm and lettuce walk you across the produce aisle, back out the supermarket doors, and into a garden where cranberry hibiscus plants are fast-tracking through the pitiless heat.

Cranberry hibiscus takes center stage with its flamboyant maroon foliage. The leaves are similar in color and shape to a Japanese maple. You could just plant them for their ornamental value. But don't stop there. Cranberry hibiscus possesses a combination of good looks and good taste. The maroon leaves have a tart - some say citrusy - flavor. Leaves from the hibiscus varieties that I've eaten have a sour taste with no trace of bitterness, but the cranberry hibiscus also adds a dash of color to salads, sandwiches, and stir fries. When the cranberry hibiscus flowers - and it flowers profusely - the flowers can be used to make tea, iced drinks, kombucha, syrup, and the like. The flowers contribute their color, but are rather bland in flavor and a bit mucilaginous. Overall, it's an awesome plant.

Cranberry hibiscus tends to grow a lanky, single stem, unless pruned. For best leaf production, pinch back a young plant's growing tips. This will not only spur bushy growth, but it will promote a longer leaf production period. If I don't prune my plants, they will grow 8 feet tall and then flop over. Flopover prevention is another reason to prune the taller plants.

Young leaves have shiny, deep burgandy color.
Assuming there are lots of leaves, at what stage should they be picked? The young leaves start growing out at the ends of each stem. They are at their deepest red as they first begin to leaf out. If you are going for color, consider harvesting the younger leaves. As the leaves age, they turn a duller, greener shade of maroon and lose some of their softness. But picking the older leaves requires less work, due to their larger size. I am impatient, so I tend to pick the older leaves.

Happily there is no one right way to harvest. This year, I have an unusually dense concentration of seeds that germinated in several spots. The plants are only an inch or two tall and they are forming a carpet. Normally I would thin them and let a few grow to their full, true size. Over the next few weeks, I will be experimenting with a new harvest method. I didn't read about it anywhere; I just made it up. I plan to treat them like microgreens and harvest the top leaves. They might die back. Or they might just get bushier, sending out more small leaves for me to harvest.

Carpet of cranberry hibiscus sprouts
Harvesting the flowers is a little more complicated. The open flowers don't readily separate from the stem. They typically bloom for a day or two and then contract into themselves. Once contracted, you can readily snap them off. If you don't, they will eventually fall to the ground on their own and leave their seeds to sprout next season. In order to harvest a large quantity, you'll need to harvest every day or two. I add them to smoothies, because they turn the drink slightly red. For the same reason, my sweetheart uses them to color his homemade kombucha. If you dry the flowers, you can use them all year.

Do you love a nice cup of hot tea? Chop up some fresh or dried cranberry hibiscus flowers. Add this to one teaspoon of your favorite dried tea blend. Cover with a cup of boiling water and let steep in a tea ball for 10-20 minutes or as you normally would. The flowers will add a beautiful pink color to it. The concept will work, even if you are using a store-bought teabag. Just steep with the cranberry hibiscus flowers and watch it turn pink.
Tea made with cranberry hibiscus flowers

Cranberry hibiscus goes by several names. Some call it false roselle. Its botanic name is Hibiscus acetosella. Since it has been used medicinally in many cultures, but has not been particularly well studied by Western medicine, there are oodles of health claims, which I have no way to verify. From a nutritional perspective, many internet sources claim that cranberry hibiscus is a good source of vitamins B2, B3 and C as well as antioxidants, calcium, and iron. This is also hard to verify without my own testing facility.

The plants can be grown from seeds or cuttings. They will prosper in full sun or some shade.  For those in colder areas, you will probably get better color and more flowers if you grow them in full sun. Once established, I have found the cranberry hibiscus to be a low-impact, self-seeding plant that does not require irrigation or fertilizer. It does well in my sandy soil and doesn't have major insect problems. Best of all, it doesn't mind the heat of Florida summers. The leaves may wilt during the day, but they will perk up again overnight, unless there hasn't been rain for a while. Then a little water will keep the plant growing.

Although cranberry hibiscus is a perennial in the subtropics, I find that leaf production declines precipitously the second year. I have had the greatest success letting cranberry hibiscus seedlings pick their own spot year after year. In order for the plant to self-seed going forward, just let it produce flowers for a while. But do be prepared for an army of volunteer seedlings the next spring. If you are the type of gardener that wants each plant in its place and a place for each plant, then you may not wish to deal with unsolicited seedlings; cut it down to the ground in the fall, when you see the first flower.

Cranberry hibiscus leaves(bottom)
ready to chop

Simple side salad: cranberry hibiscus,
malabar spinach, tindora, & papaya

My favorite use for cranberry hibiscus is adding the leaves to a salad. Most leafy salad greens have some bitterness, but these do not, and they are truly tasty. On the other hand, the plant is so pretty, those who grow no edibles, but rather create gardens as a place of ordered beauty will also find cranberry hibiscus to be a standout. It provides a distinct contrast to the many shades of green that permeate most gardens. Cranberry hibiscus could be the crossover plant that gets gardeners of all stripes on more friendly terms. If you plant it in your front yard, your neighbors might want to learn about it. And you will probably have plenty of seedlings to share.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hello! Thanks for your blog!

I raised this too. Delicious tea and pretty to look at as well. Mixes nicely with lemonade as well!

Looking forward to the next post!