Every year I try to grow something new in our garden. This year found us growing edible hibiscus, commonly known as Rosella and Jamaican Sorrel, and scientifically as Hibiscus sabdariffa.It’s been one of the most carefree plants we’ve ever grown.
Edible hibiscus is a short-day plant that grows in tropical and subtropical areas. However, it can be grown as an annual in colder areas. If you want to learn more about how day length affects plant growth and why some plants prefer shorter days, I suggest the Understanding Your Climate short course.
Are all hibiscus edible?
There are hundreds of varieties of hibiscus and more are being bred every year because of this, it’s hard to say if every variety of hibiscus is edible. However, there are some that have traditionally been used for food and medicine with Hibiscus sabdariffa, also known as roselle and Jamaican sorrel, the most popular.
Cranberry Hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella) is another popular edible hibiscus variety and Chinese Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) us used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
If you’re growing hibiscus to eat or use medicinally, you need to be sure of the variety and do your research to make sure that it’s not only edible but also know if there are any contraindications with that variety or what side effects there might be. If you’re unsure of your variety, take it, or good photos of it, to your County Extension Office and ask for help.
How to grow hibiscus will be the similar regardless of variety, but the information on using them isn’t. Hibiscus sabdariffa is closely related to the okra plant and it’s flowers are very similar. Once the hibiscus sabdariffa flower falls off it leaves behind a pod, just like okra does, but this pod is called a calyx and is the part of the plant that most people use.
Growing Edible Hibiscus
Hibiscus can be started from seed. I originally purchased seeds online and then a local friend gave me some seeds from her plants. Now I have seeds from my own plants so this is really a one time purchase. The seeds are pretty hard so I scarify them for better germination. To scarify them, I rub them on a piece of fine sandpaper and then soak overnight before planting.
Start the seeds in pots and then plant them in the garden when they’re about 4-5 inches tall and after all danger of frost has passed. Keep the area as weed free as possible, you can mulch pretty heavily to do this.
Hibiscus bushes can get pretty tall, about 6-7 feet, and about 3 feet across, so you’ll want to give them some space. They would make a lovely hedge if you planted quite a few.
Each bush will give you 1-2 pounds of calyxes depending on how long your growing season is. It takes about 10-12 pounds of fresh calyxes to make 1 pound of dried; so if you want a pound of dried hibiscus you’ll need to plant 6-8 bushes.
Hibiscus seems to have very little pest pressure. I didn’t notice any pests on our plants all summer however, this fall I’ve noticed some caterpillars and stink bugs. I’m not seeing any damage, I’ve just seen the actual pests.
In order to produce flowers, hibiscus needs shorter days. I didn’t realize this and we had a couple of blooms and then nothing all summer. Then this fall when the days started getting shorter it just exploded. I thought it needed cooler weather, but that’s not the case, it needs shorter days. So, plan on a fall or early winter harvest.
The Hibiscus sabdariffa blooms are simple and beautiful. They are a light pinkish color and look very similar to okra blooms. They are only open for a day or so. Once they die and fall off the calyx is ready to harvest. I don’t harvest them every day so some of our calyxes are quite large and some were smaller.
After a while the calyx will start to get woody and dry out. These will have mature seeds, so if you want to save seeds make sure to let some stay on the plant until the seeds fully mature.
The calyx should just snap right off the branch when it’s ready. However, some might need to be snipped off with some scissors.
Inside the calyx is a seed pod, you’ll need to cut the seed pod out. I just slit down the side of the calyx and then around the bottom with a small parring knife.
Medicinally, hibiscus is often used to help with high blood pressure, stomach issues, loss of appetite, and several other issues. If you’re interested in using hibiscus medicinally I want to encourage you to talk with a trained herbalist or natural health care provider.
Caution: there is some evidence to suggest that large intake of hibiscus could cause issues with kidney stones in those who have already had kidney stones. You can read more in this article from the American Botanical Council.
We love adding hibiscus to our tea. It has a sour flavor similar to cranberries. I don’t use a set recipe, I just toss some into my cup of mint or nettle tea. If you’re looking for a tea that has quite a bit of vitamin C for the winter, you should try this rose hip and hibiscus tea. This super fruit tea also looks like a tasty year round drink.
Hibiscus can also be used as a kool-aid alternative for a tasty and healthy drink for children – or adult. Another drink for warm weather is this hibiscus clove cooler.
Our son makes kombucha and I’m going to see if I can convince him to branch out and make some hibiscus kombucha for me to try.
I have to say that this chocolate cake with hibiscus curd is probably the most elegant and intriguing idea I’ve seen so far for using hibiscus calyxes. We’ll be making this before our bushes stop producing.
While searching for something to do with the seedpods a friend recommended this article for to me for making a pomegranate hibiscus fire cider and I’m so glad she did. This is the only article I’ve found that suggests just chopping up the immature seed pod with the rest of the calyx and using that for teas. I’ll be doing that from now on.
Hibiscus isn’t just for eating though, you can also use it in a hair rinse and I have friend who’s experimenting dying wool yarn with it which is super cool!
Leaves and flowers are also edible; in come cultures the leaves are cooked like spinach. Some teas are made with just the flowers, leaves and calyxes. Lastly, the wood of some varieties can be used as fiber similar to jute. Like mulberries, hibiscus is truly an all purpose plant.
Do you grow or use edible hibiscus? If so, leave your tips and recipes in the comments.