I try not to foster any regrets in life. But I must confess that I waited too many years to plant hibiscus, thinking the temperate climate unsuitable for its success, and for that, I am sorry. It is, in fact, easy to grow and harvest if you have the right variety and get a head start on the season. Hibiscus tea, also called roselle, is made from the calyces (sepals, part of the flower) of Hibiscus sabdariffa in the Mallow family (Malvaceae). Other notable members in the mallow family are cotton, okra, rose of sharron and marshmallow. Roselle has a flower similar in appearance to ornamental hibiscuses, but its flower is smaller, and therefore less showy. There are other species of hibiscus with edible flowers, but no other species has a similar medicinal and edible calyx. When the petals fall off, the receptacle (flower base) and calyx (sepals) remain as fleshy red crowns (see the picture below of the flower with the petals intact (on the left), and the remaining calyx (on the right)).
You can harvest the calyx as long as it is still pliable and red; I like to wait until it’s larger to maximize the harvest. I leave the green ovary intact (see the picture below), and chop it up along with the calyx for fresh or dried tea; the developing ovary is mucilaginous and is especially helpful in lowering cholesterol and nourishing healthy intestinal flora.
Native to India and Malaysia, hibiscus has been widely adopted by tropical people around the globe as a refreshing medicinal tonic tea; the calyx is also made into jams and chutneys. The young greens are edible, and eaten in many tropical locations. Hibiscus is quite popular in the Caribbean and Central America as a cold herbal tea mixed with sugar; this drink is called sorrel in the islands and agua de Flor de Jamaica in Mexico. Roselle has been used traditionally as a medicinal for its diuretic, hypotensive, and anti-microbial properties.
High in anti-oxidant bioflavonoids, hibiscus has been the focus of many recent studies for its anti-inflammatory, cardio-protective, neuroprotective, and hepatoprotective qualities. It is a good tonic tea for people with heart disease and high cholesterol, along with being a general preventative against free radical stress in the body. Take care with heartburn, as it can aggravate the condition with its sour flavor, and it may be too cooling for folks who run very cold.
Hibiscus can be grown as an annual in temperate climates, and as a perennial in zones 9-11. Plant the seeds in the greenhouse when you would plant tomato starts. Rub the seeds between a little sandpaper to increase germination (for more on stratification). Plant the seeds in a large pot, as it doesn’t always take well to transplanting or potting up. Transplant out into the garden when the danger of frost has passed; give it two to three foot spacing. I like to underplant the Hibiscus with spilanthes or gotu kola (see the picture below of Hibiscus growing with passionflower, holy basil, spilanthes, shiso and anise hyssop). Hibiscus typically flowers when the days grow shorter in the fall (short-day flowering), but there are varieties that flower earlier in the season, such as the Thai red roselle (pictured throughout this article). You can purchase the seeds from Southern Seed Exposure here. Thai red roselle begins to flower mid-summer, allowing for harvest before the first frost.
Hibiscus Pomegranate Cheater Fire Cider
Fire cider is basically spicy herbal vinegar, often sweetened with a little honey. It is taken by the dropperfull or spoonful, depending on the cider’s strength and imbiber’s palette. Fire cider helps to clear out the sinuses and wake up the immune and circulatory systems. It can be taken to ward off a cold or other respiratory infection. Those with poor circulation can ingest fire cider tonically. This particular recipe is especially beneficial for high blood pressure and atherosclerosis due to the bioflavonoids in the hibiscus and pomegranate, along with the medicinal attributes of garlic and ginger. As you may imagine, fire cider can potentially aggravate heartburn, peptic ulcers, and gastrointestinal inflammation. In addition, it will be too heating on a long-term basis for those with fiery constitutions (Pitta).
Why is it cheater fire cider? Typically, fire cider is made by placing the ingredients in a glass jar and letting it sit for a moon’s passing or for six weeks. This recipe is a one-day affair. If you have more time, and want to maximize your ingredients and make a stronger cider, you can complete step 1, adding the hibiscus, and let the slurry sit for a month. The pomegranate juice can be added right before straining. After a month, you can finish the recipe below, skipping the heating part.
This recipe makes eight to nine bottles (8 ounce) and should be refrigerated for longer-term storage. If you are making the recipe just for yourself, I recommend making a fourth of all the ingredients (yielding about 16 ounces of fire cider, or a pint). It may keep unrefrigerated for a short period, but the extra liquid from the pomegranate and oranges may dilute the vinegar enough to allow microbial growth.
Milder and sweeter than other fire cider recipes, hibiscus pomegranate fire cider makes a great gift for the herbally uninitiated. I promise, I won’t tell if your fire cider finds its way into the loving embrace of bubbles and gin. However, I most certainly wouldn’t condone, under any circumstance, the mixing of fire cider with tequila and pomegranate juice, served in a martini glass with a salted rim.
Ingredient list for 70 ounces of Hibiscus Pomegranate fire cider:
- 64 ounces of apple cider vinegar
- 10 ounces honey
- 2 medium onions
- 2 large garlic bulbs
- Fresh Ginger (10" of a man’s-thumb-width piece)
- Fresh Turmeric (10" of a man’s-thumb-width piece, or 3 Tablespoons powder)
- Horseradish (1.5 cups of coarsely chopped 1" pieces)
- 2 large pomegranates (plump, succulent, and garnet in color)
- 2 oranges
- 8 dried cayenne peppers (or 2 teaspoons dried cayenne powder)
- 4 Tablespoons dried, loose hibiscus
- Peel the garlic, and coarsely chop the onions, horseradish, and turmeric. Place them in a food processor or blender, along with the cayenne peppers, with enough apple cider vinegar to cover. Blend carefully with the lid on, and take care not to let fumes or slurry enter your eyes.
- Place the slurried spiciness in a double boiler. Don’t have one? Nest a smaller pot in a bigger pot or saucepan and use a couple of upside-down mason jar rings to keep the inside pot up off the outside one. Add a little water to the outside pot and voila – double boiler! Add the rest of the apple cider vinegar to the slurry and keep the heat on low, with the lid on! Let the mixture heat on low (don’t let it get above 120 degrees) for three hours, stirring once in a while. Again, careful with the fumes!!!!
- Meanwhile, back at the bat cave, peel your oranges and de-seed the pomegranates, sneaking off a nibble or two. Put on an old apron and mash the pomegranates and oranges with a potato masher in the sink.
- After a couple hours, taste the slurry. If it’s too mild for your fire cider pleasure, this is your chance to add more of the spicy herbs and cook for one more hour. After three hours of total cook time, turn off the heat and add the hibiscus and the juicy pomegranate/orange mixture. Let sit for one hour and check the color- if it’s too light in color add more hibiscus. When the cider is a beautiful red, strain the mixture through a cheesecloth or potato ricer. You will need to squeeze out or press the slurry, or you will loose a great deal of the medicine. Add the honey and mix well, making sure all the honey is dissolved. Place in clear glass jars, label and refrigerate. Dosage is one teaspoon as needed.