Have you ever fell in love with a specific flavor? Or at least the idea of that flavor? I did a few years ago with hibiscus. Every time I would go to Panera/STL Bread Co., I would get the hibiscus iced tea and relish every drop. Then I found hibiscus jelly and I would just stand there in front of the fridge with the jelly jar and a spoon. Hibiscus and I had a love affair that lasted briefly, but burned brightly. So two years ago I decided to grow hibiscus in our herb garden, but to no avail. It grew big and strong but didn’t bloom in time before the first frost. Hibiscus broke my heart. But I’m happy to say that this year, growing, harvesting and preserving hibiscus was a success! So to commemorate this great hibiscus season, let me share with you how I harvest it, process it and prepare hibiscus syrup. A scrapbook of our summer romance, if you will.
Now, first off… why is this post titled “All about Roselle” if I’m talking about hibiscus? There’s a big difference between the tropical type flower that’s multi-colored and beautiful and the stuff that you eat and make flavorful foods out of. They’re different plants grown for different purposes. Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is a plant that is found in more tropical environments and is popular in India, Thailand, Egypt, etc. So when you’re growing it outside of tropical climates, make sure you will have a long enough growing season in your area. Start these inside and keep them as warm as you can for as long as you can. For a point of reference, we’re in Missouri and started our seeds indoors in February and started harvesting in September/October. Roselle grows kinda like okra. A big bushy okra. They can get up to 6′-8′ tall and 3-4′ wide. Basically, you grow Roselle the plant, harvest the calyxes from the flowers and get hibiscus the flavor. /End of Botany class.
My plants grew and grew all year, getting lots of leafy vegetation. The leaves and stems are delicious too and can be used in stir fry. I basically ignored the plants until I saw dozens of white flowers beginning to bloom in the mornings. This is the queue to start harvesting in about 24-36 hours. After the flowers bloom and then die off, the calyxes will grow quite large. When the calyxes are about the size and shape of a Hershey kiss, that’s when it’s ready to harvest. Snap off the calyx from the stem and you’re ready to start processing.
Now you have your calyx! Separate the red “petals” from the interior seed pod. You can either squeeze the base and the seed pod will pop out; or cut into the calyx to cut out the seed pod. Discard the seed pod and what you’re left with is the perfect bite size hibiscus.
Uses for Hibiscus
Ok, so what can you do with all of these calyxes? Enjoy it fresh in salads (an alternative of dried cranberries), put it on a cheese plate, flavor your kombucha, mix it in with sugar to make “hibiscus sugar” or dehydrate it for later use. I like to stockpile my dried hibiscus like a squirrel preparing for winter. And then I can make hibiscus syrup that can be used for dozens of things. What can you do with hibiscus syrup? Mix it in with iced tea, add it to club soda, make a Moscow Mule with it, add it to icings for desserts… you get the idea. And bonus: it’s healthy for you! It can help lower blood pressure, slight fever reducer and it’s a natural diuretic.
To make hibiscus syrup:
- 4 cups water
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cup dried hibiscus
- Optional: vanilla and/or lemon juice
Combine water, sugar and hibiscus in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil. The heat will activate the great pink color of the hibiscus. Remove from heat, and let it steep for 30 mins. Remove solids from liquids and store in an airtight container. I put mine in 5 oz. bottles, making them perfect gift giving size!
And so… Autumn and hibiscus lived happily ever after.