Every year I pick a plant that seems too hard to grow in my zone or just something really out of the ordinary. I am a push the envelope type of gardener. This year’s kryptonite was hibiscus sabdariffa, which is famous for its red calyx which is used for tea. It is an annual in my zone 6 but a perennial in tropical zones. The plant is frost tender. So read on to learn how to grow hibiscus tea!
Don’t confuse this plant with the big box tropical hibiscus (hibiscus rosa-sinensis) with the huge saucer size flowers. In fact you could miss this plant’s flowers if you blink twice. They are small and the size of a golf ball. The flower looks like an Okra flower or a Marshmallow flower.
Unlike its cousin, hibiscus rosa-sinensis its showiness is the pod that forms after its flowers bloom called a calyx. The calyx is used in tea and has a tart cranberry taste. According to an article written by Julia Morton, Research Professor of Biology and Director of the Morton Collectanea, University of Miami, a research and information center devoted to economic botany, nutritionists found that calyxes from Central America were high in calcium, niacin, riboflavin and iron.
In my opinion this plant is quite beautiful in its own right.
It has large oak type leaves that turn slightly purple in the fall. And by the way, those leaves are edible too and quite tangy and delicious. I tried drying them to see if the taste remained, but sadly, the dried leaves have a black tea-ish type of taste. They probably could be used as a base with other aromatic herbs like lemon balm or lemon verbena.
How to Grow Hibiscus Sabdariffa:
I grew mine from seed indoors. (I use this tiered lighting system.) I purchased the seeds from Strictly Medicinal Seeds. Germination is spotty. These seeds need to be scarified, which means the seeds have to be nicked. (Be sure to read how to scarify seeds.) I then soak the nicked seeds in warm water for a day to help them germinate.
I also found that bottom heat and an enclosed container creating heat helps. (I use this heat mat.)
When they do germinate, the new seedlings shoot up very quickly and get very tall. Next year I will probably seed them in a 4 inch pot and put either a plastic cover or plastic wrap over the top of the pot to help with germination.
Once the seedling has 4 leaves, repot it if you didn’t use a four inch pot.
According to Morton, hibiscus seeds can be planted directly in the soil. (Note, you need to be in a long warm climate like Florida to plant directly in the soil.)
Build hills and plant four to six seeds in the hills. The hills should be 3 to 6 feet apart in rows of five to ten feet. Thin to 50% when 2 to 3 leaves appear.
I planted my seedling the end of May to avoid any threat of frost. Mine were 4 feet apart in a raised bed of 8 by 4 feet. So, there were only two plants per bed. It seems like forever until the plants started to become bushy.
And yes, I am really impatient.
I believe they like well drained soil. My raised beds are mostly compost.
I did feed the plant Dr. Earth Tropical fertilizer once a month. It is hard to tell if the fertilizer or the sudden heat wave caused them to grow. They finally got bushy and about three to four feet high by July-August.
Morton states a good commercial fertilizer for hibiscus contains a formula of 4-6-7 (NPK.)
Then I played the waiting game for the plant to flower. The plants are short day bloomers which means they start to bloom when days get shorter.
Honestly, I thought I was doomed since our frost date is October 15 and the plants started to product small little red calyxes around mid-September but no flowers. At that point the plants were bushy and at least 3 feet wide by 3- 4 feet wide.
Just when I had given up hope and thought why am I growing a Florida type plant, I saw a flower at the end of September. I am surprised you didn’t hear me squeal with delight.
But then again, the flowers were slow to appear.
How to Harvest
I originally wrote one article on how to grow and harvest the calyxes. The article was over 1600 words! So, I split the article in two. (I know. I feel your sighs of disappointment.)
Next week, I will be sharing how to harvest the calyxes along with a video of an upfront and personal view of my hibiscuses.
Join the Conversation:
Do you grow hibiscus sabdariffa?
Disclaimer: There may be affiliate links in this article. Thanks for your loyalty in supporting Green Talk.