Researching champagne drinks for New Year’s Eve, a novel use of the flowers of the red-leafed hibiscus, H. acetosella, popped up in my Internet search. Go to muybuenocookbook.com to see for yourself. The recipe calls for the flowers, soaked in sugar syrup, to be placed in the bottom of a champagne flute. As champagne is slowly poured into the glass, the flower opens, adding color and flavor to the drink.
Hibiscus acetosella is a fast-growing shrub in the Malvaceae family. It is sometimes called red zinger locally because the leaves and flowers make a tea reminiscent of the commercial Red Zinger. Though the Red Zinger tea box features a red hibiscus flower, the actual flower used to make the tea is Hibiscus sabdariffa. This flower, called roselle, actually has yellow petals, but it is the deep red calyx that matches the color at the center of the flower that is used for the commercial product.
Our red zinger is native to Africa where it is grown as a vegetable and salad plant. One of its common names is African rose mallow. The tart leaves, flowers and calyx are all edible and offer a tangy, lemony flavor to many recipes for drinks or other dishes that are enjoyed throughout tropical and sub-tropical regions where the plant thrives.
This hibiscus has a shrub-like growth habit similar to some other members of the Mallow genus. This genus of hibiscus plants includes more than 200 shrubs and trees, which are mostly grown for their showy flowers. Gardeners often select this plant, however, for its deeply lobed leaves that are a dark maroon or burgundy color. They add texture and color to any garden. Several velvety flowers open each morning and close by noon.
Though the flowers only last a day, flower arrangers often use branches from the Hibiscus acetosella for the deep red color and texture of the leaves that resemble those of the Japanese maple. The area beneath the flower called the calyx, which remains after the blossom fades, also adds interest to an arrangement.
It is this part of the plant that is often used to make tea, though the leaves and flowers impart color and flavor. Flowers open toward the end of the branches leaving behind the pointed calyx.
Though this hibiscus is grown as an annual in temperate climates, it will thrive here for several years in full sun or partial shade with regular watering. H. acetosella grows best when protected from strong, drying winds and salt spray in a fertile and somewhat moist soil. It will grow to 5 or 6 feet tall and can spread to about the same size if not pruned. Keeping it compact with periodic pruning can extend its life and keep it blooming.
The plant, when healthy, does not usually attract pests or diseases, but a weakened plant can be attractive to the Chinese rose beetle. The best way to deter these beetles is to place the plant near a nocturnal light source that will minimize the attack. In severe cases, going out just after sunset with a head lamp, some gloves and a jar containing alcohol and collecting the beetles can be an effective method of control. Some success at repelling this voracious beetle has been shown using neem oil on the plants and the soil around them.
H. acetosella can be propagated easily from seeds or softwood cuttings. Collect seeds from the older, drier calyx on the plant. Allowing them to dry on the plant will improve the viability of the seeds. For a quick clone of the mother plant, take a cutting about the diameter of a pencil from a branch, being sure to use a slightly older, less tender section. Dip it in some rooting compound and place it in a moist media. A 50-50 combination of perlite and vermiculite works well. Remove most of the leaves and wait. Once the stem puts out new leaves and is slightly resistant to tugging, you’ll know roots are forming. Wait another few weeks before planting out.
Like its sister plant, Hibiscus sabdariffa, the H. acetosella has a fibrous stem structure. In Africa, where the plants are native, their branches are sometimes used to make rope, twine, baskets and coarse fabrics. The tea made from each of the plants is also relied upon in many areas as a source of vitamin C.
Though not universally available, red-leaved hibiscus plants can be found at some local nurseries. If you know someone who has a plant, you can also request a cutting and grow your own. In any case, seeking Hibiscus acetosella for your garden will be time well spent. It will offer a colorful and attractive addition to your property and delight you with some tasty leaves and tangy tea.
Diana Duff is a local organic farmer, plant adviser and consultant.