False Roselle: Growing edible Cranberry hibiscus for tea and salad

cranberry hibiscus
Also Known As Hibiscus Species, Red-Leaf Hibiscus, False Roselle, African Rose Mallow, Maroon Mallow, Red Shield Hibiscus

False Roselle aka Cranberry Hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella) is on my ‘top 5 favorite plants in my food forest list’ as it fits so many of the qualities I look for in a food forest plant.

Not only are the leaves are edible, but the plant is fast-growing (biomass!), it’s easy to propagate from cuttings and seeds, and it supports pollinators and wildlife in the garden.

  • Edible Leaves and Flowers. I occasionally will eat a few baby leaves in a salad, but I really like the sepals. I also feed the leaves and flowers to our chickens and sulcata tortoise.
  • Fast-growing plant. Allow them to go to seed, they will sprout in spring (March/April for us in zone 9b Florida)
  • Easy to propagate by cuttings. As the plants reach 3-5 feet tall, I cut them back and stick the branches into the ground to create new plants.
  • A plentiful source of biomass
  • Supports Wildlife in the garden. Like most hibiscus plants, the cranberry hibiscus is prone to getting aphids. Which most people think is a bad thing, but over time, these aphids will attract ladybugs and other prey who will stay and defend your garden from pests.
The sepals are one of my favorite things to snack on while walking the yard

What is the difference between roselle and false roselle?

Both roselle and false roselle are edible. I tried growing roselle once, but the plant didn’t make it and I haven’t come across another one, yet! I only have experience growing false roselle, but I have heard that the roselle calyx are bigger.

Growing False Roselle

I purchased a false roselle plant a few years ago and as I do with all my plants, I spread cuttings of it all around the yard. It self-seeds and comes back each year in patches all around the property.

False roselle self seeded across a wide area in the yard

By springtime – or around April here in zone 9b Florida, I start to see last season’s seeds beginning to sprout. Every year, there are way more than the last. I’ll probably end up cutting a lot of it out once it gets bigger. I feed the leaves and flowers to the critters and throw the branches in my compost bin (biomass!) or in the planters.

When I let them grow crazy, they will get about 6 feet tall and begin to flop over. If you put them far enough away from objects, they look really nice when they are overgrown.

How to grow False Roselle

If you have access to false roselle, aka cranberry hibiscus plant, the easiest way to propagate it (make more plants) is by cuttings. They also sprout easily from seeds. you can purchase here on Amazon.

False roselle seedlings – self seeded in the yard

Growing Cranberry Hibiscus From Cuttings

Cuttings are the easiest way to propagate (make more) cranberry hibiscus plants. I cut a handful of branches 6-12″ in length, remove the last few inches of leaves, poke a hole in the ground and place 3 of the cuttings in the hole.

If you only place one cutting in the hole, it will look pretty skimpy when it grows., so make sure to at least plant 3 together.

I like to plant my cuttings during the rainy, summer months when the heat encourages growth and I don’t have to worry about watering. Otherwise, water the newly planted cuttings everyday for the first week, until established.

Harvesting Cranberry Hibiscus Seeds

To collect seeds from a cranberry hibiscus, it is best to wait until the seed pod dries. In the image above, you can just barely see the green seed pod being held by the calyx – it is too early to harvest seeds from that pod. In the image below, you will see that the seed pods have already dried and released the seeds.

The spiny calyx contains the seed pods

I prefer to collect the dry pods (by cutting them off the plant with scissors and allowing them to fall into a paper bag). To avoid handling the spiky little seed pods, I leave them in the paper bag until they open and release seeds on their own. Then, I sift it through a strainer and pick out the seeds by hand. It’s a tedious process, but people always ask for seeds, so I like to sell them in our eBay store.

As the seed pod dries, it cracks open and releases its seeds – so make sure you harvest it before it begins to crack open and they fall to the ground.

When left to dry on the plant, the seed pods will open and release 10+ seeds. which will sprout in the spring.

If you don’t already have cranberry hibiscus, you can check out our eBay store to see if we have any in stock.

The edible flowers on the False Roselle are only open for a day, then it dies back and falls off. A few days later, you will see a seed pod beginning to form.

(The part encasing the seed pod is what holds the most flavor. This is the part you want to boil to make tea.) If you open the seed pod when it is still green, it will contain white seeds (shown below) which can be left in the sun to dry.

False Roselle will self seed

I prefer to leave the pods on the plant and allow it to dry out. The pods will turn brown and crunch. If you leave them too long, the pod will crack open, and drop the seeds in the yard where they will sprout again in the spring.

False roselle self seeded in small spots in the yard

Cranberry Hibiscus Tea and Juice

I made cranberry hibiscus tea, then put it on ice as juice. It tasted good, but it was a lot of work – and the spikes make it a little tedious.

To make:

  1. Harvest when the seed pod is plump and seed pod is still green.
  2. Remove the seed pod from the calyx.
  3. Rinse the calyxes under cool water
  4. Boil calyxes for 5 minutes
  5. Strain. Drink the liquid cold like juice or hot like tea.

Most of the times, when someone refers to Cranberry Hibiscus tea, it is made from Roselle (not False Roselle). The flavors are similar, but the calyxes are much bigger on the Roselle making it easier to separate the calyx. Although it is more work, I prefer the False Roselle because it is a much prettier plant than the Roselle.

Eat Cranberry Hibiscus

Cranberry hibiscus is probably the only leafy plant in my yard that I actually enjoy eating. The sepals and new growth are extremely flavorful – and pack quite a cranberry punch.

Eat the sepals

If you want to eat something off your cranberry hibiscus – eat the sepals! These are so good.

The sepals are the finger-like, leaves that stick out around the calyx (the part that holds the bloom and seed pod) which makes that cool star shape. These hold the most flavor. I pick them off and snack on them while walking the garden.

Eat the leaves

Cranberry hibiscus leaves are also edible. The new growth and baby leaves have the best texture and flavor, but all the leaves are edible.

Adding a few leaves to your green salad mix – to add an interesting cranberry flavor and a beautiful burst of color.

I have never used the leaves in cooked meals, but false roselle is a fairly popular food around the world. According to ‘the Google’, many people use it in stirfry, and in Brazil it is commonly cooked and eaten like spinach.

Eat the flowers

The edible flowers on the false roselle are only open for a day, then they get real skimpy looking, and fall off. A few days later, you will see a seed pod beginning to form.

You can eat the flowers straight off the plant or as a garnish in salads, I don’t because the texture creeps me out, but I can see them being good in jams and jellies…

People steep the flowers for juice/tea. I have always just used the calyx for tea, but I plan on trying it with the flowers! In Egypt, cranberry hibiscus juice is very popular in a drink they call Karkade – see a video about it here. *She is referring to the roselle (not false roselle), but they can be used synonymously.

Eat the calyx

Well, don’t eat the calyx – it is the part holding the seed pod that contains pesky little spikes that break off in your fingers like splinters. But when boiled, they release that amazing cranberry flavor and make a delicious tea that is totally worth all the splinters.

We make cranberry hibiscus juice every year when we harvest the seeds.

I remove all the calyxes (with the sepals still attached), painstakingly remove the seed pods, rinse, then simmer. I drink it hot and chill the rest for cranberry flavored juice.

How to make Cranberry Hibiscus Tea

Once the flowers die back and fall off, a seed pod will from and grow inside the calyx. After 1-2 weeks, the seed pods will be plump and green. Cut the pods off the plant with scissors.

Not to be confused with a Roselle, which has way larger calyxes.

How to grow Cranberry Hibiscus in Florida (zone 9b)

The cranberry hibiscus is sensitive to frost. Mine will normally die back in the winter and all the seeds that dropped in the fall will sprout again in the spring. Right now, it is March and I am seeing little 3″ cranberry hibiscus sprouts all over the yard.

Height and Spacing

Height: 10 feet or taller! I keep mine trimmed way back like bushes (and I replant the cuttings). If left to grow out of control, they will become top-heavy and flop over from the weight of their leaves.

Sun Exposure

Full to part sun: Here in zone 9, they aren’t picky but in the heat of the summer, the cranberry hibiscus planted in part sun looks a little better than those in full sun

Soil and Water Requirements

I have these planted all over my yard. They are fairly drought tolerant but the ones in low lying areas (moist soil) tend to look the best. I saw them for sale in the pond section of a garden center so I am assuming they will grow in standing water as well.

I keep my cranberry hibiscus well mulched with leaves, twigs and wood chips, which keep in moisture and leaches rich, organic nutrients into the soil as it decomposes.

Bloom Characteristics and Foliage

Cranberry hibiscus flowers are beautiful but only last a day. Here in zone 9, the cranberry hibiscus plant will flower sporadically throughout the fall and the seed pods are usually dried and ready to pick in early to mid-winter.

The self-pollinating flowers have 5 petals and the deep burgundy leaves are very unique and look like red maples and will darken with age.

How to eat Hibiscus Flowers
Most people boil the flowers and calyx as a tea, but there are lot of different ways to enjoy them. The beautiful hibiscus flowers add a brilliant, red color to many drinks, snacks and salad.

Candied Hibiscus Flowers: Great in salads or as a popcorn-like snack
Clean and dry your hibiscus flowers, petals or calyx.
Paint a super thin layer of egg white onto each side of the flower petals or blossoms.
Coat with a fine sugar (can sprinkle it on or roll in it)
Place them on a piece of parchment paper.
Place in a dehydrator or Bake at 170 degrees for about 7 hours.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature.
Hibiscus Syrup: For use in mix drinks
Mix drink: Mix syrup, water, tequila, orange liqueur, and lime juice and serve over ice.

Simmer 2 cups of water with sugar, cinnamon stick, ginger slices and cloves until the sugar is completely dissolved (5 minutes).
Remove from heat, and stir in the hibiscus blossoms.
Cover and steep for 30 minutes.
Strain the dark red syrup through a fine mesh strainer into a glass pitcher.
Stir lime juice and 2 cups water
Refrigerate until ready to use.
Jams, jelly and Dressings
We have enjoyed Hibiscus Jam spread on toast, mixed in yogurt, or on ice cream.

Making Jam:

Rinse flowers in cold water.
Bring flowers and water to a boil; cook for 15 minutes.
Strain the juice with a strainer or with cheesecloth
Add 2 spoonfuls of sugar, whisk and bring to a boil
Add more sugar and boil 3 minutes.
Put the jam in mason jars and screw the lids firmly, then
Invert jars and let cool.
There are many other recipes for making Cranberry Hibiscus jams, jelly and dressings.

I’ve read about people using cranberry hibiscus leaves for rhubarb pie, the calyxes for jam and for making chutney. We look forward to making some this year and sharing our results.

Cranberry Hibiscus: Pests
If you pay attention to your garden and catch pests before they lay hundreds of eggs, you will be able to keep them under control.

Learn to identify your garden bugs. Some bugs eat pests, and you don’t want to kill them. It’s best to pick off the “bad” bugs, eggs and cocoons by hand. We love finding bugs so we can feed them to our fish.
We also use this sticky paste and pads to catch bugs without chemicals. These are nice so you can see what bugs are lurking in your garden. Master Gardeners usually meet at local libraries a few times a month, you can bring them your sticky pad full of bugs and ask them to help you identify them for you.
alternative to pesticide to rid garden bugs and pests

(Amazon Link – Alternative to Pesticide)

White Flies: To remove white flies, spray the leaves with your hose on jet stream a few times a day. Eventually, you will disrupt the mating cycle and they will disappear.

Thrips: These pests feed on developing flowers or vegetables and hide in crevices of leaves. They build up immunity to pesticides and the best defense against them is predators and keeping the ground mulched and clear of weeds and grasses where they also feed.

Mealy Bugs: Another hard pest to get rid of. I simply remove them and put them in our fish tank. But you can wipe them off with a cotton ball and alcohol.

Aphids: You will know you have aphids when you see ants. The ants eat the honey-like sap the aphids leave behind. Ants are great predators to have in the garden, so this is a kind of a catch 22. As long as the aphids aren’t on my edibles, I usually leave them alone.

Japanese beetle, Sri Lanka weevil.

Frequently Asked Questions:
Where can I buy Cranberry Hibiscus Seeds?
You can purchase them on Amazon here. The seeds are very tedious to extract from the seed pod, but I’m going to do it this year and try to sell them.

What is the best way to propagate (grow more) Cranberry Hibiscus?
False roselle is easy to grow from cuttings or seeds. Cut several 3-6″ pieces off the plant, remove the last few leaves and stick 3-4 cuttings into the same hole. (If you only grow one cutting, it will look very scraggly). Keep the cutting watered. It will droop for a few days, perk up then continue to grow.

For seeds, wait for a flower to die (the only last 1-2 days) and fall off. The remaining calyx will dry and turn brown. Carefully separate it (the spikes will stick in your fingers) and remove the dark black seeds.

Although I am in zone 9b, my red hibiscus tends to die in the winter if we get a few nights of freezing temperatures, but, every year it comes back from the seeds that dropped.

Can you eat Cranberry Hibiscus?
Yes! The leaves are edible (eat the smaller new leaves, they taste better than the bigger leaves) and can be eaten raw or cooked in small quantities. Use the leaves as an addition to a salad, a salad full of false roselle leaves will be overbearing. You can also make a tea or juice from the old flower blooms.

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