The Milkweed Diaries

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hymn to Hibiscus

Earlier this summer, Dana-Dee posted a call for information about hibiscus on her highly entertaining and informative blog. What with the abundance of hibiscus blooms in my garden right now, it seemed like a good time to answer the call and sing the praises of this family of plants. So here you go, Dana, and anyone else who's interested.

First let me say that hibiscus is SO worth growing. It's beautiful, and at least in my garden has always been pest-free. As you will read below, there are edible and medicinal varieties of hibiscus, but I must admit that the main reason I grow it is for pure prettiness.

Here are some photos of various hibiscus plants in our garden, blooming right now.

The first is a hearty native hibiscus (above and at left). I bought this plant at my favorite local nursery, Reems Creek in Weaverville. Incidentally, they are also the only local garden center where you can buy all of the ingredients for the soil mix that I blogged about last month for starting seeds.

In any case, this hibiscus is my favorite in the garden. It's just a low-profile plant with gorgeous, subtle, funky buds (at left) that suddenly erupt into bloom right about now. Plus, it's a native perennial. I'm curious if anyone knows if this variety is edible/suitable for tea.

The next garden shot is of the "red zinger" hibiscus, Hibiscus sabdariffa, also known as red sorrel (below).

I found a great article on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's website about this fabulous variety. The article is written not by a Brooklynite but by someone who lives the island of St. Croix, where apparently this hibiscus is widely cultivated and consumed.

According to the author of the Brooklyn Botanic article, red sorrel hibiscus was once a popular edible garden plant in the US too. It's easy to see why:

"Along with the fruit, calyces, and flowers, the leaves of red sorrel are also edible. They have a rhubarblike taste and are served in salads and curries. The seeds likewise may be eaten; they are best roasted or ground to make flour for baking. In the Sudan, the seeds are fermented into a meat substitute called "furundu." Red sorrel has a lot of nutritional value. The calyces, for example, are high in calcium, niacin, riboflavin, and iron."

If you are interested in this variety of edible hibiscus, I highly recommend the article snipped-from above, which includes a recipe, seed source information, and lots of interesting history and cultural notes.

I bought one plant of this variety on impulse at the farmers market one day in the spring, from a grower who only had 3 tiny starts, and 2 were already reserved by other customers. I paid $2 which is a bargain considering all I have gained from this plant--education, edibility, and beautification!

I'm saving some of the seed pods of Hibiscus sabdariffa for hibiscus tea, which will be a welcome burst of summer color and flavor some wintery day, I'm sure.

To return to the ornamental aspect of hibiscus for a moment, I must include a photo of the gigantic red variety in our garden (left), described by one garden visitor as "that giant red thing that looks like a pot plant." It sports highly ornamental red buds, and just keeps expanding its beet-red self all over the place.

I've enjoyed its presence, but I doubt it will return in the spring -- I think it's a tropical variety, alas.

The last hibiscus photo I'm including is of a flower on one of the varieties of okra we're growing this year. Okra is so ornamental, it really could be grown just for the flowers! But it's also such a heavy producer that it's a great plant for growing a lot of food in a small space. I've brine-pickled a bunch of okra already this summer, given lots away, and plan to make some classic Southern-style okra-n-tomatoes for my Dad this weekend.

To close with a final hibiscus tidbit: my friend Sandi Ford, a super-knowledgeable plantswoman and herbalist extraordinaire, came over for dinner tonight and answered some of my most pressing botanical questions, such as "is chinese cabbage a brassica" and "are marshmallows in the hibiscus family." While we were on the subject of hibiscus, she told me that hibiscus flowers are androgynous or hermaphroditic -- each individual flower contains all of the female and male reproductive parts needed for the plant to propagate itself. This kind of flower is also referred to as "perfect" or "bisexual." More here.

So to recap: delicious, hermaphroditic, beautiful.

There's my Hymn to Hibiscus.


Dana said...

What a thorough response well worth waiting for. I am very very pleased with your hymn to hibiscus. I have a particular interest in the red sorrel hibiscus as I developed a sudden serious craving for the tea of it this summer when it was real hot. Can you hook me up next year with a plant or some seeds or a contact of who you got yours from? Also, might I add to the list of glorious hibiscus the manihot flower. I will give you some seeds if I am able to collect any from mine. Anyhoo, thanks for taking the time to sing so many praises to such a great plant and plant family. (I agree marsh mallow deserves a whole other session). Cheers!

Sandi said...

Hi Beth
great post. next time you look at your flowers notice that the sexual parts are actaully fused together. somet thing unique to this family of plants and an identifying characteristic. Also, as far as I know all flowers in the hibiscus genus are ok to use for tea, but I would probably double check that to be positive. I made a sun tea out of one of my red varities the other day and it was an incredible color. would be fun to play around with as a natural food coloring.


Jordana said...

Hey BT-
Great post! We grow swamp hibiscus in my garden at work. I've also heard it called swamp rose mallow. It is planted in our bog garden. Ours gets totally munched by japanese beetles, as does our Hibiscus coccinea, but this does not at all affect their flowering, just the foliage. I attached a funny photo of me with one of our 'Moy Grande' flowers to an email to you today. Check it out!

Milkweed said...

You women rock my hibiscus-loving world. Thanks for the replies!

Yes, I am going to try to save seeds, Dana, and would love to trade you some. And if you come out this weekend, let's make some tea from the seed pods.

Weird, Jordana, the japanese beetles haven't touched my hibiscus or marsh mallow. I inadvertently let a HUGE evening primrose volunteer from a mulch pile, though, and it seemed to draw all of the japanese beetles to it, and away from everything else. Trap crop?

Fused sexual parts are even cooler than just plain hermaphroditic.

See ya'll in the garden!