Hibiscus acetosella is charming everred-nevergreen shrub, that originate from Central Africa and was brought to many tropical and non-tropical countries (There is also a green leaf variety with yellow flowers, but it is not of mine concern here.). It is perennial plant, but in places where there is too cold or extremly dry season, it appeares as a annual. When I first saw it, in northern Philippines, I've thought at first, that it is just one of those cool, fancy ornamental shrubs, like many other plants with red leaves. Few of those shrubs was growing bit chaoticly, neglected near someones fence. So I didn't knew if it planted there, had spreded unintendently by seeds from nearby cultivation, or like many other interesting, beautifull flowers in the Plilippines - just growing wild. Never before though I have seen any Hibiscus with red leaves, so it brought my attention. I really liked its look, and hoped that like many other hibiscuses, it might be somehow useful in other way than just ornamental. I've picked two of dozens little seedlings growing scattered all over the place. Some time after, I've identified this plant as a Cranberry Hibiscus.
I was nicely supprised, to found out that its leaves are edible, and delighted with its kinda cranberry-sorrel like, mix of taste (i is also slightly mucilaginous). It is even a popular vegetable in Brasil, Cameroon and DR Congo, just like closely related Hibiscus sabdariffa is in India. It is nearly over the year now, and I can't stop wonder why until this day I haven't seen Hibiscus acetosella anywhere else, ever. It is one of those plants that just deserves to be the most famous, worldwide. It is beautifully dark red to maroon all year long, which wonderfully contrast whith the green of other plants, and it has pretty flowers too. And you might dissagre, but for me it is so delicious. Highly usefull and highly ornamental all the time - perfect combination.
There are just but scarce informations about medicinal uses of Hibiscus acetosella. I think that it have more health benefits then just those recorded, but it is just that no one have ever properly focused on it. After all its leaves are full of anthocyanins - one of the best antioxidants. One of the reasons for the poor knowledge about medicinal effects of consuming this plant, might be its relatively short history. It is said to be born not so long ago, as an effect of hybridization (natural cross-polination not GMO) between probably Hibiscus asper and Hibiscus surattensis, and was first described in year 1896.
Here are some of its common names from different regions : False Roselle, Red-leaved Hibiscus, African Rosemallow, Maroon Mallow, Red Shield Hibiscus (English), Fausse oseille de Guinee (French), Azedas (Portuguese), Thelele Yeni-Yeni (Thelele is shared name for mucilaginous vegetables) in Chewa language, Limanda, Lumanda (Malawi), Musaayi (Uganda), Use-ua-ngojo (Angola), Kangao, Tongao (Congo), Akese (Nigeria), Kololwe, Lumaka (Tanzania).
Hibiscus acetosella is a perennial, but short-lived shrub, that appear as a annual plant, in some regions where very cold or extremly dry seasons are killing it every year. It has attractive deep red leaves, that are turning more dark and maroon with age. That makes it great addiction to the tropical landscape, giving some redness all year round. But it requires full sun expousure to stay bright, otherwise its leaves will turn more greeny or browny. It's flowers appear in summer time, and it is reddish-pink, quite brighter than the leaves.There is also a variety with green leaves and yellow flowers, but becouse of its small atractivness, it is not so popular. The leaves on young plants are egg shape, and just slightly lobbed on margins, but when the flower buds are starting to grow, the new leaves are comming in the maple like shape. Cranberry Hibiscus can reach up to 2m of height, with its loose, bendy stems, but you can keep it short and compact regular prunning. Thanks to its flexible nature it is storm resistant bush. It is often grown as a ornamental hedge. It is also cultivated as a vegetable on commercial scale, on low and medium altitudes.
It like moisture, but need good drainage. Grows best in half shade, but like full sun as well and don't tolerate strong shade. Hibiscus acetosella can grow on any type of soil, but for the best growth it need good amount of compost. It can withstand short term drought and strong heat, but temperatures around -10'C are deadly for it. If you have it in your temperate climate garden and it get freezed, give it some time in the spring, as there might be a chance that it will grow back from its roots. Even though I lack the experience and have no informations about growing H. acetosella as in a pots as houseplant. I do belive that it will grow indoors just as well as many other species of Hibiscus does. The plant can be propagated easily from seeds, or from cuttings. On commercial scale Hibiscus acetosella is ussually sown in rows, from witch after it reaches about 25cm, some plants are harvested whole, uprooted. That gives more space to remained plants, from wich later on, only tops of stems are picked. Its high resistance to root-knot nematodes makes it an excellent crop in place after tomatoes and other solanaceous vegetables that are affected by nematodes.
In tropical regions Cranberry Hibiscus can be generally harvested all year round. For commercial purpose whole stems tops are harvested, which is easier and keep it fresh for longer. But for homeuse it is better to pick leaves and only its very tips that are truly soft. Flowers are also edible and are best to pick when freshly open.
Young leaves and shoots of Cranberry Hibiscus, are delicate, crispy, mucilaginous and sour like combination of Cranberries and Sorrel. It can be eaten raw, and it make great addiction to salads or sandwithes, you can also add it to your smoothies. When it comes to cooking, you can use it as a Sorrel substitute for soups, stews, stir-fries or steam it like spinach. What many people like about it, is that it is not losing its nice red colour after cooking. Flowers can be used in the same way, they are more mucilaginous, crunchy, but quickly wilt and became floppy, and it won't give you this pleasant sourness of leaves, but a bit more sweetness. In South Africa young leaves of Hibiscus acetosella are added to pies similar to rhubarb pie, and young, soft calyxes are turned into jam, but I think that flowers are much better for jams and marmalades. Older, tough leaves and calyxes can be used fresh (chopped or crashed), or dried (and crushed), to make a nice herbal tea, that taste quite sour and fruity (like Roselle Tea - made from calyxes of closely related Hibiscus sabdariffa also known as Red Sorrel). If you are looking for interesting, original recipes for this veggie, I advice you to search for Indian recipes with Hibiscus sabdariffa leaves and use H. acetosella as a substitute. Like in this Hibiscus chutney recipe .
Every 100g of leaves of Hibiscus acetosella is providing 42 Kcal, contain 2,88g of protein, 1,45g of dietary fibre, 0,46g of fat, 7,49g carbohydrates, 67mg of vitamin C and 3409µg of beta-carotene. Because of its oxalic acid content its leaves should not be consumed raw in excess, and avoided by persons suffering from urinary stones. Boiling and steaming significantly reduce oxalic acid content in vegetables.
Hibiscus acetosella is very poorly researched herb, but its health benefits have been observed in countries of central Africa, and it is now utilized in traditional medicine of many African countries and Brasil. In folk medicine leaves and seeds are used to allievate fever, headache, rheumatism, inflammations, conjuctivitis, hemorhoids, tumors, to treat ringworms, sores and abscesses. The leaves, flowers and calyxes are used in heart and nerve conditions, as diuretic, sedative, anti-scorbutic, intestinal antiseptic and to stimulate lactation in breastfeeding women. It contains anthocyanins, polyphenols, rutin, hyperoside, vitamin C, beta-carotene, rosmarinic acid, caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid and oxalic acid.
Cranberry Hibiscus leaves decoctions are drunk for anemia, and as a blood purifying tonic in Uganda. In Angola infusions made from leaves are used as post-fever tonic, and as a medicine to treat anemia. In Nigeria it is called Akese and its leaves are used for desyntery, control of menstrual disorders and afterbirth problems. Decoction of Hibiscus acetosella in combination with Dioclea saramentosa and Sesamum indicum is drunk during painful menstruation. In DR Congo, Cranberry Hibiscus consumption as a vegetable is prescribed by health care workers to diabetics. In East Africa children with aching body are washed in cold water to which pounded leaves of H. acetosella have been added.
Studies on mice have showned antimutagenic, DNA reperative effect, of small doses of Hibiscus acetosella, but indicated its possible hepatotoxity at high doses. Because of its oxalic acid content Cranberry Hibiscus leaves should not be consumed raw in excess, and avoided by persons suffering from urinary stones. Boiling and steaming significantly reduce oxalic acid content.
You are what you eat - they say. I never seen such a red caterpillar so I guess its color is caused by its hibiscus diet.
'' Vegetables '' - G. J. H. Grubben, PROTA 2004
'' Outlines and Pictures of Medicinal Plants from Nigeria '' - Tolu Odugbemi, Tolu Odugbemi 2008
'' Chewa Medicinal Botany : A Study of Herbalism in Southern Malawi '' - Brian Morris, LIT Verlag Munster 1996
'' CRC World Dictionary of Medicinal and Poisonous Plants '' - Umberto Quattrocchi, CRC Press 2012