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UF extension officials say cranberry substitute is so easy to grow, anyone can do it

By:
Mickie Anderson (352) 392-0400

Source(s):
Al Ferrer ajferrer@ufl.edu, 407-665-5558
Jim Hunter 407-695-2930

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It’s related to okra, is officially a hibiscus and tastes a lot like cranberry.

University of Florida extension officials say this Southern-style cranberry substitute is so easy to grow, just about anyone can do it. And if that’s not enough, it’s an attractive ornamental plant that boasts green leaves, delicate off-white flowers and red stems and would boost any garden—even if you don’t use it to make a spicy Thanksgiving beverage, cranberry-style sauce, wine or jelly.

The Hibiscus sabdariffa, also known as Roselle, Florida cranberry or Jamaican sorrel, is used around the world from Panama to Africa and the Caribbean, said Al Ferrer, a UF horticulture extension agent from Panama who grew up drinking the bright burgundy beverage.

About nine years ago, Ferrer was given some seeds for the plant and encouraged Jim Hunter, an extension service-trained Master Gardener and Casselberry nursery owner, to try growing it.

Since then, it’s become tradition for Hunter to bring the spicy drink to the county extension office’s annual holiday parties.

The plant produces pale yellow flowers, which eventually fall. When they do, a bright, fleshy red calyx encloses the seed pod, which looks something like okra. Those calyxes are the secret to the flavor, said Ferrer, who’s based in Seminole County.

The plant requires almost no attention, Ferrer says. It’s exceptionally hardy and needs little more than full sun and 100 consecutive days of warm weather. Up north, where that might be iffy, Ferrer suggests the plant could be started in a greenhouse and later moved outside.

The only real work, Hunter says, comes in harvesting the plant and cooking with it.

He makes about 2½ gallons of the drink at a time, which requires a grocery bag full of the calyxes. And although each stem produces plenty of calyxes, harvesting them can be somewhat tedious, Hunter said.

“It’s a little bit of work to make the drink and most of us are not that persistent,” he said. “But once you try it, you get hooked on the drink.”

Hunter said his wife has used the calyxes as a substitute in a cranberry sauce recipe and it turned out strikingly similar to the traditional holiday condiment.

Extension officials say the plant has been grown in Florida since the 1800s, and has been planted near the historic Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home at Cross Creek.

Here is Hunter’s holiday punch recipe:
In a glass or porcelain pot, boil for 20 minutes:
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon allspice
1 large piece of ginger, crushed
2-3 cinnamon sticks
1 gallon water

Remove from heat. Add one gallon calyxes and let rest overnight. Strain and add sugar to taste.

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