Heavenly hibiscus

On a smallholding outside Klein Brak River two proudly Afrikaner tannies are making history by producing the country’s latest superfood – rosella flowers. Their hibiscus products have turned out to be unexpectedly successful.

WORDS Clare van Rensburg PHOTOGRAPHS Melanie Mare

Arriving at Latchet farm in the sleepy district of Klein Brak River on a warm December morning, my task is to sample the Garden Route’s newest superfood: rosella flowers. Best friends and business partners Anina van Tonder and Helen Malan offer a warm greeting as they guide me past rows of beautifully tended juvenile hibiscus bushes. Although only knee-high now, this crop will provide a rich harvest in only a few short months.

The two entrepreneurs have prepared a feast of flowers – crimson blooms fizz in flutes of ice-cold sparkling wine. The sweetness of the floral sheath is the perfect complement to the crisp tartness of the wine.

Syrup soaked flowers are filled with Lancewood cream cheese and served on a tapas platter along with local olives and green figs, while a melting round of ripe Fairview Camembert is drenched in rosella syrup. 
The magnificent scarlet shade of the rosella is also used in a luxurious sparkling wine jelly.

The blossoms provide delicate decoration on a traditional custard trifle and are blended into 
the rich creamy filling of a gourmet cheesecake, all washed down with a refreshing glass of rosella iced tea.

Rosella flowers have a unique taste and texture. Sweeter than rhubarb, but more sour than strawberry, their flavour hints at lemon and sits on the tongue as smoothly as a ripe raspberry. The preserved flowers bear a resemblance to decadent cranberry sauce. The product follows a growing global trend for locally produced, small-scale artisan fare.

Last year the Malan smallholding produced 2500 jars of preserved flowers from less than a single hectare under cultivation, and their products are proving to be a huge hit in the Southern Cape. “Our stock is flying out the door. Just when we think we’ve made enough stock, somebody rings and needs another 350 bottles for a wedding.”

Of the hundreds of species of hibiscus found around the world, only Hibiscus sabdariffa, also known as Wild Hibiscus, produces the edible swollen red floral cases, known as calyces or roselle. The dried calyces are brewed into a tea in Sudan; used in the production of juices, jellies and jams in Europe; colourants in the United States; and made into a cooling lemonade in the Caribbean. Wild Hibiscus has been cultivated in India, Indonesia and tropical Africa for centuries and is particularly rich in calcium, niacin, vitamin C and iron. In addition, this superfood contains cancer fighting antioxidants. Rosella tea is used in folk medicine to treat high blood pressure, 
stimulate the liver and digestive system, reduce fever and fight infection.

Seeds of success
Anina and Helen, friends for over 22 years, are registered nurses, proud grandmothers and now successful entrepreneurs. Three years ago they began to grow and bottle rosella flowers as a way to earn retirement income.

Anina discovered the gourmet delicacy by accident on a trip to see her daughter in Australia in 2010. “One evening we went on a ladies night out and our hosts greeted us with beautiful rosella flowers in sparkling wine.” After a three-year search for the flowers back home, she found out they grow wild in KwaZulu-Natal, but it was impossible to source affordable seeds.

With the help of NGO Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products, Anina’s daughter brought 100g of seed from Australia in 2012 and the business, African Rosella Flowers, was born. Today, 600 lovingly tended plants produce thousands of flowers in a single growing season.

Helen and Anina share a hard working nature. “We do everything ourselves – from planting to bottling. Afrikaner women never stop working!”

Sustainable shrub
The two friends planted their hardy, drought-tolerant seed stock and monitored the plantlets carefully to ensure they didn’t fall prey to insects, vervet monkeys and baboons. “We were so excited when the plants started flowering,” they say of their first crop, which bloomed in 2013.

The business was not without its challenges. “Initially we struggled to find the right formula for preserving the flowers. We realised that we needed to conserve the blossoms in sugar and water syrup, but our first attempts failed as the flowers crumbled or wilted,” says Helen. With the help of culinary arts specialist Francois Ferreira, they perfected their processing technique and lovingly bottle their produce without the need for artificial preservatives or colourants.

The entrepreneurs are acutely conscious of using farming techniques that protect the environment and limit the impact of their crop on local biodiversity, sourcing minimal irrigation water from a local stream. While most local animals don’t like to eat the plant, a Cape Mountain tortoise has to regularly be removed. “My husband drives him over to the game reserve at Botlierskop,” says Helen, “but he must find the flowers delicious because he somehow always finds his way back. He is eating our profits, but we recognise that he was here first.”

The process of growing, harvesting and preserving the plants takes months. In July, Anina sows the tiny seeds by hand. By September they are resilient enough to be planted into the ground on Helen’s smallholding. Once the flowers bloom in January, the women prepare for their harvest. By mid-February the flowers have died back, leaving their seed pods. Seasonal workers strip the bushes of the ripe red calyces. Each bush produces hundreds of blossoms and each roselle has to be trimmed off individually with scissors, and the seed case removed by hand.

The day immediately after the flowers are harvested, the processing begins; the swollen red seed cases of the hibiscus have to be bottled immediately. This is an incredibly labour intensive process. The friends work from a small, one-room factory on Helen’s property through-out February, March and April. They boil the delicate scarlet seed cases in sugar syrup, before bottling them in jars. “We are so busy during this time that Anina banned her son from getting married until June,” Helen says with a laugh.

Helen and Anina share a bond many business owners would admire. They cite friendship, passion and communication as the keys to their growing success. “We are able to talk a thing out,” says Helen. “We haven’t had a single fight in 22 years,” adds Anina.

Their favourite part of the business is delivering the season’s new stock in the autumn. “We make a lekker outing out of our deliveries. 
We start in Plettenberg Bay early in the morning and visit all the farm stalls. We’re not that young anymore and by the time we get out of the car at the end of the day, we are really hobbling like old people,” says Anina.

Although they joke about feeling ancient, they are as vibrant as their flowers. They have clear plans for the future. “We will retire on these flowers,” the women say.

CONTACT
African Rosella Flowers 044 696 6737 africanrosella.com
Stock available at farm stalls and speciality food stores from Franschhoek to Stellenbosch and around the Southern Cape.
Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products (ASNAPP)
Elton Jefthas, Country Director, ASNAPP South Africa (Southern Africa)
021 808 2918 [email protected]
This organisation aims to improve indigenous plant product industries on the African continent. The NGO works with rural communities, horticulturalists and entrepreneurs.