Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)
The mallow family: Malvaceae
|For review: flower parts from Wikipedia.|
Roselle, a member of the mallow family, is native to Africa and was probably brought to this continent by enslaved Africans. As is typical of this family, the flowers are beautiful with five large overlapping petals known collectively as the corolla that are subtended by five sepals. In this species there are also ten bracts or episepals. The collection of sepals is the calyx and the episepals are the epicalyx. The plural of these are calyces and epicalyces.
What’s unusual about roselle as a crop is that in addition to its edible leaves, the main crop is the calyx and epicalyx and not the fruit. They have an acidic taste and a burgundy color, which is surprisingly similar to the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon), which is related to blueberries and the like in the heath family, Ericaceae. Confusingly, there is also a cranberry hibiscus (H. acetosella), a different species with pink flowers that is grown for its edible burgundy leaves.
Both the leaves and the calyces of the roselle produce some slime, but not nearly as much as its cousin okra (Abelmoschus esculentus). Interestingly, I'm growing a purple okra this year and it's the exact same burgundy color as the roselle calyces. Many other members of this plant family produce slime and one of the more notable examples is the marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), a native of Europe harvested for slime in its roots. The slime was whipped like egg whites to make a foam, which was used as a delivery system for medicines. Often sugar was added to disguise the taste. And this was the origin of today’s marshmallows, which don’t use any of that whipped mallow slime. Another surprising member of this family is cacao (Theobroma cacao), which is the source of chocolate. Cacao is native to Central America and northern South America and was used by indigenous peoples there to produce caffeinated drinks. This sucessful plant family with its beautiful flowers has a world-wide distribultion and many species are popular in gardens around the world.
Last year as I was going through the offerings from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com), I decided to order a pack of roselle seeds, not knowing how well they would do in our North Florida location, because this is a tropical plant that is killed by a frost. I ended up with four seedlings that did well. I planted two in unamended soil next to the driveway on either side of a bunch of string lilies. The other two seedlings I planted in a raised bed where I grow my vegetables. In this bed, I’d been growing some banana peppers. In our book, “Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida,” we advised that the roselles should be planted three feet apart, but I didn’t follow that advice and planted them about a foot apart and about two feet from the peppers. This was too close. The roselles began to grow vigorously toward the end of the summer in both locations, but the two in this rich soil grew quite a bit larger with many more branches, which shaded the peppers.
The roselle flowering doesn’t start until after the autumnal equinox at the end of September, but once it began, it has gone crazy! The roselles have also been surprisingly attractive shrubs in our yard this fall.
|The flopping branches on the roselles|
next to the driveway still bloomed
and continued to produce flowers.
I’d seen people complain online about “flopping branches” on their roselles. My experience is that the lower branches flopped in the poorer soil next to the driveway, but the two shrubs growing in the rich soil in my raised bed did not flop. This is not a large enough sample to scientifically prove anything, but it’s something to think about. The plants in the poorer soil still bloomed well even on the flopping branches, but there were fewer branches. If your experience with roselle is different or the same as mine, leave a comment here and we can build a larger sample.
If you want to save some seed for next year, leave the fruit in place until the calyces dry out and turn brown. It's best to do this at the end of the season, so the plant keeps blooming while it's warm. Make sure you leave enough time so you can harvest seeds before frost hits.
|In most of the leaf axils, there are secondary buds
which are more evident at the end of October.
|At the end of October, the flowers blooming
from the secondary buds are smaller.
At the end of October, the roselle had slowed its growth rate noticeably and the flowers and the resulting calyces were smaller because many were blooming from the secondary buds that were formed in most of the leaf axils. The abundance of the every day harvest had lessened as well. Fortunately, I had frozen and dried a good supply of chopped roselle calyces for future use by then.
The roselle calyces can be used raw or cooked in various ways. The leaves are also edible and can be used raw in salads or cooked with mixed greens where they add a slight acid bite, and as mentioned, a bit of slime when raw.
Roselle’s most traditional use has been to make teas and drinks, but sauces, jams, and jellies are also popular uses. Roselle provides the red and some of the “zing” in ‘Red Zinger’ tea, which was first sold by Celestial Seasonings in 1972. The ingredients are listed as: hibiscus (which is the roselle), rosehips, peppermint, lemon grass, orange peel, natural flavors, lemon myrtle, licorice and wild cherry bark.
|The calyces are easy to pull away from the developing fruit.||Roselle preparation mode: unless you're making jelly and jams the fruit is a waste product.|
To prepare the roselle, I pull the fleshy calyx and epicalyx from the developing fruit by hand. They come off quite easily and then I chop them up according to what I use them for—more finely chopped for salads and coarsely chopped for sauces. The chopped roselle calyces could be used right away, dried to use in teas or drinks, or frozen to use later as you would the freshly harvested calyces. If I were going to make jelly or jam, I’d boil the developing fruit to extract their natural pectin, but since I haven’t done that yet, the maturing fruit has gone into the compost.
"Florida cranberry" sauce recipe
A bright, acidic sauce that's a great substitute for cranberry sauce for your holiday turkey and more.
|Simple ingredients: 4 c roselle, 2 c liquid, 1c sugars, 1/8 tsp cinnamon, and optional additions.||Florida's "cranberry" sauce is delicious warm or cold.|
Heat the water, juices, cinnamon and sugars to boiling in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently. When the mixture begins to boil, lower the heat and boil 5 minutes longer, stirring constantly. Add the chopped roselle and the optional additions (I added 1/2 cup of sunflower seeds and 3/4 cup raisins as my optional items.), return the mixture to a boil, and continue cooking 10 minutes longer, stirring constantly to avoid scorching.
You're done! Enjoy warm or refrigerate before serving.
|My neighbor's roselle/banana muffins.|
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I shared some of our roselle harvest with a neighbor who added chopped roselle to her banana muffins. They were delicious, but she said that if she did it again that she’d add about twice as much roselle and not chop it as finely.
I added coarsely chopped calyces of five roselles to my oatmeal instead of raisins. I cook my old-fashioned oatmeal with water in a bowl in the microwave for 90 seconds. In that time the roselle turns the oatmeal pink and it is delicious! I'll be doing this as long as I have them to harvest.
Later in the season, I made a delicious Nantucket cranberry pie using roselle instead of cranberries.
|Using an old family recipe, but I used roselle with some added fruit juice since the roselle is not as juicy as cranberries.||The recipe says to serve cold with whipped cream. We used plain yogurt instead and the combination was delicious!|
Grease pie pan. Spread roselle and walnuts in the pan. Add juice. Mix the sugar, flour, butter and eggs together until smooth. It will be fairly stiff. Scoop it on the top of the roselle and nuts making sure that it's evenly distributed and that there is complete coverage. Bake in a 325 degree oven for 50 minutes. Cool before serving.
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So I hope you try some roselle next year. Just keep in mind that no matter how early you plant it, the blooming won’t begin until September 21st when the days are shorter and the nights are longer. And then have fun cooking to the harvest.
Green Gardening Matters,