Two main types of roselle can be found in commerce. Hibiscus sabdariffa var. altissima is cultivated in India, the East Indies, and other places for its jute-like fiber. Stems are green or red, and leaves are green with red veins. Flowers are yellow with red or green, non-fleshy calyces that are not used for food. H. sabdariffa var. sabdariffa race ruber is more frequently grown as an ornamental and for its edible calyces. The topic of this article is the later variety. A red-leaf type is sold as H. sabdariffa var. rubra.
Roselle is an erect, bushy herbaceous subshrub that tops out at anywhere from four to seven feet tall and almost as wide. Stems are typically round and smooth. Alternate, deeply lobed green leaves are usually three to five inches long with reddish veins and toothed margins. When flowers first open, they are light yellow with a rose or maroon eye. As they mature during their one-day life span, they gradually darken to a dusty rose color. Flowers hug the stem, as they are borne in the leaf axils on short petioles. However, the 3- to 5-inch flowers are visually significant as they bloom up the length of the stem during the late summer and early fall months when the days grow shorter.
At the base of each flower is a fleshy, bright red structure called a calyx (sepal). It is this part that is harvested and used to make juices, sauces, jellies, wines, pies, and other tasty edibles. The calyces (or calyxes) are separated from the seeds for use in recipes. If left on the plant, the calyces eventually turn brown and split open to reveal the seeds. The leaves, stems, and calyces are all edible. Their flavor is reminiscent of cranberries, though less bitter.
Plant roselle in a full sun location. Start from seeds planted where they are to grow in Zones 8-11. In colder areas, start seeds indoors and transplant outside after the danger of frost is past. Place transplants at least three feet apart, or thin seedlings to that distance so that plants have plenty of room to grow. New plants are also easily started from cuttings.
Roselle is not particular about soil pH, but it requires a permeable soil. Sandy soil amended with humus is preferred; however, it adapts to a variety of soils. It appreciates frequent watering and is even tolerant of floods and stagnant water. Plant them anywhere an attractive shrub is needed during the summer. Scatter them in a mixed border, or plant in rows to make a dense hedge by midsummer. They also perform well in large containers.
Since it is susceptible to root knot nematodes, roselle should not be planted in the same place every year. A good mulch will help to control the nematode population, conserve water and inhibit weeds.
Begin harvesting the tender calyces about 10 days after the flowers bloom. Pick regularly to keep the plants blooming and producing. Remove the calyces from the seed pods. Most recipes call for 2 quarts of calyces and one quart of water. After boiling and simmering for about 10 minutes, the juice can be strained and used for a variety of recipes. It can be sweetened to make a flavorful drink, or jelly or wine if you prefer. The remaining pulp makes a delicious jam or pie filling.
Dave's garden members have quite a bit of information to share on this useful plant. Not only are all parts of the plant edible and used in many foods, but they have also been used extensively for medicinal purposes. Its usefulness as an intestinal antiseptic has been touted, as well as its effectiveness in treating arteriosclerosis and other ailments.
The red-leaf hibiscus, H. acetosella, commonly called false roselle or African rose mallow, is sometimes confused with roselle. This hibiscus, an ornamental plant from tropical Africa, bears red stems up to 8 feet tall and is hardy from USDA Zones 7-11. Leaves of newer cultivars are deeply lobed and resemble the leaves of Japanese maples. Typically the leaves are shades of green with red veins, or they range from red to bronze to deep burgundy. While some of them flower, they are almost incidental to the attractive leaves. Many do not flower at all. The seed pod is hairy and not fleshy like roselle. The young leaves are sometimes cooked, usually with rice or vegetables, but the calyces are not eaten. This hibiscus is a short-lived perennial sub-shrub, and several cultivars are available.
Whether you decide to eat your roselle or simply grow it in the garden, it is worth its space for its beauty, ease of care, and the variety that it adds to the landscape. Floral designers, ever vigilant in their search for design materials, have found that the colorful calyces add a touch of class to small designs.
Where to get it? Some Dave's Garden members may have seeds to trade. Like gardeners everywhere, they're eager to trade for some plant you have but they don't. Why not give it a try?
At a Glance
Hibiscus sabdariffa var. sabdariffa
Pronunciation: hi-BIS-kus sab-duh-RIF-fuh
Common names: roselle, rozelle, sorrel, red sorrel, Jamaica sorrel, Indian sorrel, Guinea sorrel, Queensland jelly plant, jelly okra, lemon bush, Florida cranberry
Origin: Old World Tropics, probably the East Indies
Family: Malvaceae (Mallow)
Hardiness: Short-lived perennial in USDA Zones 10-11; annual elsewhere
THANKS TO FLORIDIAN, ONALEE AND GARDENGUYKIN FOR THEIR PHOTOGRAPHS. (Mouse over images for credits.)