The first time I grew roselle in my Virginia garden, I was full of angst as the summer ended with no flowers in sight. Although I know roselle is a tropical plant, I did not know it is photoperiodic. In other words, roselle is a short-day plant which means that fall’s short days and long nights encourage the flowers to form. However, here in the DC metro area, the October frosts will truncate this tropical plant’s life. That year I only had a few flowers in September and the plant died in October before I could get a good harvest. I have since learned that it is best to grow an early maturing strain in order to get a good harvest.
I now grow “Thai Red” from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is a type of hibiscus plant that is native to India and Malaysia and now found in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean islands. Its common names are sorrel, Jamaica sorrel, Queensland jelly plant, and Florida cranberry. This type of hibiscus is grown for its plump, juicy red calyxes which are modified leaf bracts. If you have ever had Celestial Seasonings’ Red Zinger tea, the red color is produced by the roselle.
Similar in shape and size to okra flowers, roselle flowers are rose with dark red centers. They only last one day. After they fade, the calyx, the red part, becomes enlarged and envelops the fruit or seed inside. After about a week, you cut off the calyx and separate the calyx from the immature seed. Because you are harvesting the calyx before the seed ripens, you may have to leave some as is on the plant to let the seed mature in order to sow next year. Alternatively, purchase new seed packets each year.
It is best to harvest often to encourage the plant to keep flowering (like growing beans). The more you harvest the more you get so you need to check your plant often in September and October. When you cut the calyx off, separate the red fleshy part, which will probably separate into five parts, from the inner green seed part. Throw away (or compost) the inner green seed part as these are too immature to sow. The calyxes can be used fresh or dried. I dry mine simply by putting on a paper towel on a tray. When they have dried completely, I store them in a glass jar.
The calyx is used in tea or beverages, dried or fresh. They are used for jams and jellies (very high in pectin), syrup, sorbets, tarts, baked goods, and chutneys. In fact, if you think of how cranberries are used in the kitchen, roselle calyxes are used much the same way.
I drink hot black tea and add the dried roselle for flavor as well as a shot of vitamin C. Roselle is high in vitamin C, calcium, and anthocyanins. Roselle tea is a strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that may help reduce high blood pressure. The leaves and flowers also are edible but I have not tried them yet.
You may not find these plants in the nursery; you may have to purchase seeds. Because of roselle’s long growing season, I start mine from seed indoors under lights in April. I then transplant outside in small containers in May after the last frost. As the plant grows, I move it to a larger container, about a foot wide and high, with a timed-release fertilizer. They are in full sun and I make sure the container is watered if it does not rain. Although I always keep an eye on my container plants when we have a dry period, I have never seen a wilted roselle plant. I have grown them in the garden bed but I don’t get good results. I think our soil has too much clay. By the end of the summer, the plants are about 4 to 5 feet high but never dense in foliage. Because they do get high but not dense, the container needs to be large and heavy enough that the plant does not topple over during the summer storms. Because the bottom of the plant is sparse, one could plant small flowering annuals at the base for additional color. I have not had any pest issues and I have read that deer are not interested.
As you are ordering your seeds for 2022, add roselle to the list. This culinary herb makes a great container plant especially if you group a few large containers together. I obtained mine from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange which is in Virginia but check these seed companies to see if they carry them as well.