Roselle, The Florida Cranberry
Roselle, a relative of hibiscus, was once used widely as an edible plant in Florida. The flowers are less showy than other hibiscus varieties, but their calyces (sepals at the base of the flower) are amazing! As the flower dies the calyx gets fleshy and in the sunlight shines like rubies. But even better than its beauty is its sweet/tart flavor. Florida pioneers grew roselle in their gardens to make cranberry sauce to serve with the Thanksgiving turkey, they called it the Florida Cranberry. The Caribbean islanders make a special rum drink at Christmas made with steeped roselle calyces which they call sorrel. One ingredient in Red Zinger tea is roselle calyces, and it’s called hibiscus tea!
How to Grow
It’s easy to grow – just throw a few seeds in a pot. They are basically annuals, so you have to plant new seeds each year. If you want to aim for a November fruiting, it takes about 6 months, so April and May would be a good time for starting seeds. After they sprout, protect them from iguanas. Yes, iguanas like them as much as they like their big showy relatives, but with roselle, it’s the leaves they love. Put the pots in a sunny, but protected area; water regularly. When you’re ready to put them in the ground, you’ll have to put a cage around them, iguanas will strip every leaf and it’s hard for a young plant to recover. For more of a bush-like shape, put 3-4 seeds in a small pot and plant them all together. Roselle prefers a sunny location in the garden with a little afternoon shade. When it’s too big for its cage, wrap netting over and around and keep it held together so birds can’t get in – not attractive – but the bush eventually gets to a good size and the leaves get tougher so it can withstand the occasional iguana feast. Remember to water them regularly and apply some fertilizer throughout the growing season. It’s a short lived plant and it wants to grow fast.
Harvest the fleshy calyces after the flowers have died and fallen off. They should be shiny, fleshy and firm. There is a circle of greenish tips around them, you can cut these off, but isn’t necessary. There is a large seed inside. Take a sharp knife and cut the base off just above the points, then you can pop the seed out. Remember to leave a few of the fruit on the bush to mature into seeds so you’ll be able to plant some next year. Some have had luck cutting it back before the cooler weather so it will come back the next spring.
Fore additional information about growing roselle:
Images and article by Suzy Cushman, Master Gardener Volunteer