I know you know the tropical hibiscus flower. Perhaps you have enjoyed some hibiscus tea? It is a more popularized way of drinking up this flavorful flower, but it has many more uses than you may know of! One such use is a cranberry flavored sauce, a taste to relish. The Florida cranberry hibiscus could be a popular holiday addition to the spread!
Native to Central and West Africa, the roselle hibiscus has travelled the world and settled in tropical climates where people appreciated the refreshing flavors. Perhaps it was more popular in Florida’s past, being mentioned in old cracker cookbooks like Cross Creek Cookery, but it could be familiar to you, thanks to places like Panera who take advantage of the tasty tang in their flavored teas! Side note – “cracker” was a term used to describe the early pioneers in Florida who would herd cattle through the Florida scrub by cracking whips. Often, by observing historical uses, we can find modern uses for sometimes forgotten flavors.
Here in Central Florida, a culturally diverse culinary paradise, you will most commonly find the roselle hibiscus being sold as “sorrel” at your favorite Caribbean or Indian restaurant or grocery. This favorite flower is far from forgotten to our friends from the islands. It is a red hibiscus tea sometimes infused with other flavors, especially around the holiday season. It could become your homegrown Christmas drink or signature seasonal sauce.
A hibiscus with many names and many uses
Scientific name: Hibiscus sabdariffa
Roselle, Sorrel, and Cranberry Hibiscus are common terms used in the Southeastern US and Caribbean. Tropical cultures worldwide have special names for this plant, and some even have specific terminology for certain parts of the plant used for different purposes. In Nigeria, for example, the seeds have one name, “gurguzu,” while the capsule cover is called “zobo.” Language is important, and often times, cultures that heavily utilize certain plants have words that cannot be literally translated into English, making it so important to learn from elders and to maintain traditions.
The uses of the roselle span beyond just edible. One common use of the plant is for fiber. In fact, a cannabis looking hibiscus cousin, Hibiscus cannabinus, could be a global fiber solution due to its rapid growth and quality fibers. Another punchy use is for red food coloring and dyes. In addition to punch, it can also be pickled, a common use in India.
The intense red comes from the “calyx” which is the part of the plant used for teas, too. More on the botanical stuff later. The most common use is a delicious tea that is flavored according to the local tradition, different across the world (and some including booze). Jams and preserves can be made, a tropical alternative to the tart cranberry sauce staple at the holiday table. Medicinally, this hibiscus has been cited for uses as a mild laxative and diuretic, a common quality for many members of the hibiscus family.
Start the plants from seeds or cuttings in April or May, which makes this a great summer friend of okra, another personal favorite of the hibiscus family. Be on bunny watch since the young tender plants are preferred by many critters, the cutest being the rabbits (plant extra so rabbits can enjoy and you can, too). Prune early to encourage branching and more flower shoots. As the days begin to shorten into fall, it will flower and begin to fruit. The part you want for cooking is the “calyx.” Harvest regularly to keep the plant pushing more plump calyces. This is kind of like a fruit—the flower grows and gets pollinated, which stimulates seed production, which is protected by the succulent red flesh that plumps up after the flower falls.
That succulent red flesh was once a simple looking calyx holding the flower to the part of the plant that attaches to the stem (think about those little green petals at base of a rose). When you ponder it for a second, the hibiscus family has all kinds of wild ways to protect its seeds – just think of cotton and okra. It is no wonder humans have found so many uses for such a friendly family of plants with the most characteristic of botanical qualities. Even a novice could probably properly ID a hibiscus flower.
Grow the plant in well-drained soil, keep it watered, give it full sun, and give it space to grow! It will thrive through spring, summer, and into winter before the first frost, so plan accordingly and harvest for the holiday.
Cooking a Calyx
The calyx is the delicious, celebrated part of the plant that makes it to Christmas, but do not pass up on using the edible seeds and tangy leaves in salads.
Elbow grease is involved in separating the plump red calyx from the seeds protected in a green pod hidden within. You will be preparing the calyces to be preserved, whether frozen, dried, or preserved as a jam or pickle. Each piece of that plump red calyx is called a sepal. Separate them out so you can use just the red calyces. Rinse them and dry them in something like a salad spinner to remove excess moisture.
To freeze the roselle, simply pat dry and add to a freezer bag. Do not forget to label and date.
To dry the roselle, you can sun dry or use a dehydrator. Storage in a glass jar is best.
Look up recipes for jams, preserves, and pickles. Early Florida cookbooks feature this heat tolerant tart and refreshing treat.
For tea, find your favorite traditional recipe. Some have ginger and allspice, some honey and lemon, some a touch of mint, and some with rum. The teas can use fresh, frozen, and dried fruits. This is a plant that should be part of your summer garden and holiday spread with your family and friends as you break bread.
Future roselle research
For a plant that travelled with people around the tropics and has established itself as a mainstay in many cultures…and Panera’s flavored teas, there is not a ton of modern research on it…until recently! UF/IFAS Extension agents, Dr. Norma Samuel and Matthew Smith, are working with a local farm, Dirty Dog Organics, to research Hibiscus sabdariffa as an alternative crop with potential for Florida farmers, big, small, and backyard. It all starts with growing different varieties of the hibiscus and evaluating them for desirable attributes. First, is it even possible to grow this on a commercial-ish scale? Second, is it cost effective? Next, teach people what you learned. And finally, begin to increase the availability of seeds of the best performers. And then, DO MORE RESEARCH to continue to support the growers and Floridians with excellent crops. This project is supported by the USDA SARE Grant program and is supporting more growers with better information.
The potential of the plant for medicinal purposes is also interesting and opens doors for future research.
Fortunately, roselle is pretty and tasty, which is good enough for me to include it in my garden and at my table.
Cheers! Oh, did I mention wine? It can also be used to make wine.
I am not the only one to write about this fab flower. Check out more information below. The first link has a nice video. Search the web to learn more to make this fab flower a familiar favorite.