Looking for something a little different for the garden? Why not try roselle? A relative of hibiscus and okra, this plant was once a very popular edible. While not native to the state, it seems that most Florida Cracker homesteads grew it (more on this term).
Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is also called Florida cranberry, red sorrel, or Jamaica sorrel, although it is actually native to Central and West Africa and is grown around the world. The part of the plant that is edible are the calyces of the roselle flower which can be used to make a variety of jams, sauces, and teas.
Roselle produces attractive foliage and flowers and will reach a height of about 7 feet. Many parts of the plant, including the seeds, leaves, fruits, and roots, are used medicinally or in foods. The leaves are lobed and reddish-green and can be used as a cooked green or added raw for a nice "zing" to a salad. Appearing in October, the flowers are typically yellow with a dark center and about 3 inches wide. The part of the plant most popular however, is found at the bottom of each flower. This fleshy, bright red cup-like structure contains the plant's seeds and is called a calyx. The color and tart taste of the calyces makes them a good replacement for cranberries.
In the Caribbean, roselle is used to make a festive Christmas drink. Bakers can substitute roselle for rhubarb when making a fruit crisp or pie. The seeds, which are high in protein, can be roasted and brewed like coffee, or ground and added to soups and salads. The nutrient-rich calyces can either be stored frozen or dried for making cordials, punches, and jams. The calyces can also be used to add color and flavor to herb teas. Be sure to harvest calyces before they turn brown on the plant and separate them from the seeds before using them in recipes.
Planting and Care
Roselle is started from seed or cuttings and typically planted outdoors in April or May. The variety 'Victor' has proven to be a good choice for gardeners in South Florida. Early pruning will increase branching and the development of more flowering shoots.
Plants begin to bloom as the days shorten (in 4-5 months) and the calyces are ready for harvest in October or November. Calyces should be harvested when they are tender and plump; they will stay fresh for about a week after picking. Harvesting encourages more flower buds to develop. You won't have to plant a lot of roselle to get a good harvest; one plant will give you many fruits—as much as 12 pounds with the right care.
Roselle does best in well-drained soil and appreciates watering when rainfall is inadequate. Be aware that this plant does not do well in the shade and needs plenty of sunlight to thrive. Roselle can also be planted in Florida in August. It is only hardy in zones 9-10, and is damaged by frosts or freezes; plan your harvest before temperatures drop below 40° F. Root-knot nematodes are the major pest you will have to deal with when growing roselle, so be sure to practice crop rotation to reduce nematode problems.
Since roselle grows as an annual, be sure to save seeds from one season to the next. It is an heirloom plant that is passed from gardener to gardener. You can also look for plants in the spring and summer at your local farmers market.
For more information on roselle, contact your county Extension office.
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Sidebar: Florida Cracker
Unfamiliar with the term "Florida Cracker"? The Cracker Cowboys of Florida were colonial-era settlers, often of Scots-Irish descent. The term Cracker in Florida usage relates to the whip these "cow hunters" used to herd cattle in Central Florida.
To learn more, we recommend A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith. The story of three generations of a pioneer family in Florida, A Land Remembered was winner of the Florida Historical Society's Tebeau Prize as the Most Outstanding Florida Historical Novel.