By Shannon McCabe, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds/rareseeds.com
Photographs courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Roselle is a stunning edible ornamental. Cultures all over the globe appreciate its culinary and medicinal properties, and each region has found different uses and recipes for this dynamic plant.
A member of the hibiscus or mallow family, roselle is a tropical plant that can be grown as an annual in the north. Its native range spans from India to Malaysia, but it has travelled far and wide. Roselle is like the country cousin of hibiscus… the plants sport those signature bell-shaped blooms, but with edible leaves, stems, calyx and flowers, roselle has a million and one uses.
All edible parts of the roselle plant have a slightly tangy flavor like cranberry, and it balances perfectly when combined with sweet fruit. The brilliant red of the large, succulent calyx keeps its color when cooked, adding a vibrant touch to recipes.
In India, the bright red fleshy calyx is pickled and made into a type of chutney. In south India, the tangy flavored leaves are a popular green, often cooked with lentils. The leaves are also popular in many regional Indian cuisines. The Bodo people of northwest Assam cook the leaves with shrimp, fish or pork. Roselle has long been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, and indeed, the plants have antibacterial and antioxidant properties.
It is believed that the plants travelled to Africa in ancient times as they have been used there for centuries. Roselle calyx is the key ingredient in "Sudan Tea," a healing tonic for coughs and respiratory ailments. In Nigeria, the oil from roselle seeds was traditionally used to treat saddle sores on camels' backs. Roselle is also an important culinary ingredient in Africa, often brewed into teas or cooked into jams.
Roselle came to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. The tropical plants were quickly adopted in the West Indies and Latin America. In Trinidad and Tobago the calyx is commonly steeped into what is called sorrell tea. Baker Creek's Deb Vlietstra and I visited Trinidad in 2016 and enjoyed this beverage, which is spiced with cinnamon and clove, and is very popular around the holidays.
By the 1800s roselle was introduced to the U.S, where it eventually came to be called "Florida Cranberry." Roselle thrives in Florida's hot humid climate, and many locals in the know will cook the fleshy calyx into a mock cranberry sauce for holidays.
In its 1917 catalog, Kilgore Seeds of Plant City, Florida singled out roselle as "not only valuable but ornamental," and "one of the South's most reliable jelly plants," good for jams, pies and puddings, too.
Despite glowing reviews from Kilgore's, and its ability to be grown even in northern climates, roselle has remained fairly obscure in American gardens.
It is time to bring this dazzling edible ornamental out of the shadows and into full splendor in gardens everywhere!
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