I think it’s high time we brought back this old-fashioned dooryard fruit. It is not technically a fruit, but instead the bright red calyx formed around a seedpod — and unlike other real fruits, roselle is an annual and needs to be planted each spring. It’s more of a candy vegetable than a fruit.
But do not get bogged down by these details. All these hibiscus plants flower in late summer to autumn and are a heck of a lot more attractive compared to pepper and tomato crops (which also need to be implanted each year), and their tart and exotic appearing calyxes are delicious and valuable in the kitchen.
Botanical name: Hibiscus sabdariffa
Common names: Roselle, hibiscus, Jamaica sorrel, Florida Cranberry
Where it will grow: Annual — increase as you’d berries
Water necessity: Drought tolerant once established but gains from moisture
Light requirement: Total sun
Mature size: 7 feet tall and 5 feet wide
Seasonal attention: Appealing broad leaves and red stalks yearlong; blossoms and fruits from late summer to fall
When to plant: In spring after the last frost
Distinguishing attributes. So, why bother with a fruit imposter which needs to be planted each year?
First, ignore the capacity for fabulous flavor and focus on the foliage. You would be hard pressed to find such a stunning and leafy tropical to get a temperate garden, due to roselle’s dramatic upright habit, dark and glossy palmate leaves, and bold mahogany-red stems.
Castor bean crops (Ricinus communis, annual) have long been grown to achieve a tropical appearance in the garden in spite of the fact that they’re poisonous, but roselle is so safe as to be edible and has quite a similar tropical impact in the landscape.
How to use it. Roselle is also very tasty and can be enjoyed in a great number of ways. The calyxes surrounding the seed pod could be eaten directly off the plant as a refreshing treat, or you’ll be able to bring them into the kitchen for all sorts of fun.
The calyxes could be dried to create a tea similar to the Red Zinger tea sold in shops, which is made from roselle. If you can bring yourself to forgo eating them fresh, you can even create some delicious syrups and preserves, due to the calxes’ flavor and higher pectin content.
You can make a Florida cranberry sauce for family gatherings by simmering three cups of the calyxes together with 11/2 cup of sugar and a cup of water.
And then, obviously, there are the blossoms, still another reason that you provide roselle a shot if your climate is too cold for a big harvest.
Just think about it for a little. As opposed to buying a costly hibiscus plant in the nursery which will inevitably die in winter, you might have a tower of exquisitely delicate peach-colored blossoms in late summer, from one seed.
Planting notes. Plant roselle in April or May (regardless of climate), but make sure you provide this vigorous plant a lot of space and perhaps a little support, since the branches may split in the bottom when they are weighed down by a heavy crop.
Stakes or cages should help. When the plant reaches 1 to 2 feet tall, prune the tips of each stem to encourage a fuller and stronger plant.
Fertilizer is not necessary, but a little application may help if your land is poor. Do not use more than half of the usual sum, though, as it could delay flowering. Besides, roselle does just fine without any help.
Simply to give you an concept of how enormous it could become with minimal care, the roselle plant pictured here began from one seed and was not once fertilized. The only irrigation it received in addition to organic Florida rainfall was a occasional watering by hose on the weeks it did not rain — it became so prolific that most of the branches collapsed in a rain bath recently, dividing at the bottom. Oddly enough, the branches continued to bloom and fruit though nothing had happened at all.
Harvest. Roselle plants begin flowering when the days become shorter and will begin fruiting earlier in temperate regions in which the days are shorter, although not all gardeners will have a crop from the first frost. To cure this, prune the plants back after they have reached 1 to 2 feet tall, use fertilizer or choose an early-blooming selection, such as ‘Thai Red’ (Hibiscus sabdariffa ‘Thai Red’, annual).
The calyxes may be harvested and enjoyed before the blossoms even open, but if you abandon them to bloom and mature for a couple of days, you will be rewarded with bigger, juicier and tastier Florida cranberries that signal their ripeness by their own slight parting, showing the seedpod inside.
Pick them in this stage with scissors or pruners before they get hard and woody. To eliminate the seedpods, use either a metal tubing like the ones used to eliminate strawberry tops, or even a knife.
Here’s a picture of some freshly harvested roselle calyxes which have begun parting to show the seed pod inside. I have included a yellow pear tomato (Lycopersicon lycopersicum ‘Yellow Pear’, annual) plus a cayenne pepper (Capiscum annum CV ‘Long Slim Cayenne’, annual) in my photo simply to show how simple that this plant is to grow from the summer garden. Plant roselle just as you’d plant peppers or tomatoes — with plenty of space — and expect a big crop of Florida cranberries.