Hibiscus sabdariffa

One of our favorite plants this year at the Derwood Demo Garden is Hibiscus sabdariffa, or roselle hibiscus (or sorrel, sour-leaf, flor de Jamaica, and many other names).  It is an Old World plant (Africa and Asia) that is also grown extensively in the West Indies.  In its natural warm habitat, it can be a woody shrub, but here it’s grown as an annual.  I started the seeds inside in March and by July it was over two feet tall.

The roselle flower looks a lot like that of okra; they’re in the same plant family, Malvaceae.  One of the useful parts of the plant is the flower bud:

which is picked when about an inch long and completely red.  To make a simple nutritious infusion, use 2-3 buds per measured cup of water, and simmer the buds in the water for about ten minutes until the water is a rich red.  You can drink this tea hot or cold, and add herbs to it for variety.  The commercially sold Red Zinger tea has roselle hibiscus as its base.

MG Millicent Lawrence told me how roselle or “sorrel” is used in Jamaica for a winter drink (alcoholic).  Here’s her recipe:

Jamaican Sorrel

Ingredients (makes about 2-3 pints of liquid)
1 cup dried sorrel buds
2 Tbs grated ginger (no need to peel)
5 cups boiling water
10-20 allspice (pimento) berries.  If the allspice berries are large (pea size) use the lower amount
rum and sugar to taste
wine (optional)
Place the sorrel, ginger, and allspice in a large container and pour in the boiling water.  Cover and let steep overnight.  Strain through cheesecloth or a fine meshed sieve to remove all solids.  Add a little rum to preserve and sugar to sweeten, and wine if desired.  Pour into a glass bottle and refrigerate.  The end product should be a rich ruby-colored spicy beverage.

You could also use fresh buds for this, but you’d need much more than a cup, and you’d need to infuse them, not just pour boiling water on.  Dried sorrel or flor de Jamaica can be found at Hispanic groceries.

credit Barbara Dunn

This aerial shot of the demo garden was taken from a kite flown by the indefatigable MG Barbara Dunn.

You can see our fat patch of roselle hibiscus next to the blue-green coiled hose.  There are perhaps seven plants in there – I can’t remember now – and the patch is about seven feet long.

Here’s a closeup of the pretty leaves – look, no bug damage!  And it turns out the leaves are edible as well.  I’d read this but hadn’t tried them, and then a very nice Burmese-American visitor to our garden saw the plant and recognized it and asked for some leaves to show us how it was cooked – and the next week we got a dish with “sour leaf” and bamboo shoots to sample.

I took some home that night and cooked them, but I won’t post the recipe because I’m still working on it.  The leaves have a strong sour taste that needs to be complemented with other tastes, and the Indian spices I used weren’t strong enough to do the trick.  I ought to have properly caramelized the onions, too.

Here’s a shot of my dinner, accompanied by a glass of roselle infusion.  I served the roselle greens on a chickpea flour pancake (recipe here, from a delightful food blog).

So give roselle a try in your vegetable or flower patch next year!  The seeds are available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and other sources (more next year, I expect, since this is a hot plant in the food gardening world right now).

11 thoughts on “Hibiscus sabdariffa

  1. Anonymous September 6, 2012 / 11:59 pm

    Are these the “hibiscus flowers” that are preserved in syrup? A very interesting post and cheers for sharing 🙂

  2. Erica Smith September 7, 2012 / 10:24 am

    I don't know, actually! I'm sure the plant is used for many purposes I don't know about, though.

  3. Ria Malloy September 7, 2012 / 11:24 am

    Italians do a lot with chickpea flour too. They make a flat pancake shaped bread and a deep fat fried ball sometime with cheese or other filling. I guess chickpeas don't grow well in our climate.

    Great post, Erica!

  4. Erica Smith September 7, 2012 / 11:53 am

    Chickpeas may be possible in our climate, but the only two times I've tried to grow them, something has eaten the plant before it got more than six inches high. So for now I've given up!

  5. Donna Koczaja September 7, 2012 / 9:26 pm

    Wow, cool! Hibiscus is one of my favorite herbs. I learned that you're actually supposed to use the 'calyx' of the flower, which is the little cup that holds the petals. Harvest the calyses after the flower is spent.

    According to the literature, hibiscus is really good for 'heart health'. Clinical trials have been done on its effects on hypertension and cholesterol. It is also highly antioxidant.

    Great herb!

  6. Erica Smith September 8, 2012 / 8:21 am

    Well, I'd read to use the buds, but I know that the calyxes are what's dried, and I think for fresh tea you could use either one.

    I'm definitely going to buy some dried over the winter and grow my own next year. Tasty and healthy!

  7. Anonymous December 20, 2013 / 11:21 am

    I am from the Caribbean and we drink “sorrel” a lot. It is called flor de Jamaica or Rosa de Jamaica or Saril in Spanish. I was so happy to find that it can be grown in the US.

    It is in the malva family, but different from other hibiscus. Be careful and make sure you are using the correct plant and get seeds from a reputable company and check the scientific name.

    There are many plants which are commonly referred to as hibiscus, including rose of sharon. It turns out that's edible, but don't take my word for it.

    The flowers look a lot like okra flowers (which caribbeans call Ukro), which I believe are also edible. Lovely article Erica. It is cool to find information about how to grow and use the plant where I live.

  8. Erica Smith December 20, 2013 / 4:09 pm

    Thanks for the comment! And yes, I just read in a book on foraging that Rose of Sharon is edible, but I advise everyone to look up reputable details before sampling. And people always ask me if the Hibiscus sabdariffa plants are okra; they do look a lot alike.

  9. Judith December 3, 2016 / 12:23 pm

    Thanks for the article Erica and everyone else's inputs.

    Someone asked if it is soaked in syrup and although it's an old post I thought I'd still respond, in case anyone one else wants to know.

    The buds are typically stripped from the seeds and soaked in water overnight – see Erica's recipe above. NOTE: You can choose to not strip them. Also, if you do strip them, you can run through your blender for a thicker consistency or to get more out of it. (I suppose this is how it is used to make jam or jelly – which is also delicious.)

    It can indeed become syrupy if you use more sorrel.

    Hope that helps.

  10. Erica Smith December 3, 2016 / 1:46 pm

    Thanks, Judith! I'm learning more about this plant every year I grow it. This year I have dried most of my “buds” which are really fruits since they come after the flower (I may not have known this when I wrote this post!). Next year I hope to get a recipe for the jam; this year it's all going for tea and other beverages.

  11. Roxanne July 14, 2018 / 11:42 am

    Do you know Growers of fresh Roselle in Maryland who sell wholesale?

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