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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).

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