Wild Hibiscus: Barely Known in The United States
Have you ever run across a plant which is rare, yet shouldn’t be? I have! Perhaps the best example of such a plant is Wild Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa). It’s known by several other names. In Australian and New Zealand it’s called “wild hibiscus.” In some quarters it’s called “Florida cranberry.” Among the few North Americans who know this plant, most call it Roselle. Why do they call it Roselle? I don’t know.
It is a kind of hibiscus. Yet, in most of North America it’s never going to go wild because it’s too cold sensitive. It’s in no way related to the cranberry. Yet, the infusion (all right, I’m going to call it juice, because that’s what it tastes like) does indeed remind me of cranberry juice. My favorite name for this plant is Jamaica (pronounced in Spanish ha-mike-ah). Indeed, it seems that the Hispanic world knows this plant much better than the rest of America.
Known throughout the Tropics
It seems that Wild Hibiscus is found almost everywhere in the tropics. So ubiquitous is this plant, that there is disagreement as to where are its origins. It grows wild in many parts of the world. Yet, this amazing plant will grow quite well in most of our gardens if started like a tomato plant and transplanted into the garden after danger of frost.
Easy to Grow and Hardy
Wild Hibiscus is super hardy. It laughs at Oklahoma heat and drought and endures and persists through unexpected cool spells in spring. It shoulders weeds to the side. It’s so robust that I’ve seen it crowd okra! Before 2017 I had heard of it being grown successfully as far North as New Jersey. In 2018 a Green Country Seed Savers has a member succeeding with it in Connecticut! Only with experimentation can we know just how far North this garden jewel will succeed.
Beautiful and Delicious
The Wild Hibiscus plant is beautiful! Its leaves are green with red veins. Its stems are red. In my garden, the plants reach as high as 6’ and as wide as 4.’ The flowers are open from sunrise until shortly after noon and are light yellow with a rose blush. It’s seed pods are covered by a calyx (a part of the flower actually encloses the seed pod), which is cherry red. The calyxes are long lasting and more beautiful than the flowers themselves. This plant would make a very nice temporary hedge and is striking enough to be used as an ornamental.
Usable Parts of this Plant
The calyxes are the product which most interests the home gardener. Eaten directly from the plant they are very lemony in flavor. Fresh calyxes can be mixed into yogurt with fresh fruit. From them a beautiful red tea (infusion) is derived. I prefer to call it “juice,” as it tastes like a somewhat less sharp than cranberry juice. From this “juice” one can make a tea (Think: Red Zinger) to drink either hot or cold. The “juice,” when sweetened makes a great fruit juice substitute. We have made jelly from this juice, which is “to die for.” It’s amazing! I’ve read that in making jelly or jam with Roselle, one can boil the seed pods with the calyxes and skip adding store bought pectin. The seeds and pods contain a natural pectin!
When I brew up some Jamaica “juice” or tea I never throw the spent calyxes out. Instead, I put them in a bowl and add a little sweetener, to make a tasty fruit like snack.
According to the USDA, Wild Hibiscus calyxes are high in vitamin A and C, calcium and magnesium. They’re good for you!
Roselle leaves have a lemony flavor when eaten raw. I’ve read that some cultures in Africa cook them and serve them as greens. Some nicknames of this plant contain the word “sorrel.” The leaves have potential both in salads and in cooking!
There are several species of Roselle. I can only speak about Hibiscus sabdariffa ruber, a specific race of just one species. Many of the others are not as good for food, being more used in the production of fiber.
Wild Hibiscus is easy to grow. I have started my plants just as if they were tomato plants, planting in a container, indoors, before the danger of frost is past. Then, after danger of frost, I transplant them outside. I suspect they could be direct seeded in Oklahoma. The seedlings are resilient, surviving some neglect. This year I had some extras in a tray, out in the garden (full sun) until the third week of June. On a number of occasions they nearly died for lack of water. Yet, they survived. I gave them to a friend, who transplanted the into his garden. The last I heard they were flowering and setting on calyxes!
This plant appears to be day length sensitive. It won’t start to flower until sometime in August. Once it begins to flower, it really goes to town, producing many flowers and many calyxes. I love that the calyxes are so long lasting. There’s no rush in picking them.
Sources of Seed
My seed was obtained through Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. They list it as “Thai Red Roselle.”
Green Country Seed Savers members have seed to share.
Green Country Seed Savers: Roselle Thread
Consider growing Wild Hibiscus in the coming year. This plant is so useful, delicious and beautiful that it’s hard to imagine why it has been so neglected!