PLANT FAMILY: Mallow
BOTANICAL NAME: Hibiscus Sabdariffa
HAWAIIAN NAME: Not Known
OTHER COMMON NAMES: Roselle, Florida Cranberry, Sour-Sour, Sorrel, Red Sorrel, Indian Sorrel, Jamaica Sorrel, Flor De Jamaica, Zobo, Bissap, Uaina, Acedera de Guinea, Mei Gui Qie, Karkade, Carcade, Karcadeh, Chin Baung, Cây bụt Giấm
PLANT RELATIVES: Okra and Cotton
EDIBLE PARTS: Red Calyx, Tender Leaves and Stems
Origin and Description
The most often cited origin of hibiscus sabdariffa is India and Malaysia. From there, it’s believed to have spread early to Africa, then on to tropical America, Mexico, and the West Indies with slave trade. In general, it grows best in tropical or subtropical climates. However, it can bloom as an annual in cooler temperatures as long as it isn’t subject to frost.
Also known as true roselle, this attractive tree-like shrub can be distinguished easily from false roselle. False roselle, or hibiscus acetosella, has dark red leaves resembling maple leaves, and pink flowers. In contrast, true roselle has green leaves and flowers that range from white to buff-yellow. These markers are helpful if you are considering eating roselle. That’s because the false roselle don’t have the culinary value of hibiscus sabdradiffa with it’s striking red buds.
The proper name for the red petals on the buds of a roselle shrub is sepals. You might be surprised to know the distinctive red buds are not fruit. I know it was news to me. Instead, they are calyces with their sections being sepals. Roselle fruits are actually the hard, light-green pods filled with seeds and nestled inside the calyx.
Around the world, roselle is known for its bright red color and tart cranberry flavor. It’s made into all sorts of jams, chutneys, sauces, syrups, desserts, and beverages. It’s succulent fresh calyces are available during summer and fall. The remainder of the year they are available as dried and preserved products in markets.
The tart calyces that lend themselves so beautifully to sweet dishes and treats are eye-catching enough to make one overlook another very valuable use of this plant. Indeed, I had been growing roselle in my garden for 2 years before it really sank in that the leaves provide a delicious addition to savory dishes.
It so happens that the tender young leaves and stems are eaten as a vegetable in the Philippines, Africa, India, and Vietnam. It’s even said to be the most consumed green vegetable in Myanmar, where a popular Burmese dish is called chin baung kyaw. I am so looking forward to trying this stir-fry made with chilies, turmeric, and bamboo shoots.
It’s worth mentioning that roselle’s hard green seed-filled fruit is technically edible. I say edible in the sense that it is safe and not toxic to consume. However, it might take some doing to master preparation and come up with a tasty result. The most intriguing reference I came across is to dry and roast the bitter-tasting fruit. Then, it can be ground and used as a coffee substitute. Would you try this? I am tempted. But for now, I’m having too much fun making Senegal’s national drink, called bissap, from the ruby red calyces.