By JOYCE COMINGORE
Roselle or false roselle, that is the question. Whether tis' nobler in the mind to grow the true cranberry roselle for its flavor, or the false roselle cranberry-colored leaves that accent so beautifully the background of the flower beds. They are both called "Cranberry hibiscus;" one for its ability to replicate the cranberry food grown in the bogs of Wisconsin and the northwest United States; the other for its deep burgundy, cranberry-colored leaves. They both make wonderful teas and have edible tender leaves used in fresh salads.
Only the true roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa L.) can be substituted for cranberries at Thanksgiving time. You can use roselle to make a tea from the swollen calyxes as well and it was the basis for many herbal teas (Red Zinger) for years. With false roselle (hibiscus acetosella), you use the blooms, boiling them. Although popular as a beverage, roselle for years was used for jellies, sauces, syrups and chutneys with the flavor of cranberries. They produce their own pectin, so none is needed when doing jellies and jams.
Roselle was a mainstay of central and southern Florida gardens before World War II, when grocery stores weren't well stocked. Almost every homestead had hedges of roselle. Called a "Florida Heritage Cracker" plant, it is planted in the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Cross Creek home in Alachua County.
Sometimes called "sorrel" or "red sorrel," it was brought into Florida from Jamaica in 1887, as a potential substitute for cranberries. After World War II, gardening and preserving foods declined. Transportation with refrigeration was becoming faster and more dependable. The last two jars of manufactured roselle jelly were sold in February 1961. The 1960 hurricane and frost killed off most plants. Roselle is now attracting attention as a natural food coloring for foods and beverages, replacing harmful synthetic dyes.
Roselle is a bushy plant with green leaves and red stems. In shape, they do resemble okra, cotton and H. cannibus, a cousin. It blooms with yellow blossoms that have a burgundy throat. Thought to be an annual, a photoperiodic short day plant, our climate can enable it to bloom on until February if picked regularly and forced to keep producing, unless it freezes. They don't like cold weather. The swollen calyxes should be picked when fully grown, but tender, about 3 weeks after blooming. When they can be snapped off by hand is best, you will need clippers if the wood gets hard. Picking early and often encourages more production and a bigger yield.
H. acetocella (false roselle) has all red burgundy stems and leaves with pink blossoms and shrunken calyxes, they don't swell. ECHO boils its pink blooms, then, sweetens the juice for teas and cold drinks.
It can be rooted from cuttings, but the best results come from seeds, which need to be planted for our climate, from mid-March to the ideal time, mid-May. Now is the time to plant these seeds in order to take advantage of their not blooming until the days start to grow shorter and be ripe for Thanksgiving. Being photoperiodic means it can't ripen any other time of year. Treat them like eggplant and okra. Full sun is needed, keep weed free, but it does tolerate floods. Too heavy a nitrogen feeding cuts the flowering and fruiting. They are very susceptible to nematodes, and the only way to combat that is to use highly organic soil and mulch.
Making a hibiscus drink to bring out the sharp citrusy flavor, remove the seeds and boil the calyxes in water to cover, then strain and sweeten. They must be boiled, not steeped. The best result is four cups of water to at least one cup of calyxes; juice one half a lemon or lime and sugar. Boil until a good deep red/purple color appears, then, let it sit for half an hour. Strain and stir in the lemon or lime juice and add sugar to taste. Serve hot or cold. Jamaicans often add a few slices of ginger root. To the cold version they will, of course, add rum. Lemon grass or mint can also be added. I like to add sparkling 7-up for cold drinks.
The reason I've been thinking about hibiscus tea is for two reasons. First, I saw on Facebook a way to make tea from hibiscus (Rosa sinensis) blossoms. They used small red blooms. Years ago in India, hibiscus were called "shoe black" plant because they used the red hibiscus to shine shoes, also to dye hair black, and is also the reason they never use red blooms in leas in Hawaii, they stain. The gentleman put 10 red blooms from which he had pulled off the stamens and stem ends into a 2-cup glass measuring cup, poured over them one cup of boiling water (should cover the blooms) and let sit until it turned a deep purple, then strained it. He put in 4 tablespoons of sugar and let it dissolve, squeezed lime juice in to make a full 2 cups of tea. Adding a chunk of pineapple on the glass lip, he dropped mint leaves into the glass with ice cubes and poured a refreshing drink. I knew that some people battered and fried blossoms but this was like making colored lemonade.
The Taste of Lee is coming up the end of June. The Caloosa Rare Fruit Exchange people will be there to demonstrate the calyxes of roselle and ECHO will probably demonstrate adding leaves to salads.
Secondly, coming Sunday, June 1, will be the annual James E. Hendry Hibiscus Show. They have a new venue they want you to know about. No longer will they be at the Araba Temple, the show has moved to the Salvation Army Community Center at 10291 McGregor Blvd. So, an early heads up or alert for next weekend, new location, new location!
Please thank a tree for providing clean air.
Joyce Comingore is a Master Gardener, hibiscus enthusiast and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.