Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)

Florida Cranberry, Indian Sorrel, Jamaican Tea, Maple-Leaf Hibiscus, October Hibiscus, Red Sorrell, Roselle

Roselle hibiscus, red sorrel, Jamaican sorrel, and Florida cranberry are a few of the many names for “Hibiscus sabdariffa”, which is a tasty and stunning addition to the garden. Although a perennial, roselle is usually grown as an annual.

Learn how to grow roselle hibiscus, and enjoy the season-long color, beautiful blooms, and red flavorful calyces it produces.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is a species of flowering plant in the genus Hibiscus that is native to Africa, most likely West Africa. In the 16th and early 17th centuries it was spread to Asia and the West Indies, where it has since become naturalized in many places. 

Roselle is an annual or perennial herb or woody-based subshrub, growing to 2–2.5 m (7–8 ft) tall. The leaves are deeply three- to five-lobed, 8–15 cm (3–6 in) long, arranged alternately on the stems.

The flowers are 8–10 cm (3–4 in) in diameter, white to pale yellow with a dark red spot at the base of each petal, and have a stout, conspicuous calyx at the base, 1–2 cm (0.39–0.79 in) wide, enlarging to 3–3.5 cm (1.2–1.4 in) and becoming fleshy and a deep crimson red as the fruit matures, which takes about six months.

The Hibiscus leaves are a good source of polyphenolic compounds. The major identified compounds include neochlorogenic acid, chlorogenic acid, cryptochlorogenic acid, caffeoylshikimic acid and flavonoid compounds such as quercetin, kaempferol and their derivatives. The flowers are rich in anthocyanins, as well as protocatechuic acid. The dried calyces contain the flavonoids gossypetin, hibiscetine and sabdaretine. The major pigment is not daphniphylline. Small amounts of myrtillin (delphinidin 3-monoglucoside), chrysanthenin (cyanidin 3-monoglucoside), and delphinidin are present. Roselle seeds are a good source of lipid-soluble antioxidants, particularly gamma-tocopherol.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Roselle likes ample sunlight for at least six hours a day. However, direct sunlight should be avoided during high temperatures in summer afternoons. Otherwise, the leaves can easily become sunburned.

Watering

The young rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) should be watered often. The soil around the plant should be soaked, preferably in the evening. For adult plants, rainwater is usually sufficient except in the case of continuous drought. The water demand of Chinese hibiscus is more than that of the rose of sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) in summer. Potted plants also require more water than plants in gardens.

Swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) requires more water and is resilient in damp conditions; it is better to water it every day in summer as long as soil drainage is ensured. Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is relatively resistant to drought and should be thoroughly watered when the soil is dry.

Soil

Roselle likes slightly acidic, moist, well-drained soil with a pH value of 5.5-7. If the soil is sticky and heavy, coarse sands may be added to improve permeability. In the case of slightly alkaline, chalky soil and lime soil, add rotten leaf soil, peat soil, or completely decomposed garden compost along with sulfur fertilizer until the pH value reaches an appropriate range.

Fertilizing

Adult plants do not require frequent fertilization, but flowering plants are best fertilized annually. In early spring, granular or powdery slow-release fertilizer should be mixed into the soil around the aboveground part of the plant, generally 60-70g/m2. Roselle prefers potash fertilizer rather than phosphate fertilizer. Newly planted plants may also require additional, quick-acting, liquid fertilizer weekly.

Planting Instructions

The best planting season for roselle is during fall while it is still warm. This allows the root to recover in warm soil, encouraging vigorous growth the following year. A location that receives sufficient sunlight and is slightly shaded in the afternoon is best for planting roselle, depending on the local sunshine projection. All weeds should first be removed before planting, and then a planting pit can be dug. The pit should be at least twice the diameter of the root ball and attached soil, and slightly deeper than the root ball’s height.

For potting, try to choose a dwarf variety and the largest flowerpot possible. The flowerpot should be of sufficient weight and stability, with stone pots preferred. Pot depth should be at least 1.5 times the depth of the root ball. The diameter should be 1/6-1/4 of the height of the adult plant. Place 3 cm of rough stones at the flowerpot bottom for better drainage.

Sort and scatter the root ball, place it in the flowerpot or planting pit, and then gradually backfill and compact the soil. Cut off any diseased, damaged, inward-growing, or crossed branches and other branches that affect the plant’s shape. Water thoroughly and spread a 5 to 7 cm layer of decomposed medium or crushed bark. If the plant is a standard seedling type with a single trunk, insert a stake before planting to support the plant.

Pruning

Roselle generally does not require pruning. If desired, however, it should be pruned in early spring. Keep 2-4 buds on each branch grown the previous year and cut off any dead, diseased, or weak branches. For shrub shaping, trunks should be pruned to different heights, creating a sense of levels. For tree shaping, the lateral branches at the lower trunk should be removed and the upper lateral branches should be shortened.

To restore old branches, prune after blooming in fall. Each trunk should be shortened to a height of 30 to 46 cm. Afterward, apply a slow-release fertilizer. In the next growing season, keep 2-4 stronger, new branches on the trunk.

Propagation

Roselle can be propagated by shoot cutting. Cut the new shoots with wooden bases and soft tips during the end of summer or early fall at a length of about 10 to 15 cm. Then, cut off the soft stem tip and remove the lower leaves. Cut a 2.5 to 4 cm-long piece of bark longitudinally at the shoot base, dip the shoot in rooting powder, insert it into the culture medium, and water once with a solution of fungicidal drugs.

Afterward, regularly water it, avoid direct sunlight, apply liquid fertilizer once every 2 weeks, and promptly remove any weak cuttings. After the shoot roots, it can be transplanted into a flowerpot as an individual plant.

III. Uses and Benefits 

Ornamental Use

Roselle is a popular perennial prized for its height and dark red flowers. It is commonly used as an ornamental background plant and is essential in tropical gardens. Plant it with amaranth, mint, basil, and pepper plants for contrasting and complimenting colors and textures.

Culinary uses

In Bihar and Jharkhand roselle is also known as “kudrum” in local language. The bright red petals of the fruit are used for chutney which is sweet and sour in taste.

In Saputara region (near Maharashtra/Gujarat MP border), roselle is called khate fule by local tribal language. The khate fule leaves are mixed with green chillies, salt, some garlic to prepare a chutney and bhaji which is served with jowar (sorghum) or bajra (millet) made bakho (a flat bread). This is eaten by tribals as breakfast to start their day. A dry dish or sukhi bajji is prepared with khate fuel leaves.

In Andhra cuisine, roselle is called gongura and is extensively used. The leaves are steamed with lentils and cooked with dal. Another unique dish is prepared by mixing fried leaves with spices and made into a gongura pacchadi, the most famous dish of Andhra and Telangana often described as king of all Andhra foods.

In Manipuri, it is called Sougri and it is used as a vegetable. It is generally cooked without oil by boiling with some other herbs and dried fish and is a favorite of the Manipuri people. Almost every household has this plant in their homes.

In Burmese cuisine, it is called chin baung ywet (lit. ’sour leaf’), the roselle is widely used and considered affordable. It is perhaps the most widely eaten and popular vegetable in Myanmar. The leaves are fried with garlic, dried or fresh prawns and green chili or cooked with fish. A light soup made from roselle leaves and dried prawn stock is also a popular dish.

Among the Paites tribe of the Manipur Hibiscus sabdariffa and Hibiscus cannabinus locally known as anthuk are cooked along with chicken, fish, crab or pork or any meat, and cooked as a soup as one of their traditional cuisines.

In the Garo Hills of Meghalaya, it is known as galda and is consumed boiled with pork, chicken or fish. After monsoon, the leaves are dried and crushed into powder, then stored for cooking during winter in a rice powder stew, known as galda gisi pura. In the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, the plant is locally known as jajew, and the leaves are used in local cuisine, cooked with both dried and fresh fish. The Bodos and other indigenous Assamese communities of north east India cook its leaves with fish, shrimp or pork along with boiling it as vegetables which is much relished. Sometimes they add native lye called karwi or khar to bring down its tartness and add flavour.

In the Philippines, the leaves and flowers are used to add sourness to the chicken dish tinola (chicken stew).

In Vietnam, the young leaves, stems and fruits are used for cooking soups with fish or eel.

In Mali, the dried and ground leaves, also called djissima, are commonly used in Songhaï cuisine, in the regions of Timbuktu, Gao and their surroundings. It is the main ingredient in at least two dishes, one called djissima-gounday, where rice is slowly cooked in a broth containing the leaves and lamb, and the other dish is called djissima-mafé, where the leaves are cooked in a tomato sauce, also including lamb. Note that djissima-gounday is also considered an affordable dish.

In Namibia, it is called mutete, and it is consumed by people from the Kavango region in northeastern Namibia.

In the central African nations of Congo-Kinshasa, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon the leaves are referred to as oseille or ngaï-ngaï, and are used puréed, or in a sauce, often with fish and/or aubergines.

  • Beverage

In the Caribbean, a drink is made from the roselle fruit (the calyces with the seed pods removed). It is prepared by boiling fresh, frozen or dried roselle fruit in water for 8 to 10 minutes (or until the water turns red), then adding sugar. Bay leaves and cloves may also be added during boiling. It is often served chilled. This is done in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Antigua, Barbados, Belize, St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, the US Virgin Islands and St. Kitts and Nevis where the plant or fruit is called sorrel. The drink is one of several inexpensive beverages (aguas frescas) commonly consumed in Mexico and Central America; they are typically made from fresh fruits, juices or extracts. In Mexican restaurants in the US, the beverage is sometimes known simply as Jamaica (Spanish pronunciation: HAH-MY-CAH). It is very popular in Trinidad and Tobago especially as a seasonal drink at Christmas where cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves are preferred to ginger. It is also popular in Jamaica, usually flavored with rum.

In Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Benin calyces are used to prepare cold, sweet drinks popular in social events, often mixed with mint leaves, dissolved menthol candy, and/or fruit flavors.

The Sudanese “Karkade” (كركديه) is a cold drink made by soaking the dried Karkade calyces in cold water overnight in a refrigerator with sugar and some lemon or lime juice added. It is then consumed with or without ice cubes after the flowers have been strained. In Lebanon, toasted pine nuts are sometimes added.

Roselle is used in Nigeria to make a refreshing drink known as Zobo and natural fruit juices of pineapple and watermelon are added. Ginger is also sometimes added to the refreshing drink.

With the advent in the U.S. of interest in south-of-the-border cuisine, the calyces are sold in bags usually labeled “flor de Jamaica” and have long been available in health food stores in the U.S. for making tea. In addition to being a popular homemade drink, Jarritos, a popular brand of Mexican soft drinks, makes a flor de Jamaica flavored carbonated beverage. Imported Jarritos can be readily found in the U.S.

In the US, a beverage known as hibiscus cooler is made from tea, a sweetener, and sometimes juice of apple, grape or lemon. The beverage is sold by some juice companies. Beverages made from the roselle fruit are often consumed by African Americans at social or familial gatherings, including Juneteenth, a celebration of the emancipation of slaves. The red drink is popular in this culture, as it is an acknowledgement to ancestral West African and African American culture.

In the UK, dried calyces and ready-made sorrel syrup are widely and cheaply available in Caribbean and Asian grocers. The fresh calyces are imported mainly during December and January to make Christmas and New Year infusions, which are often made into cocktails with rum. They are very perishable, rapidly developing fungal rot, and need to be used soon after purchase — unlike the dried product, which has a long shelf-life.

In Africa, especially the Sahel, roselle is commonly used to make a sugary herbal tea that is sold on the street. The dried flowers can be found in every market. Roselle tea is quite common in Italy where it spread during the first decades of the 20th century as a typical product of the Italian colonies. The Carib Brewery, a Trinidad and Tobago brewery, produces a ‘Shandy Sorrel’ in which the tea is combined with beer.

In Thailand, roselle is generally drunk as a cool drink, and it can be made into a wine.

Hibiscus flowers are commonly found in commercial herbal teas, especially teas advertised as berry-flavored, as they give a bright red coloring to the drink.

Roselle flowers are sold as wild hibiscus flowers in syrup in Australia as a gourmet product. Recipes include filling them with goat’s cheese; serving them on baguette slices baked with brie; and placing one plus a little syrup in a champagne flute before adding the champagne — the bubbles cause the flower to open.

In Dodoma, Tanzania the Roselle juice is brewed to make Roselle wine famous by the name of choya.

  • Preserves

In Nigeria, roselle jam has been made since colonial times and is still sold regularly at community fetes and charity stalls. It is similar in flavor to plum jam, although more acidic. It differs from other jams in that the pectin is obtained from boiling the interior buds of the roselle flowers. It is thus possible to make rosella jam with nothing but roselle buds and sugar.

In Burma, the buds of the roselle are made into ‘preserved fruits’ or jams. Depending on the method and the preference, the seeds are removed or included. The jams, made from roselle buds and sugar, are red and tangy.

In India, Roselle is commonly made into a type of pickle.

“Sorrel jelly” is manufactured in Trinidad.

Roselle jam is made in Queensland, Australia as a home-made or speciality product sold at fetes and other community events.

In India, the plant is primarily cultivated for the production of bast fiber used in cordage, made from its stem. The fiber may be used as a substitute for jute in making burlap. Hibiscus, specifically roselle, has been used in folk medicine as a diuretic and mild laxative.

The red calyces of the plant are increasingly exported to the United States and Europe, particularly Germany, where they are used as food colourings. It can be found in markets (as flowers or syrup) in places, such as France, where there are Senegalese immigrant communities. The green leaves are used like a spicy version of spinach. They give flavor to the Senegalese fish and rice dish thieboudienne. Proper records are not kept, but the Senegalese government estimates national production and consumption at 700 t (770 short tons) per year. In Myanmar their green leaves are the main ingredient in chin baung kyaw curry.

Brazilians attribute stomachic, emollient, and resolutive properties to the bitter roots.

Medical uses

Roselle is rich in a range of bioactive compounds that contribute to its potential health benefits including anthocyanins, flavonoids, and organic acids. These compounds are believed to possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and diuretic properties, among others.

Some studies have suggested that Roselle may help manage hypertension, as it has been shown to lower blood pressure in some individuals. Additionally, its antioxidant properties may help protect the body against oxidative stress and free radical damage, supporting overall health and well-being.

IV. Harvesting and Storage

  • After the beautiful roselle bloom fades, the flower withers and falls off.
  • Between 7-10 days after blooming is the best time to pick the calyces.
  • It is time to harvest when the pointy red calyx around the seed pod is just over an inch wide. The seed pod is fully grown but still tender.
  • To avoid damage to the branch it’s best to remove the calyx with clippers.
  • Harvesting roselle calyces early and often increases the overall yield of the plant.

Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) Details

Common name Florida Cranberry, Indian Sorrel, Jamaican Tea, Maple-Leaf Hibiscus, October Hibiscus, Red Sorrell, Roselle
Botanical name Hibiscus sabdariffa
Plant type Annual
Hardiness zone 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b
Growth rate Fast
Harvest time Fall
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Gold/Yellow
Leaf color Green