On the island of St. Croix, where I reside, it's not uncommon to pass roadside colporteurs standing behind makeshift tables heaped with what appear to be 1- to 1-½-inch-long, stubby, wine-red flower buds. And it's not unusual to see a crowd of customers around these tables purchasing the produce and carting it off in big bags.
The "flower buds" are actually seedpods of red sorrel, Hibiscus sabdariffa, enclosed in their fleshy calyces (plural of "calyx," a collective term for the sepals of a flower). The red pods—technically the fruits—and calyces are fused and difficult to distinguish from one another. They are both edible and have an invigorating, astringent flavor reminiscent of the unrelated herb Rumex scutatus, or French sorrel (hence the common name).
In the Caribbean, the calyx-covered fruits are brewed in water to make a refreshing, cranberry-colored tea. They are also used in salads, jellies (such as Jamaica's famous rosella jam), sauces, soups, beverages, chutneys, pickles, tarts, puddings, syrups, and wine. Powdered dried red sorrel is added to commercial herb teas such as Red Zinger for flavor and color.
Originally native from India to Malaysia, H. sabdariffa is now widely distributed and cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions all around the globe. Not surprisingly, it has a lot of common names besides red sorrel. These include roselle, Jamaican sorrel, Indian sorrel, Queensland jelly plant, sour-sour, lemon-bush, and Florida cranberry.
The plant was introduced to North America in the late 19th century and was a popular garden plant and food crop in Florida up until the 1950s. It was, as you may have guessed, a handy warm-climate substitute for the cranberry. But because of the plant's zero tolerance for frost and the general decline in home preserving after World War II, it eventually went off the garden radar screen. Until now!
Red sorrel is a herbaceous annual that grows between three and eight feet tall. (Sometimes the plant is categorized as a biennial or tender perennial since, in warmer climes, it can live for more than a year.) A member of the Malvaceae, or mallow family, it bears three- to five-inch-long narrow leaves that are simple near the top of plant and palmately compound lower down. Its reddish stems have a distinctly upright habit and give the plant a solid, shrubby appearance.
The flower petals are funnel-shaped, typically pale yellow with deep red blotches at the base, and grow up to five inches wide. They are actually edible too and have a citruslike flavor. But make sure to harvest the flowers quickly, as they only last a day on the plant. Once the petals drop, the calyces enlarge and become crisp and juicy.
Red Sorrel Punch
- 2 quarts sorrel fruit (pods plus calyces)
- 3 quarts boiling water
- 3-inch strip fresh orange peel
- 2-inch strip fresh lime peel
- 3 pounds granulated sugar (or to taste)
- 12 cloves
- 2 one-inch knobs ginger, unpeeled and crushed
- Cruzan rum to taste (optional)
Remove seeds from the fruit by cutting off the bases with a small, sharp knife and scraping the seeds out with a small spoon. Place the fruit in a large, clean jar or noncorrosive pot with the citrus peels, cloves, and ginger. Pour in boiling water. Cover the container with a tea towel, and let the mixture steep for 24 hours. Then strain it and sweeten to taste. Keep refrigerated. Adults can add a jigger of rum to their servings; be sure to use clear rum so as not to affect the brilliant color of the beverage.
Along with the fruit, calyces, and flowers, the leaves of red sorrel are also edible. They have a rhubarblike taste and are served in salads and curries. The seeds likewise may be eaten; they are best roasted or ground to make flour for baking. In the Sudan, the seeds are fermented into a meat substitute called "furundu." Red sorrel has a lot of nutritional value. The calyces, for example, are high in calcium, niacin, riboflavin, and iron.
Although red sorrel is readily available dried (and often pulverized) in urban African, Jamaican, and Caribbean markets in the U.S., it's best when served fresh. So why not cultivate a few specimens in your vegetable or herb garden this year? The plant has enough ornamental pizzazz, in my opinion, to hold its own in a herbaceous border or cut-flower garden. The ruddy stems and seedpods make interesting additions to fresh or dried arrangements.
Two nursery sources for the seed—sold as roselle—are Deep Diversity/Seeds of Change (P.O. Box 15700, Sante Fe, NM 87506-5700; 503-438-8080) and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (2278 Baker Creek Road, Mansfield, MO 65704; 417-924-8917; www.rareseeds.com).
Plant seeds in individual pots in fertile, moisture-retentive but well-drained soil eight weeks before the last frost date. Harden off seedlings completely before setting them out in a sunny site. Staking is not required. Flowers will appear from mid- to late summer. Leaves may be harvested at any time.
Gardeners in the southern U.S. will have more success at getting their fruits and calyces to ripen outdoors. If early frost threatens, northern gardeners may have to bring the plants inside to complete the maturation.