Roselle & Jam
Updated: Apr 17, 2020
Roselle was never something in my regular diet nor was it even on my radar until I came across the plant while browsing through a seed catalog when we first got into growing. I was instantly attracted to its pretty flowers and striking red stems. Originally from Africa, this species of Hibiscus is now commonly cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, particularly India and Southeast Asia.
It is a tall shrub that can grow up to 3m, though ours only ever gets to about 2m high. We love having them around our garden for their unique beauty, the fact that they’re edible, and how well they grow in our climate. What’s more is they’re also a great source of nectar and pollen for the bees, butterflies, birds, and moths. Like our pollinator friends, my favourite part of the plant is their distinctive flowers; but more specifically, their calyxes. Sepals in most flowering plants are leafy and green, forming the outer protective covering of a flower bud; in this case they are fleshy and red (calyxes).
Roselles prefer well-draining fertile soil and love the sun. Be careful not to overfeed them as soil rich in nitrogen leads to a very large plant with few calyxes. They thrive during the humid monsoon periods so be sure to keep them sufficiently watered during the drier months. Branches can get very heavy after a rain or once they are loaded with blooms, so it might be necessary to provide support.
Over the last year, we’ve experimented starting them from seeds in trays, direct sowing, and propagation through stem cuttings. And found that the ones we sowed directly into the ground grew to be the most robust and productive plants by far.
Left: A – sowed in trays and then transplanted; Middle: B – sowed directly into the ground; Right: larger calyxes from B and smaller calyxes from A
After sowing seeds, we wait about five months before roselle season gets into full swing. Once their blossoms fade, the flowers wither and fall off while the calyxes remain. We leave them on the plant to fatten up and then pick them off a couple of weeks later. Harvesting calyxes early and often increases the overall yield of the plant. We typically have two to three plants flowering at any one time and are able to harvest a basket’s worth every fortnight over three months.
Fortunately, we haven’t yet had any issues with pests or diseases attacking our roselle. We did find the hairy caterpillar of a vapourer moth (Orgyia Antiqua) on our plant one time. They’re believed to have originated in Europe but also have a long history in Canada, where they are known as a pest with a fondness of cranberries. (Scott calls the roselle a “tropical cranberry.”) They are usually grey with red and yellow spots and carry four chimney-like tufts of cream-coloured hairs on their backs as well as two horn-like bundles of hair on their head and one at the rear end. Funky! They are known to eat large amounts of leaves but we found this guy in time and there wasn’t too much damage done.
Towards the end of the season, we leave a few calyxes to dry out on the plant so that we can harvest seeds for the next generation of roselle. Once the calyx goes crisp, the dried seed pod will crack open easily. Simply shake out seeds and store them in a cool, dry place. We found that seeds which were allowed to dry out on the plant tended to have a better germination rate than those which were saved from calyxes that were still fresh.
Roselle is rich in antioxidants and vitamin C. It also lowers high blood pressure and provides relief from menstrual cramps. People have been known to use it to treat toothaches, UTIs, colds, and even hangovers. It has diuretic and mild laxative properties, so like everything else in life, moderation is key.
Young tender shoots, which have a citrusy taste, can be eaten raw in salads or stir-fried like spinach. While the stems of the plant also yield a fibre that can be used as a substitute for jute in marking burlaps. As for their calyxes, which taste similar to cranberries, you can snack on them fresh off your plant or candy them whole. More ideas: jam, fruit leathers, sorbet/ice cream, or just good ol' hibiscus tea.
Jam is our go-to because it is so simple to make and once made keeps in the refrigerator for weeks. Our fortnightly harvest gives us enough to make two medium-sized jars of jam each time, which we’ll spread on toast, have with oats, or use to flavour our kombucha.
3 tablespoons brown sugar
Juice of 2 limes (you can use lemon juice too)
A teeny tiny bit of water
A basket of roselle calyxes
1. To prepare your calyx, peel it open and remove the whitish-green seed capsule. Rinse and dry calyxes. Take care while doing this because the calyxes are covered with fine hairs that can feel slightly prickly to the touch.
2. Place calyxes in a pot with sugar, lime juice, and a teeny tiny bit of water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. You may be tempted – as I was, the first time I did this – to add more water, but be careful not to overdo it as the roselle releases quite a bit of liquid as it breaks down over time.
3. Keep stirring until it reaches coating consistency. This usually takes at least 20 minutes.
4. To check when it is done, cover a spoon with some jam and wait a few seconds for it to cool. Run your finger through the jam – if it makes a clear path through the jam and doesn’t fill in, you’re good to go. Although the calyxes contain some natural pectin, you're likely end up with something a little softer and looser than store-bought jams.