Thai Roselle: Growing edible hibiscus.
The History of How One Flower Traveled The World
Since I'm writing this post for you on All Hallows Eve I thought why not tell you the tale of the blood red Roselle. It's calyxes bleed red and give you hands that would terrify even Lady Macbeth! It's story begins in Africa, and through the tragic slave trade with the Americas it spread throughout Central, South America, and the Caribbean. Since then it has become popular throughout much of the tropics and sub tropics including India, the Philippines, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and of course its native Africa. Despite being so popular through out the world not much is known about this wonderfully useful plant in the USA.
A Perfect Permaculture Plant
I've been wanting to add roselle to our hybrid hugelmound /food forest for quite awhile and I was thrilled when I found one at a local nursery near me called Pearsons Garden in Vista, California. They are a great source for hard to find heirloom food starts and California native plants including lots of things on my permaculture wish list. This stunning plant was already weighted down with fruit when I bought it so it was instant gratification!
As you can see in the photo below it is an unusual looking shrub. It can grow up to 8ft so give it room when you plant it! The large bulbs are actually what is left after the flower has finished and what you eat is the fleshy calyx which surrounds the seed. Most parts of the plant are edible. The leaves are eaten when young and tender as a salad green and when older as cooked vegetable often served in curry sauce. There is another variety that grows even taller that is grown mostly for the fiber produced in its stems that is basically interchangeable with jute. The plant is extremely nutritious, high in vitamin C and antioxidants. It is part of the hibiscus family and related to okra with similar looking flowers.
Gophers! And a Plant With Many Aliases
My plant has to live in a cage. If you're curious about the chicken wire, it's because we have very active and voracious gophers on our property. So hopefully the little *%#$*&% eh, darlings won't get to this gorgeous roselle. A rose by any other name is still a rose, but a roselle can get lost in the multitude of names it's known by depending on its location. Its Latin name is Hibiscus sabdariffa, but other English speakers know it by many of the following names:
Queensland jelly plant
flor de Jamaica
Although its not so well known, it can be found in many latin food stores and some middle eastern grocery stores in the USA. You can pretty much always find it dried, but if you want it fresh you will have to grow your own. It does best in a humid sub tropical to tropical climate, but you can grow it as an annual in places with hot long summers if you start it early inside. It is day light sensitive and doesn't flower until the fall. It is also frost sensitive, and likes sandy loam soil, but doesn't need much in the way of fertilizers. So what the heck do you do with it you might be wondering?
Why Books are Good
Well from a very young age I've had an obsession with flowers used in cooking. My parents had an old book with recipes dating back to Roman times in it that captured my imagination as a child. My parents had a pretty amazing library and those books from ancient flower cookery to the Lord of the Rings, the Odyssey to Aleister Crowley really shaped my young mind. I still have that flower recipe book which I treasure, and refer back to it surprisingly frequently. Although its out of print you can find used copies sometimes on Amazon Flower Cookery.
The Art of Cooking with Flowers
In it there is a whole chapter dedicated to the exquisite roselle. Although technically you are using the calyxes and not the flower petals it still qualifies as flowers for most people. Most commonly in the States you can find it as a delicious cold tea in many Mexican restaurants. Its also cropping up in hand crafted cocktails at bars. Its flavor profile is a lot like cranberry and can pretty much be substituted for it in most recipes. It has a tart lemony flavor that is very refreshing especially cold. it can be used as a natural food coloring. In Florida in the 20's and 30's it was often made into juice, jelly or jam, and because it has a high pectin content it can be made with just adding sugar. There are quite a few recipes on line for roselle sauce as a substitute for Thanksgiving cranberry sauce. In Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean it is used to make a spiced Christmas punch, adding spices and sometime rum. It is ready to be harvested in the fall and winter hence its popularity as a holiday drink. The calyxes do mold quickly so you want to use it fresh, freeze it or dry it in a dehydrator. Once dried it keeps for a long time. I'm dreaming up a special recipe for it which I'll share with you next week, once I've made it. Do you have a recipe for it that you love? Let me know in the comments!