Red Roselle Hibiscus — the Florida “cranberry”

Cranberries may not grow in Florida, but the state’s old-timers had a workable alternative to the tart fall staples.
Photo: Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

Cranberries may not grow in Florida, but the state’s old-timers had a workable alternative to the tart fall staples.

Red Roselle hibiscus, also known as cranberry hibiscus, Florida cranberry, red sorrel or Jamaica sorrel, is ready for harvest once the fall weather hits. After the plant’s flowers drop off, you’ll see the calyx, which closes over the seed pod. Those calyces can then be harvested to make jams and jellies or tea.

The seeds, leaves, fruits and roots of the roselle hibiscus can all be used either medicinally or in food, but the fruit, or calyx, is the most popular part of the plant. It’s considered a good substitute for cranberries because of its color and tart taste.

Roselle hibiscus is native to west or central Africa, but according to the IFAS gardening solutions website, most Florida Cracker homesteads grew the plant back in the day.

Photo: Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

Plant roselle hibiscus in the spring from seeds or cuttings. They need full sun, lots of space and a moderate amount of water, although they can tolerate drought. They’ll grow to be about seven to eight feet tall. The plants will start blooming as the days get shorter, and the calyces are ready for harvest in October or November. Be sure to collect the calyces before the weather gets cold. They grow as an annual, so collect the seeds for next year!

The calyces can be steeped in hot water for tea, or used chopped in place of cranberries for a Florida “cranberry” sauce. You can also use them to make jelly, and we’ve got a recipe from the 1930s.

RECIPE

Roselle Jelly

Photo: Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

This recipe is reproduced in its original form from a 1937 US Department of Agriculture leaflet titled “Production of Roselle”