Edible Roselle Update

With a heavy heart, I pulled up and composted the roselle plants (Hibiscus sabdariffa) this weekend.

They were done. The cold had become too much for them. Their leaves were turning crispy and dropping rapidly. Amazingly, the false roselle is still going and has not suffered the same damage. It seems to tolerate the cold better so I have left it in for the time being.

I had hoped to make sorrel (the drink) this winter using my own homegrown flowers, but alas none of the hibiscus plants made it that far. The two sabdariffa plants did produce tiny flower buds, but the cold came on and stopped their development before they could reach a mature size.

I am wondering now what went wrong. Should I have pruned the plant when it was a few feet tall? I did not do any pruning and realize now that I missed an opportunity to experiment on one of the plants. The plants I saw growing for food production in the Caribbean were much shorter, bushier, and wider. In hindsight I now know that this was because the plants are pruned to increase yield, and also make harvesting easier. My plants were tall and ornamental, which is gorgeous in a home garden but would be a terrible burden if I had a field’s worth to pluck.

Is the length of our growing season here in Toronto simply too short? I started the seeds indoors underneath lights way back in January, so they did get a good head-start. However, we can only cheat nature and our short seasons so much via this method. Months indoors underneath artificial lights can make a big difference, but it cannot substitute for the right light and conditions outdoors. Larger containers would have allowed the plants to take on more size, but I didn’t have the space to accommodate that kind of growth on the shelving unit I use to grow seedlings.

Was it the nature of this particular year’s climate that set them up to fail? We had a hot summer that saw the plants take off in size; however, the spring was long, wet, and cold. It was ages before I could safely plant tropicals outdoors and this contributed to an exceptionally slow start. Perhaps it was simply too slow.

Despite the letdown I will grow this plant (and its relatives) in the future. While mine did not produce the crop I had hoped for, they did look fabulous! One of my big complaints/concerns in the new garden’s early days was the lack of height. Everything was exactly the same size and I did not have the cash to buy mature perennials. Fortunately, these plants grew tall and lush quickly and filled in some major, disconcerting gaps. At about 4 ft tall (the false roselle was much taller), they turned out to be an excellent substitute for mature bushes or small trees. And all for the low, low price of a couple of seeds! Whats more, the young leaves themselves are in fact edible. They are tangy, succulent, and fresh tasting; not unlike the hardy, local green Rumex acetosa, that we call sorrel here in North America.

I bought seeds for another, red variety in Thailand, so I plan to try those out as well. Wow, writing this post has really helped to boost my enthusiasm to try again next year!

If you’d like to learn more about growing roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) as a food crop in tropical and semi-tropical climates, there is a very detailed article here.

Have you ever grown Hibiscus sabdariffa? How did it work out for you?

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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5 thoughts on “Edible Roselle Update

  1. Fall has arrived for us down here in Southern California…The type of weather range from hot windy days to over cast gloomy days from the ocean air. My lettuce and purple kale I planted looks good so far….other then this, just the standard evergreens and potted palms remain standing in my garden. Even though I like the change of weather and seasons this is sad for me as well. Looking forward to mail ordered worms!

  2. I’m really not sure. You started the seeds nice and early. I guess you could try starting a batch now for planting next fall. I don’t think Hibiscus care that much about heat. Hmm….

  3. Hi there! Huge fan of your site, your books, and the work you do! I live in south Florida and am always looking for new food crops that can handle our harsh heat and humidity. Do you know of any suppliers stateside for these seeds? I would love to try them in my garden. Thanks so much.

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