Jamaican hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa (race ruber)), also known as “roselle” or “sorrel,” is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family (Malvaceae) that is native from India to Malaysia but thought to have originated in West Africa. This genus is quite large (made up of hundreds of species), likes warm places (i.e. found in subtropical and tropical regions), is very sensitive to frost and is known for their showy flowers. Think Hawaiian hula dancer with a flower in her hair, and it will be an hibiscus- not Hibiscus sabdariffa- but a close relative. Hibiscus sabdariff ‘s flowers are a little smaller (3 to 4 inches in diameter) and the flowers are white to pale yellow- a little different compared to the red, Hawaiian hibiscus that comes to mind. The flowers are sometimes called “roselle.” They also have a robust, fleshy calyx (plural calyces- a collective term for sepals of a flower- the bits that enclose the flower, usually green but in the case of Hibiscus sabdariffa they are red ). The calyx has many culinary uses (see below). While China and Thailand are the largest producers of Hibiscus sabdariffa, it is grown commercially in Jamaica, where my hibiscus & sorrel honey comes from.
There are many uses for different parts of Hibiscus sabdariffa. As a plant it is primarily cultivated for the production of base fiber (from the stem) which can be used as a substitute for jute in making burlap (this was news to me). The calyx is a source of red food coloring (very popular in this age of “natural” dyes), is eaten like a vegetable, and is used to make a syrup (i.e. sorrel syrup), sweet pickle, jelly or jam (that tastes like a tangy plum jam). Its green leaves are akin to a spicy spinach (particularly known in the Senegalese fish and rice dish “thieboudienne,” the Andhra dish “gongura pacchadi,” and the Philippines chicken stew “Tinola”). Of interest, there is a proverb in the southern part of Myanmar that translates as “Cooking roselle too long, taste is bitter, and staying in bachelor life too long, life is bitter.” So, be warned about overcooking it or staying single for too long.
In the Caribbean, a cold drink (“sorrel,” “roselle,” or “aqua de Jamaica” in Mexico, among other names), which was introduced by Akan slaves to the islands in the late 1600s, is made from the calyces. You boil them in water until the water turns red, add sugar and then serve it cold. Variations on the recipe add ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mint, lemon, lime, bay leaves and/or rum. In Jamaica sorrel, typically with rum, is a Christmas treat served with fruit cake or potato pudding.
|Hibiscus sabdariffa calyces|
You can also make a hot tea with the calyces. You may have seen an herbal hibiscus tea at the supermarket (e.g. Celestial Seasonings “Red Zinger” tea) Hibiscus sabdariffa is what gives it its red color and tangy flavor. If you combine the calyces with beer you get “Shandy Sorrel” a Caribbean treat. In 1904 Hibiscus sabdariffa seeds were planted in Miami with the hope that the crop of calyces would be a southern substitute for cranberry; jelly made from the calyces (called roselle jelly) is almost indistinguishable from cranberry sauce. It never really caught on.
You may have also seen dried Hibiscus sabdariffa calyces sold in bags at the health food store (a popular name is “Flor de Jamaica”- which is a misnomer as it is the calyces that are sold, not the flowers). You can fill these with goat cheese and serve them on baguette slices for swanky garden parties, use them in to tea, jams, jellies, etc. or just eat them out of the bag.
Apart from different parts of Hibiscus sabdariffa being good to eat, Hibiscus sabdariffa has some medicinal qualities; it is considered to be a mild diuretic and laxative. It has been assessed as an anti-hypertensive, but results were inconclusive. It is currently being assessed in cancer treatments. It has antioxidant properties, and is a good source of vitamin C, calcium, iron and magnesium.
As I’ve said, my honey comes from Jamaica. Beekeeping is a relatively recently established commercial activity in Jamaica. In 2008, a bee industry census showed that there were 1,200 farmers that kept bees (of which 137 are women) with 31,400 hives. These produced 166,500 gals of honey, 56,800 lbs. of bees wax, 48 oz. of Royal Jelly, 205 lbs. of pollen, 16 oz. of propolis, and 32 oz. of venom (a.k.a. apitoxin- the liquid that bees inject via their stinger that is medicinally used in treating arthritis). Common nectar sources were mango, ackee and logwood. Not surprisingly, I suppose, there is a Jamaican Apiculture Unit in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries department. An import permit is needed to import bee products (i.e. honey and pollen). This is all regulated under the Bee Control Act that states that no bees, honey or beekeepers’ stock can be brought within the limits of Jamaica without with the permission in writing of the chief plant protection officer. If anyone does they run the risk of the stock being seized and destroyed by customs.
|Hibiscus & sorrel honey|
My honey is harvested and packaged by Ivyees Honey. Ivy Lawson is the force being Ivyees Honey, which is head- quartered in Randolph, MA.