Roselle, or Jamaica Sorrel, as it was also called, was also called the Florida Cranberry, though it is in no sense of the word a cranberry from a horticultural standpoint. It is in reality a Hibiscus (H. sabdariffa), akin to okra, which is H. esculentus. In growth it is a strong, tall growing plant from five to seven feet in height and revels in hot weather. For years it has been widely cultivated in the tropics. It does require a long growing period to mature.
“The flowers are solitary, with a red and thick calyx. These calices, when cooked, make an excellent sauce or jelly, almost identical in flavor and color with the better known cranberry of the North. It is this fact that has given it the name of the Florida Cranberry. A few plants in the garden will supply all family needs for pies, sauces, jellies and coloring matter, the same as the cranberry, and at a far lesser cost than that of purchasing the Northern grown product. Unlike the okra, however, the green seed pod is not edible”. — Bateman, Lee. Florida Trucking for Beginners. 1913.
Bateman spoke of roselle being grown in south to mid-Florida, however, two years prior Kennerly felt it would do well outside that area. It was noted growing in California. “This is an annual plant that has been sufficiently tested to prove it will grow to perfection in this climate. The fruit resembles Scarlet Podded Okra … It is a native of Australia, and great quantities of it are shipped from this point to all parts of Europe every season and net a handsome profit. Any land that will grow okra will grow the Florida cranberry.” — Kennerly, Clarence Hickman. 1911.
Its history is rooted in the Old World Tropics and it was introduced to the West Indies and elsewhere in tropical America. Hans Sloane, reported on it being grown in Jamaica as early as 1707. He found it in most gardens there and said of it, “The capsular leaves are made use of for making Tarts, Gellies, and Wine, to be used in fevers and hot distempers, to allay heat and quench thirst”. — Yearbook of Agriculture.
The first improved strain was named Victor, however, the author has found no source for Victor today. P. J. Wester, Special Agent in the bureau of Plant Industry, is credited with tweaking it from wild strains. In 1904, he began collecting seed from plants bearing the largest calyces and which showed the most desirable characteristics. By 1906, the second generation of plants under his care possessed the qualities he sought and the strain continued from those plants. He described it as a slow-maturing plant. In fact, if planted in February or March it may not produce until around October.
A late Victorian writer said the flowers on the plant open at sunrise and close about noon. The flowers are beautiful and look like hibiscus flowers. In addition to pies, sauce, and jelly he claimed the fruit made good wine and “temperance drinks”. — The Florida Agriculturist. Vol. 25. 1898.
Making it even more versatile in the kitchen, a writer informed us in 1909 that a salad could be made of stems, leaves and calices “just as turnip salad ... A syrup that can be used for coloring purposes can be made of calices or stems and leaves. This may be boiled in the ordinary way and sealed in bottles for future use.” — Transactions of the Florida State Horticultural Society. 1909.
In that vein, The Country Gentleman told its readers that the bottled juice makes a superb drink and can be used in punches. — April 29, 1916.
In addition to its uses in the kitchen, in some parts of the world the plant is used for fiber. China and Thailand are the largest producers today. Thai Red roselle can be purchased from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. It is said to be the earliest variety to begin flowering in trials in Virginia for the Seed Exchange.
“DIRECTIONS FOR MAKING THE JELLY.
Pick the pods that grow at the junction of each leaf, boil them and strain through a cloth or sieve, add a pint of sugar to each pint of juice, and boil again until it thickens and set aside to cool, when it will form a perfect jelly.” — Kennerly. 1911.
Pick and wash the roselle berries, trim off the tip ends that seem withered. Cut off stems close up around the calyx. Then split open one side, thus letting the center part drop out. The outside part of the berry is the only edible portion. Now wash them again and put two cupfuls in a saucepan, add one-half cupful of cold water and a scant half-cupful of sugar. Cook, stirring constantly, about five minutes, or until soft. Then turn out in earthen bowl and eat cold with turkey or chicken. They are less sour and bitter than the cranberry and have a delicious flavor. — The Florida Tropical Cookbook. 1912.
Trim and wash the roselles. Take the centers out. Fill crust, add one-quarter cupful of sugar, two or three tablespoonfuls of water, a sifting of flour and some tiny pieces of lemon. Put on upper crust and bake fifteen minutes in hot oven. — The Florida Tropical Cookbook.