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Hibiscus sabdariffa is a type of flowering plant native to parts of West Africa that grows and is cultivated today in many tropical climates. It’s often more commonly known as the roselle plant. It has large blossoms that can bloom year round, though a lot of this depends on the specifics of its location as well as things like soil richness. In the heart of the tropics it’s usually a perennial plant, but in colder climates it can be an annual and has been known to adapt to a shorter blooming schedule. The leaves are frequently eaten, and the stems can be used to make a variety of tough fibers that are popular in weaving. This plant’s fruits are edible, as well, and are often made into jams, jellies, and sauces. In some places it is also revered for its medicinal properties. People sometimes drink tinctures and teas made from various parts of the plant, and the oils from both the blooms and the fruits are thought to have antiseptic and other healing powers, too.
The Hibiscus sabdariffa plant is a species in the Hibiscus genus and the Malvaceae family. It’s usually a large flowering shrub, but depending on its location and cultivation it can be a much smaller herb-like bush, too. In the dense jungles of Africa, it’s often a soaring and climbing plant that almost looks like a vine, and can reach up to 8 feet (about 2.5 m) in height. On commercial farms, though, it tends to stay much lower to the ground and typically stays quite small.
Regardless of the specifics of location, the leaves that grow along the roselle plant’s branches range in color from green to red, are alternate, and bear three to seven lobes. Bold flowers add to its aesthetic appeal. They are generally large and red, yellow, or white in color with a deep red spot at the base of each petal. These plants also bear a fleshy calyx, or fruit, that begins as a medium green hue, but gradually deepens into a bright red as the fruits begin to mature.
Roselle is cultivated in many places around the world both for its good looks and many practical uses, and tends to be known by different names in different places. It’s called zobo in Nigeria, flor de Jamaica in Mexico, and sorrel in most of the Caribbean, for instance. Though the plant does best in naturally temperate and tropical climes, it can also adapt to colder regions if placed in a greenhouse or other controlled environment.
Stems in Demand
The stems of these plants are one of the biggest reasons it is so widely cultivated around the world. Stems tend to be very dense and durable, and they can be stripped into fibers that can be dried and used as jute, a vegetable fiber used for weaving cloth and burlap. The speed with which the plants regenerate and grow makes the process economical for many laborers and farmers around the world.
Uses for the Fruit
There are also many culinary uses for Hibiscus sabdariffa, though most of these center on the dense calyx. Once ripe, this fruit typically has a unique sweet-tart flavor that is commonly used as the base of different jams, jellies, and syrups. It is frequently baked into desserts and used to make sweet drinks. Outside of the culinary realm the fruit is sometimes also used in the manufacture of dyes, primarily for fabrics. At the peak of their maturity they produce a vibrant red color, but younger bulbs can also produce rich yellows and oranges.
Leaves can also be consumed. They tend to have a bitter taste when raw, so most cooks will sautee them or boil them. Some holistic chefs insist that they can be interchanged with spinach in almost any recipe. They are frequently prepared with other vegetables and spices. Leaves can also be infused with boiling water to make a sort of herbal tea.
Possible Medicinal Properties
As well as being delicious, Hibiscus sabdariffa is also thought to have many medicinal properties. Different parts of this plant are thought to have different actions, including antiseptic, aphrodisiac, purgative, and diuretic. In folk medicine, this plant is often used to soothe cold symptoms, cure digestive and heart-related ailments, and heal skin issues, such as abscesses, wounds, and ulcers. Additionally, some feel that the dried calyx may be beneficial in the treatment and prevention of certain types of cancer.