Rosellas; a pretty plant that makes great cordial

Yesterday I cut and processed my first lot of rosellas, and my attitude went from skepticism to planning how many rows I will plant next year.

Growing rosellas

Rosellas (or roselle) are a type of Hibiscus (H. sabdariffa), although only the flower resembles our common ornamental hibiscus. They are an annual bush, about 2 metres high, with pretty flowers that last a day. The crop is the red calyx that loosely encloses the fruit.

Rosellas are an attractive garden plant with pretty flowers and eye-catching red fruit

Rosella plants, with flowers and fruit.

Here is my patch photographed a couple of weeks ago. The calyces/fruit are as attractive as the flowers (and grow for many weeks) and the whole plant is attractive enough to use in the house garden.

Culture here is certainly easy. I started mine in September (early Spring) with seed my Mum gave me, into seed trays, then transplanted out to a well-drained bed just in time for the big dry spell, but they survived and thrived without more that a few waterings to get them through to the rain. They do need more room than I gave them though. They would probably fill a metre diameter each and still make a fine hedge. A single row would make for easier harvesting.

Using rosellas

I am a novice at growing and using rosellas, so I did a lot of looking up on the net. I was mainly wondering when you pick them, as the calyces are red and juicy from the start, and just get bigger, for week after week. I read that you pick them when they are easy to pick, but mine show no sign of picking easily. In fact they are so well attached that they rip out a good length of bark down the stem if I try to pull them off. But the birds (chickens?) were getting to the bigger fruit, and I noticed that the seeds were ripe in some, so I intervened with secateurs. Even this was a fiddly job as the fruit stem is nestled between a leaf stem and a bud.

Rosellas have a red fleshy calyx

The bowl of rosellas

I ended up with a good big bowl of rosellas, with plenty more still on the plants.

rosellas processed to fruit and calyx

The green fruit separated from the red calyces

The next step is to remove the useful calyces from the green fruit, which I had read is a fiddly job, but I found it no harder than shelling peas. You just peel the calyx off.

Next question was what to do with them. There are three uses I’ve seen; cordial, jam, and tea from the dried calyces. For the jam you don’t have to separate the fruit, but I thought the cordial would actually be quicker and more useful. As I love my pressure cooker, I decided to give that a go, adapting a recipe from Hip Pressure Cooking‘s great site. The calyces went in to the steamer basket (2/3 filled the large pot), I added a litre of water, and cooked at high pressure for 15 min, then left it to cool and release. I lifted out the strainer basket, poured out the extract from the cooker, and I sat the pulp in a strainer to collect the last drops of extract.

The result was a beautifully rich red juice. It’s very fragrant, like rose hips (or hibiscus tea), and something like rhubarb and plums.

Rosella extract makes a refreshing cordial.

Rosella cordial, ready to drink

That came just in time for cocktail hour, so I tried a few teaspoons with sugar, vodka and ice (and water!). Big success. The next one with white rum and soda was even better.

Then Jen came to the rescue and volunteered to make jam with the next picking. I’m not a jam cooker yet, and rosella jam looks like it rewards experience.

So this morning I finished my cordial by boiling the liquor back up with sugar and bottling it. I didn’t make it very sweet, will see if it starts to ferment in the bottle. The official ratio is a kg sugar per litre cordial. Just a splash of my batch in a glass of cold water makes a refreshing drink during the day, not at all sweet, quite acidic, but also a bit astringent, so it leaves a clean finish.

rosella cordial

The bottle of cordial

It’s not crystal clear, and I would filter it for giving away, but I’ll see whether the fines settle in the bottle.

[I have since modified the recipe to get both cordial and jam from the one batch of rosellas]

The green fruit I thought would be good for the chickens, as they are full of seeds and a bit like small round okra. They didn’t touch them (like most things new) at first, but then cleaned them up. I gave them the pulp this morning too, after deciding against a jam trial.

Apparently this harvest is just the first and lesser one (you can see Annette McFarlane‘s article), and my plants seem to be coming into a new flush of flowers with a couple of months of warm weather left.

It’s curious that Queensland seems to have made the rosella its own. The plant comes from Africa, but nowhere seems to take taken it on like Queensland has (and we here are just across the border). Maybe it’s the converse of my tomatillo experience; here we are lucky to have few pests for it and just the right climate.

With its red stems, dark green divided leaves, hibiscus flowers and long-lasting red calyces, I’m won over. I’m just wondering how much of the paddock under the house will be planted out to rosella next year.