4 Dec 2014

Roselle, It's Your Turn

By Jorge Ventocilla


Paul C. Standley worked for the Smithsonian Institution as a botanist in the 1920’s. He was hired to write a book about the flora of the Canal Zone. Mr. Standley, hard-working as he was, not only wrote the book mentioned above, but also the first detailed account of vegetation in Barro Colorado Island. To honor him for these and other contributions, there is a “Standley Trail” in Barro Colorado, named after him.

In 1928, Mr. Standley wrote the following: “the roselle (known as saril in Panama) is grown in large quantities in Panama, especially by Antillean groups.  We are able to see this plant everywhere: in the market, on the roads…we would think that there is a surplus”. As we can see, the roselle (Hibiscus sabdarifa) has been widely consumed, for a long time, in Panama.

One of the names for this plant is “sorrel”, in English. Perhaps the use of “saril” in Panama was influenced by this word. It is also known as Jamaica Sorrel and Florida Cranberry.  In Spanish, it is known as Quimbombó Chino, Sereni, Rosa de Jamaica, or just Jamaica. I think the use of “saril” is common only in Panama.

The plant is native to India and Malaysia. The variety found in Panama is an annual shrub of about 2.5 m in height. It is usually planted in the beginning of the rainy season. It will be in full bloom in September and October. The “flowers” or “petals” that are used for making the Christmas drink (a Jamaican tradition, by the way) are actually calyces. These calyces will be ready for harvest in November and December.

The roselle presumably was taken to Africa, from Asia, centuries ago. The first seeds were brought to the New World by African slaves. I have always pictured these men, women and children, taken from their homes and carrying anything they could with them: seeds, religious beliefs and music…things they would need for surviving their sadness.

Written material proves that, in the 17th Century, this plant was already grown in Brazil. In Jamaica, it has been grown since 1707; and since 1840, approximately, in Guatemala. By the end of the 19th Century, there were two production centers of roselle jam in Australia, from where it was exported mainly to Europe. It was brought to Panama by the Antillean groups that came to work in the construction of the Canal.

Currently, it is widely available in the tropical and subtropical regions in both hemispheres. I was surprised to hear a friend, from Santiago de Cuba, saying that he has not seen the roselle in the island. Another friend from Colombia, who has traveled his country extensively, said that here in Panama he was able to see the roselle for the first time.

In the early 1970’s, 10-25 tons of dry roselle “flowers” produced in Senegal were exported to Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Italy) by ship.

Two popular ways of consuming the roselle are as a soft drink and as coffee-like drink. As a soft drink, the red calyces are separated from the capsule, which contains the seeds, and are boiled with ginger. As a coffee-like drink, the capsules are dried and the seeds are extracted (15-20 seeds per capsule). These are toasted, grinded and are used as coffee.

However, it is good to know that there are more options. In milder climates, where the fruit does not ripen, parts of the stem and leaves are consumed. In the Antilles, and also in Europe, the dry calyces are used for adding flavor and color to some types of liquor. The fresh fruit is cooked with sugar and then used as pie filling; they are ground or crushed with a mortar first, and then they are used for jams, syrup for pudding, jelly and ice cakes: it can be spread on top of gingerbread, waffles or ice cream.

According to nutritionists, the roselle we consume in Central America is rich in calcium, niacin, riboflavin and iron. Several sources report that the roselle has more Vitamin C than the orange. Interesting, right?

The fact that the roselle is not available at supermarkets has little impact on its importance. Even if the roselle does not make it to the supermarkets, we are still able to buy it from street vendors, in markets and grocery stores. This is a plant we should know, cherish and consume.