Hibiscus sabdariffa, with its attractive and sharp-tasting red ‘flowers’ grows right across the ‘top end’ of Australia, from the Kimberleys in Western Australia, through the Northern Territory to Northern Queensland. Actual flowers are pale yellow with a dark crimson centre and can be made into a refreshing tea as can its sepals.
Although it is thought to have originated in Africa, versions of this useful plant grow throughout Asia. It is supposed that the native hibiscus plant adopted Australia as its home some thousands of years ago, possibly arriving with visiting Indonesian traders and fishermen.
Easily propagated from seed, rosellas also grow readily in tropical gardens, where their 'fruit', or calyxes, are especially valued for making delicious (and labour intensive!) rosella jam. The round fruit itself, when green, is filled with hard, greenish seeds containing large amounts of pectin. The young leaves can be used as spinach and the flowers and calyxes dehydrated for use in teas or added to dried fruit mixes.
Several enterprising Australian businesses harvest the wild hibiscus plants, turning the red flower-like calyx into an elegant addition to champagne or combining it with chocolate or with other superfoods to make health-promoting juices and nutritionally dense antioxidant complexes.
Rosella’s health benefits mostly lie in its apparent ability to lower blood pressure and cholesterol and to assist with improving coughs and colds, due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. I have even read that tea made from the calyx is anti-aging; what a shame that I didn’t know this decades ago!
Its deep red colour certainly looks splendid and tastes delicious in teas, syrups, juices and jams, although I need some sugar to counter-act its tartness. The syrup or jelly is perfect as topping over vanilla icecream – a feast for the eyes even before you taste it!
If you are touring across the top (far north) of Australia by car do look out for hibiscus sabdariffa bushes growing by the roadside and for its jam and jellies in small local markets.
Wild hibiscus flower
Making Rosella Jam
Green fruit stripped of red calyx, seeds inside
Red 'petals' broken from calyx
Seeds boiled then strained to remove pectin
Jam nearly done
Testing for 'jel' stage