As Christmas approaches, one can expect to see vendors in vans or on foot selling bags of bright, red sorrel.
Caribbean sorrel is actually the sepals of a hibiscus plant called Roselle or Hibiscus sabdariffa. It is a perennial tropical plant originating from East and West Africa and parts of Asia. Roselle is a member of the Malvaceae family which is related to okra, cotton, and cacao.
The name ‘sorrel’ that we use comes from its Spanish derived names, ‘saríl’ or ‘flor de Jamaica’. This is what the plant is known as across many English-speaking Caribbean territories and Central and South America. There are two main varieties of this plant, with one of them being a rare South African variety that produces smaller pods.
The red buds of the flower are what we use to steep the seasonal sorrel drink, but the blooms and leaves can be used to make other edible creations. They can be used in salad greens, teas, and jams.
If you have ever felt happy or calm after drinking sorrel it may be because the plant contains flavanoids, antioxidants that contain antidepressant properties. These also give them their beautiful, red pigment.
Considered a medicinal herb as well, sorrel has many other health benefits. These include being rich in Vitamin C to boost your immune system as well as treating coughs and fevers and having anti-inflammatory properties that can provide relief from menstrual cramps.
The seeds have tonic and antioxidant capabilities to aid in digestion and ward against colorectal and other cancers. It is also known, due to recent studies, to lower cholesterol and manage high blood pressure. Sorrel buds have strong nutritional value as they are high in calcium, iron, niacin, and riboflavin.
The roselle or sorrel shrub makes for a colourful addition to any home garden or hedge space. What sorrel lover would not want to have their own supply of this tasty and versatile plant?
Sorrel plants bloom during the months of September and October and take up to six months to fully mature. This therefore means that they should ideally be sown around mid-March to May. They can bloom within three months of planting once under very good conditions. Our tropical climate allows for this, so planting them during this time may possibly render a suitable harvest in time for Christmas.
Caribbean sorrel germinates in soil with temperatures between 23°– 30°F with neutral pH levels. It prefers soils with good drainage that is not overly fertilised. Soils too rich in organic matter can lead to a full, large shrub producing fewer buds. Remember, harvesting these red buds is the main goal.
The seeds can be sown directly to your garden or via transplanting. If you have ever seen the way a sorrel plant grows, you may notice that it requires plenty room as they tend to be large shrubs. You should space out your seedlings about 3-6 feet apart in rows about 5 feet apart. Two plants will provide you with a sizeable harvest of sorrel buds. This is an easy to grow shrub, just ensure that the plot is weeded and that it is situated in a place to achieve maximum sunlight exposure.
The potential to grow very large requires that support in the form of a metal or wooden stake be provided for your sorrel shrub as well. The branches tend to get weighed down the more it grows and more rain it is exposed to.
If planted at this time, it is best to allow nature to do the majority of the watering for you as over-watering can cause the roots to rot. During the dry season, ensure that the soil is kept evenly moist.
Knowing when to harvest your sorrel buds is important. Between 7-10 days after your sorrel shrub has fully blossomed and faded, is the best time to pick the buds or calyx. Mature sepals (the pointy red pod) should be just over an inch wide. This is actually the tender, fleshy seed pod that is used to make sorrel drinks.
It is highly suggested that you remove these with clippers and leave a few on the plant so that you can harvest the seeds at the end of the season. Dried sorrel will crack open easily to allow the seeds to fall out. Store them in a dark, cool location until ready to sow again.
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