Red Sorrel or Jamaican Sorrel is a versatile plant originating in the Old World tropics, its natural range extending from East Africa to India.
There are two varieties known in cultivation and they have different uses. One variety, var. altissimais, is cultivated for its fibre and the other, var. sabdariffa, as a food plant. Because their use and also their cultivation is so different, only the food producing variety is discussed here.
Closely related to Cotton and Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), it is a wide-spreading annual sub-shrub 1 to 2 m (3.3 to 6.6 ft) tall, made up of a central stem with semi-woody, wine-red stems branching off all around, and with a vigorous taproot keeping the whole plant firmly anchored in the soil.
The leaves are dull blue-green and vary in size and shape, with the first leaves and the leaves at the top of the plant lance-shaped and entire. But as the plant grows deeply lobed palmate leaves develop, either three- or five-lobed and 7 to 15 cm (2.8 to 6 in) long, mostly on the side branches around the middle of the plant.
The flowers are a typical Hibiscus-shape with five large yellow petals and a red centre. They are borne on the side branches and come into bloom from autumn to winter, in response to shortening day-length.
Each flower lasts for only a day and is set in a green calyx that swells after the flower withers and falls, becoming fleshy, juicy and ruby-red. This covers a small egg-shaped seedpod up to 3 cm (1.2 in) long containing up to thirty very small, finely hairy, dark brown kidney-shaped seed.
The fleshy calyx has a sourish, cranberry-like flavour and is used fresh or dried to make tea-based beverages, as well as jams, jellies, sauces and fruit syrup (cordial).
Infusions retain the bright ruby-red colour of the calyx and are made commercially for use as a natural food colouring and flavouring in alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, chilled dairy desserts, confectionery and baked goods. In its native region, it is mostly made into teas and cold beverages, with or without a sweetener, and commonly spiced with ginger and other spices. Jams, jellies, fruit sauces and fruit drink mixes are made by substituting the calyx for fruit in traditional recipes.
The seed have a crude protein content of about 21% of their dry weight and yield 16% of an edible oil, though questions remain over its suitability for human consumption and it is mostly diverted to soap-making. The whole seed are recommended as a feed for chickens and other poultry.
Teas or infusions of the calyx have shown protective action against high blood pressure in clinical trials and are prescribed as a liver tonic in traditional medicine. They are also rich in both Vitamins C and A.
Grows naturally in humid subtropical and tropical lowland to mid-elevation climates, generally in areas with annual lows of 13 to 25 °C, annual highs of 22 to 35 °C and annual rainfall of 900 to 3500 mm. It can also be cultivated with irrigation in much drier areas.
New plants are grown from seed broadcast on finely prepared soil that has been enriched with organic matter and adjusted to a moderately acid to alkaline pH, generally in the 6.0 to 8.5 range. Alternately, the seed are sown in containers and the seedlings transplanted when they are about 15 to 30 cm (6 to 12 in) tall.
The seed are sown in spring or at the start of the rainy season in subtropical and tropical areas, when there is sufficient moisture for good germination and growth. The calyces mature around four to six months after the seed are sown, or three weeks after flowering. Yields of fresh calyces average 1.5 kgs per plant in a season or about 8,000 kgs per hectare (7,140 lbs per acre) in commercial operations.
The seed are eaten and dispersed by birds and other animals. It is recorded as having escaped cultivation and as a weed of the natural environment in Australia and is assessed as a moderate weed risk for Hawaii by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA).
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