Jamaica, also known as Jamaican sorrel or roselle, is the common name for a type of tropical hibiscus, Hibiscus sabdariffa, whose calyces are used to make a red drink. In Jamaica, most homes keep a jug of this sweet, fragrant drink in the refrigerator to offer winter holiday guests, the way Americans might have eggnog on hand. The genus Hibiscus includes annuals, perennials and woody plants grown for their ornamental flowers, as well.
Jamaica is a shrubby plant that is an annual in all but U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10 and 11. Native to Africa, it reaches 8 feet tall, with narrow leaves and red stems. While all parts are edible, the part used for drinks is the calyx, which surrounds the base of the flower and turns red when ripe. Hardier Hibiscus species commonly grown in North American gardens include rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), a 12-foot-tall shrub or tree that thrives in USDA zones 5 through 8, and rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), a large-flowered perennial that grows in USDA zones 4 through 9, reaching 3 feet tall.
The flowers of Jamaica are single white, pale yellow or pale pink blooms with a pronounced red center. The flowers of other hibiscus usually are much showier. Rose mallow produces some of the largest flowers of any perennial plant, reaching up to 1 foot across, and the colors include white and myriad shades of pink and red, plus bicolors. Rose of Sharon's blooms are smaller, about 3 inches across, but most are ruffled doubles and include maroon and lavender tones.
Jamaica thrives in rich, moist, well-drained soil in full sun. It does not tolerate shade or competition from weeds. It is a fast grower and flowers its first year where summers are warm and humid, but it is very sensitive to frost. Other hibiscus varieties grow in full sun or with shade from the afternoon sun, and need regular soaking to keep the soil moist. The tree forms are deciduous.
Hibiscus is one of the traditional flowers used in making Hawaiian leis. The petals of hibiscus flowers are used in jams, jellies, chutneys and wine. The calyces of any hibiscus variety can be used to make tea, although the calyces of Jamaica are the traditional source for hibiscus tea and impart a cranberry-like flavor. The calyces are boiled and strained and the juice mixed with sugar for a cold drink.