Plant Profile: Hibiscus
Hibiscus sabdariffa, Hibiscus tillaceus, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis
Rose-mallow, Flor de Jamaica, Roselle, Red Sorelle
Flower (Calyx- the cup shaped center of the flower)
Hibiscus brings visions of big pink, tropical flowers. When I lived in Florida, my first house had a backyard lined with a hibiscus hedge that when in bloom was covered in red petals. Hibiscus surprised me when I moved to the Jersey shore because I thought it only grew in climates like Florida, but various species grow equally well here during the heat of summer. Hibiscus loves full sunshine and moisture, soil that drains well, and it doesn’t like frost. It’s a late summer bloomer, many little buds forming in August and quickly blossoming to the large distinguishable radiant flowers. While hibiscus blooms in many colors, orange, yellow, pink, peach, and white these are more ornamental, not edible or used for medicinal purposes. It’s the red variety, also known as roselle, that’s cultivated for medicinal purposes. The calyx, a deep red petal center where the flower sepals live holds the medicine. A calyx (the plural is calyces) is a botanical term referring to all the flower’s sepals together and the sepals are the center little leaf-like parts that enclose and protect the developing flower bud.) The time to pick hibiscus is when the flowers are in full bloom. As the petals fall off, the calyces will turn to a pod that hold’s seeds.
Hibiscus is easy to find in the marketplace, especially as the major ingredient in Celestial Seasoning’s Red Zinger brand tea. Other companies such as Traditional Medicinals and Republic of Tea sell hibiscus tea bags. Options for loose dried hibiscus include whole, cut and powdered flowers. Mountain Rose Herbs sells all three. It’s also an ingredient in several tea blends and as seeds for planting.
Another trusted supplier is Rosemary’s Garden who sells small packages of dried herbs and tea blends in their extensive online store. All types of products are available on Amazon including dried hibiscus, tea bags, lip balm, capsules, and moisturizers.
Torani makes a hibiscus syrup, but I have not been able to find it and truly making it on your own with dried flowers is easy. So is hibiscus honey and preserves.
The virtues of hibiscus lie in its ability to cool and it’s intense supply of antioxidants. Those who live in tropical climates may take this for granted because drinking hibiscus blends are as normal as ordinary iced tea here in the US. Some cultures in Africa are known to drink up to 25 cups a day. Herbalists use hibiscus in formulas as one of the best tasting herbs for teas balancing other less tasty herbal flavors. The antioxidant composition is especially high in vitamin C and bioflavonoids. Important flavonoid phytochemicals include quercetin and anthocyanins, both revered for their anti-inflammatory benefits. There are no safety issues associated with hibiscus. It has, however, traditional use in some cultures as an emmenagogue, which means it can bring on menstruation. Although not a hazard, for couples attempting to get pregnant and also when pregnant, it’s best for a woman to avoid hibiscus tea.
If taste is influenced by visual effect, hibiscus surely is rich. The wine red color sparkles with vibrancy. Although classified as sour, hibiscus tea is pleasantly tart and refreshing, with a sweet aftertaste. It lends superbly to mixing with fruit flavors like pomegranate, orange, and lemon or spices such as ginger, mint, cinnamon, and cloves.
Only mildly floral in scent, hibiscus flowers offer more pleasure for the eyes than the nose. The dried calyx, although part of the flower, smells more a like berry – a mix of cranberry and raspberry. When heated for teas or syrups, this berry-like scent is lost with tartness lingering.
Although hibiscus has a long history of use medicinally and as food, it’s the flower’s unique beauty that captures the attention of cultures throughout the world especially the tropics. Hawaii named hibiscus it’s state flower using the yellow variety as a symbol. Women wear hibiscus flowers behind their ears and tradition says that the side speaks whether they are married or not. Generally, hibiscus flowers have feminine associations. Different colors have different meanings. Red symbolizes love and passion, white purity, pink friendship, yellow happiness, and purple signifies mystery. Most hibiscus flowers bloom for only one day, which suggests that beautiful moments are short lived and must be appreciated while they last. Hibiscus flowers are an important part of Hindu tradition where they are used it as an offering to the Goddess Kali and the Lord Ganesh. Red hibiscus may bring wealth and protection from enemies. The red petals symbolize divine consciousness as well as fierceness. Hibiscus flower essence has been used to support passion and sexuality, the first and second chakras, and release pent up creativity. In astrology, its ruling planet is the warmth of the sun.
Culinary and Cooking
Hibiscus tea ranks among best known and loved herbal teas. Many tropical cultures take advantage of its cooling anti-inflammatory nature. In Mexico, called aqua de Jamaica, hibiscus is mixed with ginger and lime juice acts as one of the most cooling beverages. Sorrel, a special holiday drink in the Caribbean, is hibiscus tea with ginger and sugar. These can be mixed with sparkling water or added to rum. In the US, we know it as a vital component of Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger Herbal Tea. Hibiscus by itself makes refreshing iced tea, perfect for summer. The lovely red color adds to the esthetic experience. Freezing into iced cubes does the same. The tart, sour flavor and natural red color of hibiscus lends itself to jellies, ice cream, and sauces as well as beverages.
Beneficial Qualities and Traditional Uses
Traditionally, hibiscus reaches wide to remedy various complaints and has a long history in India, Africa, the Middle East, and Jamaica. Hibiscus’ actions include anti-inflammatory, diuretic, cooling, antioxidant, and antibacterial, but evidence based research studies focus in on its hypotensive and hypoglycemic activity. A recent study at Tufts University found that drinking 3 cups of hibiscus tea daily had a similar blood pressure lowering effect as medications with no side effects. Over the last 10 years, several studies have been carried out to test the effect of hibiscus tea on blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Each study showed promising results indicating that drinking hibiscus tea regularly can be an important dietary intervention for those with hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and elevated cholesterol. Hibiscus is known for its benefit to the upper respiratory system. It is a nice addition to tea for treating mild colds and flus due to its anti-inflammatory and cooling properties. It also has ability to promote skin health and decreases swelling from bruises as a topical application. A side benefit is a calming effect on nerves.
Combine 2 teaspoons dried flowers with 8 ounces hot water, steep 20 minutes and strain.
Variation: Sun tea works well for cool iced tea – in quart jar, place 4 heaping teaspoons dried flowers and fill with spring water, place in sunny spot for 3 hours, strain and serve over ice.
Dried calyces can be powdered using a spice grinder or coffee grinder, but these are also an herb that powder fairly easily by hand in a mortal and pestle.
Either fresh or dried hibiscus flowers can be used to prepare an alcohol extraction or tincture. The traditional recipe is one part flowers to two parts alcohol for fresh and one part flowers to five parts alcohol for dried. The alcohol is diluted to 30% and a vegetable glycerin must be added.