What is hibiscus? And why might this flower be important—that is, besides their spectacularly large and showy blooms, as in this dinner-plate-sized specimen!?
First off, hibiscus ranks as one of the top traded herbal products (by volume), both locally and internationally, with an estimated 60,000 metric tons produced annually, and the U.S. and Germany being primary Western importers (Dufrene 2018). That’s a lot of hibiscus!
Hibiscus: The Plant
Although Michiganders can grow hibiscus, like the ones shown here, the variety Hibiscus sabdariffa var. sabdariffa is that highest volume import crop, grown in tropical and subtropical environments.
And of the over 200 varieties grown, those from China, Sudan, and Thailand are preferred.
A member of the mallow family, hibiscus is a pretty ideal crop for developing areas because:
- it’s fairly easy to grow
- tolerates dry conditions
- must be harvested by hand
Hibiscus is a multi-purpose crop: in China the seeds are crushed for their oil and the plant stems and leaves are used for medicinal properties, while in West Africa the leaves and powdered seeds are a local foodstuff. (Dufrene 2018)
Hibiscus: The Tea
Many of us have at least heard of hibiscus tea, even if we aren’t sure what it actually is.
After blooming, the outer part of the hibiscus flower develops into a deep red fruit: a calyx surrounding the seed pod. The calyx is popular for its tart lemony or cranberry-like flavor, although all parts of the Hibiscus sabdariffa are edible.
These blossoms from Africa (available at TeaHaus) brew into a brilliant jewel-tone color and deliver a deliciously tangy flavor that is incredible either hot or iced.
And that’s what hibiscus herbal tea is: simply, hibiscus!
Hibiscus: The Health Benefits
At one time, physicians were well versed in botany because plants were the source of most medicines.
It wasn’t until scientists were able to extract the active ingredients from plants, ushering in the age of the pharmaceutical industry, that drugs—rather than plants in the form of herbal medicines—were more widely used.
Today, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, nearly a quarter of pharmaceutical drugs still come from botanicals.
Hibiscus has been used medicinally though the ages. Even dried, the calyx has antioxidant properties (Yang et al. 2012), and it “has a long history of use in Africa and neighboring tropical countries for many conditions, including . . . fever” (Wolters Kluwer Health). Numerous studies are probing its value in lowering blood pressure; its antibacterial and antioxidant effects; its role in blood sugar, arteriosclerosis, and cholesterol levels; and so on.
But in the end, hibiscus is a generous plant. The beauty of its blossoms feeds our souls while the plant itself provides us with food, medicine, tea . . . sustenance for life and health.
–”Alternative Medicine,” University of Maryland Medical Center, http://www.umms.org/ummc, accessed 2/15/16.
–Dufrene, Barbara. “Rediscovering the Benefits of Hibiscus and Honey Bush: Traditional health benefits, exotic origins and attractive cup colours generate continued growth for hibiscus, honey bush and other herbal teas with wellness and functional claims.” Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, Mar. 2018.
–”Hibiscus,” Drugs.com, Wolters Kluwer Health, 2009.
–Yang, L. et al. “Antioxidant capacity of extracts from calyx fruits of roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa L.),” African Journal of Biotechnology 11(17), 2012.