Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Herb of the week - Hibiscus

It has been the season for Hibiscus.  From a popularity on the Internet to newspaper articles touting its medical properties, to Starbucks creating a new drink using it, suddenly it seems hibiscus is everywhere.  So after seeing commercials on TV for I decided that this week I would feature

Hibiscus as the Herb of the Week.

Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) is a woody herbaceous shrub.  It is heat resistant, drought tolerant, beautiful flowering and deer do not seem to care for it, yet butterflies and birds love it.  It blooms in late summer.  The most common varieties are red and burgundy but there is a blue variety as well, Blue Satin Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)  There are more than 100 differing species of Hibiscus, but the most common and the one given the medical properties tends to be the Red Hibiscus Hibiscus rosa-sinensis.

A member of the Mallow species, Hibiscus are often noted for their showy flowers and are commonly known as hibiscus, sorrel, and rosemallow. The genus includes both annual and perennial herbaceous plants, as well as woody shrubs and small trees.  When I was in Guatemala they grew like a small tree and were trained into arbors and along walls to create flower filled yard edging.  The flowers of this tropical plant general last only a day, but the bush will flower continuously through the hot months.

In fact, tropical hibiscus have about the most complicated genetic heritage of any group of ornamental plants, but one thing is certain: like so much else, they came to the Caribbean from elsewhere. Actually, any hibiscus found in the region was planted by someone, since the birds and insects of the islands seem unable to pollinate these flowers, so seed is rarely produced without hand pollination.

There may now be over 10,000 named varieties of tropical hibiscus, with 6 distinct forms of flowers (singles, doubles, crested, etc.), and more colors and combinations of colors than one can easily imagine. These hibiscus have a species, "rosa-sinesis" meaning "rose of China," as part of their botanical name. This could be far more correctly termed the "rosa-sinesis complex," since the original species described by Linnaeus (a red double from China) was itself a cultivated hybrid to begin with. 

A large group of hibiscus species native to the Indian Ocean islands, Asia, Australia, the South Pacific, and Hawaii are genetically close enough to hybridize naturally and as people began to migrate through the region, they apparently carried their favorite hibiscus with them, in some cases thousands of years ago. Most of the modern hybrids are created in Florida, California, Hawaii, and Australia, but hibiscus are immensely popular all over the warmer parts of the world. Most of the breeding is done by hobby growers, often retirees who are active in the American Hibiscus Society or its overseas affiliates.
The leaves are alternate, ovate to lanceolate, often with a toothed or lobed margin. The flowers are large, conspicuous, trumpet-shaped, with five or more petals, color from white to pink, red, orange, purple or yellow, and from 4–18 cm broad. Flower color in certain species, such as Hibiscus mutabilis or Hibiscus tiliaceus, changes with age.  The fruit is a dry five-lobed capsule, containing several seeds in each lobe, which are released when the capsule splits open at maturity. It is of red and white colors. Many species are grown for their showy flowers or used as landscape shrubs, and are used to attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.

To Grow
Although newly created hibiscus hybrids must be grown from seed, the existing varieties are propagated by cuttings or grafting. Most of the smaller flowered "old-fashioned" types grow readily from woody cuttings placed in well drained potting soil. Grafting is necessary, or desirable, for many of the fancier modern hybrids that have very weak root systems of their own. A branch of the hybrid is attached to the root system of one of the tough old standbys like the "common red" seen everywhere in the islands.
Hibiscus starts being damaged when temperatures drop to 29 F. Prolonged exposure to temperatures at or below this will kill a hibiscus to the ground. However, a hibiscus will often be able to grow back from its roots. I have never tried growing Hibiscus in Illinois so I cannot speak to how it fares in Zone 5.  My guess is one would need to mulch it well around the roots or bring it inside in the winter like a lemon tree or other woody deciduous plant like lemon verbena.

The roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is a species of Hibiscus native to the Old World tropics, used for the production of bast fiber and as an infusion. It is an annual that can grow as a perennial, growing to 7–8 feet tall. The leaves are deeply three- to five-lobed, 3–6 inches long, arranged alternately on the stems.

The flowers are 3–4 inches in diameter, white to pale yellow with a dark red spot at the base of each petal, and have a stout fleshy calyx at the base, less than an inch wide, enlarging to 1.2–1.4 inches, fleshy and bright red as the fruit matures. It takes about six months to mature which is why I grow it for the show but do not have a season long enough for the fruit to mature on the stem.

Dig a hole at least twice the size of the rootball. At a minimum, make the hole 2 feet in diameter and 1 foot deep. Work in a 50/50 mix of compost to soil. Be sure to mix the compost and soil as thoroughly as possible. It also is a good idea to finish with the hole an inch or two recessed so that a watering basin is formed.
Watering frequency
Most of the year hibiscus do well on a grass watering schedule.
This schedule equals a watering frequency of every other day in the hottest part of summer and every one to two weeks in the coldest part of winter.  During winter the plant will be green but is almost dormant so it needs very little water and can be switched to a citrus watering schedule. Citrus like to dry out between watering and in the winter once every four to six weeks is plenty.  Watering a hibiscus too much during winter will make it nutrient deficient causing the leaves to yellow.

To Use
One species of Hibiscus, known as kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus), is extensively used in paper-making. Dried hibiscus is edible, and is often a delicacy in Mexico. It can also be candied and used as a garnish.  The Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is used as a vegetable. In the Philippines, the gumamela (local name for hibiscus) is used by children as part of a bubble-making pastime. The flowers and leaves are crushed until the sticky juices come out. Hollow papaya stalks are then dipped into this and used as straws for blowing bubbles.

Hibiscus are ideal for decoration, since the flowers will not wilt, even without water, until their natural time to close. Opening buds may be picked early in the morning, placed gently in the refrigerator, and brought out for evening festivities-the cold delays the flower's closing by several hours.

With a flower of such great and universally admired beauty, no one demands that the hibiscus be useful as well, but there are a few practical aspects to the plant. In India and Jamaica, they are often called shoe-flower, a reference to the use of the crushed flowers as a black shoe polish. Asian women reportedly also use this natural glossy black dye, in their case, as a hair coloring. The flowers are also edible, making a colorful addition to salads. The hibiscus flowers used in herbal teas are from the related annual plant Hibiscus sabdariffa, usually called Jamaican Sorrel or Roselle.

For me it is all about the Tea.  And being able to grow an annual in Zone 5 works for me as well.  I have grown Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) for 3 years.  Hibiscus Tea is colorful, tangy in flavor and very healthful.  It was traditionally made and served both hot and cold in Jamaica, Egypt, West Africa and Mexico.  I was first introduced to its amazing citrus-like flavor when I worked on a Mexican themed Christmas Exhibit for the Wheaton History Center.  One of the lenders to the exhibit taught me to make this Hibiscus Citrus drink that is out of this world (recipe below.)

The tea is popular as a natural diuretic; it contains vitamin C and minerals, and is used traditionally as a mild medicine.  Dieters or people with kidney problems often take it without adding sugar for its beneficial properties and as a natural diuretic.  The tea is also supposed to help the body cool itself, so drinking it hot or cold in the summer months can off set extreme heat situations and replace nutrients lost by perspiration.  This year that is an extra plus! 

A 2008 USDA study shows consuming hibiscus tea lowers blood pressure in a group of pre-hypertensive and mildly hypertensive adults. Three cups of tea daily resulted in an average drop of 8.1 mmHg in their systolic blood pressure, compared to a 1.3 mmHg drop in the volunteers who drank the placebo beverage. Study participants with higher blood pressure readings (129 or above) had a greater response to hibiscus tea: their systolic blood pressure went down by 13.2 mmHg. These data support the idea that drinking hibiscus tea in an amount readily incorporated into the diet may play a role in controlling blood pressure, although more research is required since there are not significant side effects to drinking Hibiscus Tea, to may for some be worth the experiment.

In an issue of Alternatives by Dr. David Williams, Dr. Williams reaffirms the medicinal use of Hibiscus stating simply that "After centuries of traditional use around the world, hibiscus tea (Hibiscus sabdariffa) has been officially proven in clinical research to be yet another effective method of lowering high blood pressure."

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis has a number of medical uses in Chinese herbology.  In the Indian traditional system of medicine, Ayurveda, hibiscus, especially white hibiscus and red hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), is considered to have medicinal properties. The roots are used to make various concoctions believed to cure ailments such as cough, hair loss or hair greying. As a hair treatment, the flowers are boiled in oil along with other spices to make a medicated hair oil. The leaves and flowers are ground into a fine paste with a little water, and the resulting lathery paste is used as a shampoo plus conditioner.  You can use hibiscus as a hair rinse to bring out the red highlights in darker or auburn hair.

Hibiscus Hair Rinse
This rinse will give red highlights to light or dark hair. 

• 2 cups water
• ¼ cup fresh or dried hibiscus flowers

Boil water and pour over hibiscus. Let mixture cool and then strain out all solids before using.
To use: Pour over clean hair as a final rinse and do not rinse out.

Rose & Hibiscus Lemonade

 8 tsp. Backyard Patch Rose Blush Tea or Mexican Hibiscus Black Tea (or just 8 tsp of dried Hibiscus flowers)
about 8 cups cold water
8 ounces frozen lemonade concentrate
fresh lime wedge, garnish

In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Take water off the heat and add the tea.  Steep 5-10 minutes. Strain out the herbs and flowers.  Pour tea into a large pitcher.  Add about 2/3 of the can (or 8 ounces) of frozen lemonade concentrate.  Stir to dissolve and let cool a bit before refrigerating until completely chilled.  Pour over ice in a glass decorated with a fresh lime wedge. Enjoy!  Serves 8

This recipe from the Herb Companion Magazine was first published back in 2006.
Lemon Hibiscus Tea
A touch of sassy citrus flavor and a crimson blush make this tea a favorite of children and a festive party beverage.

• 2 quarts water
• 1/4 cup dried jasmine flowers
• 1 cup dried hibiscus flowers
• 4 cups lemonade
• Lemon slices for garnish


Boil 2 quarts water and steep jasmine and hibiscus flowers in water.  Strain out flowers and allow to cool.  Add 4 cups of prepared lemonade.  Serve over ice with a lemon slice garnish.

As promised here is the recipe for that Hibiscus punch I first had back in the 90s.  It is a great recipe to make any occasion special—as a delicious iced tea, it’s also great for drinking at home on a hot summer evening. Kids and adults alike love its taste, and the drink is a healthy alternative to high-sugar fruit punches. The punch has a vibrant, deep-red color that makes it look like traditional fruit punch.

This recipe also contains red clover (Trifolium pratense), a mild tonic herb. Red clover is a safe herb, but it should not be used during pregnancy.

Hibiscus Punch
Makes about 5 quarts

1 gallon water
1 cup dried red clover blossoms
2 cups dried hibiscus flowers
5 whole cloves
1/3 cup cinnamon sticks
1/2 cup honey
1 cup lemon juice
2 cups orange juice
1 cup apple juice

Bring the water to a boil and pour it over the red clover, hibiscus, cloves, and cinnamon sticks. Steep for 20 minutes. Add the honey, lemon juice, orange juice, and apple juice. Refrigerate until chilled. Pour into a punch bowl or pitcher, and float lemon slices, orange slices, and fresh spearmint leaves in the hibiscus punch.


  1. Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) is a woody herbaceous shrub. It is heat resistant, drought tolerant, beautiful flowering and deer do not seem to care for it, yet butterflies and birds love it.Online Nursery

  2. Have you grown Hibiscus rosa-sinensis in ground in Yr zone?

    1. As I say in the article, I have not grown Hibiscus rosa-sinensis as it is too cold here. I grow Hibiscus sabdariffa


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