The Medicinal Benefits of Hibiscus
Written and photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
I try not to foster any regrets in life, but I must confess that I waited too many years to plant hibiscus, thinking the temperate climate unsuitable for its success—and for that, I am sorry. It is, in fact, easy to grow and harvest if you have the right variety and get a head start on the season.
The hibiscus we use medicinally—also called roselle—is made from the calyces (aka sepals) of Hibiscus sabdariffa in the Mallow family (Malvaceae). These deep red calyces are often mistaken for flowers, and may be sold as such. Other notable members of the mallow family include cotton (Gossypium spp.), okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), and marshmallow (Althaea officinalis).
There are other species of hibiscus with edible flowers, but no other species has a similar medicinal and edible calyx. When the petals fall off, the receptacle (flower base) and calyx (sepals) remain as fleshy red crowns. See the picture below of the flower with the petals intact (on the left) and the remaining calyx (on the right).
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Medicinal Benefits of Hibiscus
Parts Used: Calyx (red fleshy sepals); these are commonly described and sold as “flowers” or “petals”
Medicinal Preparations: Tea, honey, syrup, powder, chutney, vinegar, wine, popsicles, jam, fire cider, and margarita
With its high levels of vitamin C, minerals, soluble fiber, and antioxidant flavonoids, hibiscus tea is one of the most healthful beverage teas on the planet. And considering its widespread popularity as a food around the globe, it has a high degree of safety and can be consumed daily to maintain health and lower the risk of developing cancer and cardiovascular disease—two of the biggest killers in industrialized nations. Plus, it’s wildly delicious and can be woven into food and drinks with endless creative and colorful flair.
Roselle has been used medicinally in many cultures for its diuretic, hypotensive, and antimicrobial properties. In Mexico, roselle is highly regarded as a natural liver and kidney tonic and traditional weight-loss herb. With its demulcent and soothing qualities, roselle preparations assuage colds, mouth sores, and sore throats. The herb has demonstrated antibacterial actions against a variety of bacteria in studies. In addition to preparing hibiscus as a medicinal tea, I love adding it to my annual batch of fire cider. Sound exciting? You can make my Hibiscus Pomegranate Fire Cider too.
PRECAUTIONS: Roselle is generally considered safe, although its sour nature can aggravate heartburn. Hibiscus has been shown to increase the urinary excretion of acetaminophen (Tylenol), which lessens the drug’s efficacy. As a precaution, wait three hours after taking acetaminophen before ingesting hibiscus. Hibiscus reduces the absorption of chloroquine (an antimalarial, amebicide, and immunosuppressive pharmaceutical). As a diuretic and hypotensive herb, hibiscus could potentially compound the effects of pharmaceuticals with similar actions; however, no studies have examined this compounding action.
Culinary Uses of Hibiscus
Hibiscus stars in more of my recipes than any other herb. It’s highly nutritive and easily prepared in hundreds of different ways. The tart young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and they are a favorite food in many tropical cuisines. The leaves are high in soluble fiber—like okra and oatmeal—and are thus helpful for supporting healthy intestinal flora and reducing excess cholesterol.
The flavor of the calyx is often likened to rhubarb or cranberry. It can be eaten raw or cooked. Its sour taste, coupled with its natural pectin content, readily lends itself to jams, pies, sauces, and chutneys. Infused in honey, hibiscus makes a lovely garnet-colored treat with a delectably fruity flavor. During the summertime, hibiscus honey is a frequent muse for our garden cocktails. You can prepare a hibiscus honey lemonade or add the crimson honey to sparkling water for a rose-hued festive libation that’s suitable for the whole family.
As an herbal iced tea ingredient, it’s marvelous with mint, lemon balm, and meadowsweet. It’s popular in the Caribbean and Central America as an iced herbal tea mixed with sugar; this drink is called sorrel in the islands and agua de flor de Jamaica in Mexico. Hibiscus is also widely favored in Africa and South America as a beverage tea, medicinal herb, and food.
How to Grow and Harvest Hibiscus
Roselle has been cultivated for thousands of years as a food, medicine, and fiber crop in northern Africa. Despite its tropical nature, it can be grown as an annual in temperate climates if you plant the right variety and get a head start on the season. Weed assertively when the plants are young, as they can become stunted with heavy competition. Once they reach a respectable stature, they can fend for themselves with less coddling.
The hibiscus varieties available in nurseries and garden supply centers showcase glamorous blooms, but our dear roselle’s flowers aren’t as flashy, so the plant isn’t commonly sold. You may be able to find roselle hibiscus plants at a local nursery specializing in herbs or useful plants, but you may simply need to grow it from seed.
Roselle’s flowering rhythm is aligned with daylight cycles. Specifically, it is a “short-day” plant, which means it begins flowering in the early fall. This timing isn’t optimal if you live in an area that regularly freezes. The narrow window between flowering and frost allows for slim pickings, if you’re lucky enough to obtain any harvest at all. The good news is that certain varieties flower earlier, such as Thai red roselle, which typically begins flowering in July.
I recommend purchasing the seed from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. In my experience, other seed sellers do not always have the right variety. For gardeners who live outside the tropics, having the right variety makes all the difference between an abundant and a nonexistent harvest.
When the yellow-pink petals fall off, the receptacle (flower base) and calyx (sepals) remain on the stem, appearing as fleshy scarlet crowns. This crown is the primary part of the plant used, both medicinally and as a food. Harvest the crown while it is still pliable and crimson, a few days to a few weeks after the petals have fallen off. I like to wait until the calyx is 2 inches long to maximize the yield when harvesting for tea. When the crowns reach this size, you’ll need pruners or garden scissors to cut them from the stems. If you’re preparing hibiscus as a food, pick the calyx when it’s smaller, as it’s less fibrous.
After you pick the calyx, separate it from the green ovary in the center. The ovary resembles a green ball nestled in the crown. When the ovary is young, it is mucilaginous and edible and can be included in foods made from the hibiscus calyces. As it matures, it becomes woody and must be removed. If you’re drying hibiscus, always remove the ovary because it easily molds and can ruin the harvest.
JULIET BLANKESPOOR is the founder, primary instructor, and Creative Director of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, an online school serving thousands of students from around the globe. She's a professional plant-human matchmaker and bonafide plant geek, with a degree in botany and over 30 years of experience teaching and writing about herbalism, medicine making, and organic herb cultivation. Juliet’s lifelong captivation with medicinal weeds and herb gardening has birthed many botanical enterprises over the decades, including an herbal nursery and a farm-to-apothecary herbal products business.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession through her writing and photography in her online programs, on her personal blog Castanea, and in her new book, The Healing Garden: Cultivating and Handcrafting Herbal Remedies. Juliet and her family reside in a home overrun with houseplants and books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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