This Old World plant, native from India to Malaysia, has quite different uses depending on the cultivar. Hibiscus sabdariffa var. sabdariffa produces edible flowers with red calyces (the outermost flower parts), which are used to make a beverage. The stems of the variety H. sabdariffa var. altissima, which rise to 16 feet, produce a fiber used to manufacture burlap bags, rope, and string.
Introduced to the southern United States in the late 19th century, hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa var. sabdariffa) is a bushy plant that grows to 8 feet tall and bears showy yellow blooms. When the flower fades and closes, the reddish calyx begins to swell and becomes fleshy, ripening from the bottom of the plant to the top. Eventually the fruit matures and releases the seeds.
Common Names: Hibiscus, Roselle
Description: Bushy, 8-foot-tall plant; lobed leaves with reddish veins and petioles; large, cream-yellow flowers with red centers and red calyces
Hardiness: To Zone 8; grown as an annual in cooler areas
Flowering: September to October
Parts Used: Flowers, leaves, and seeds
Range/Habitat: Native from India to Malaysia; cultivated in subtropical and tropical regions
Hibiscus flowers can be used to make beverages, syrups, jams, or jellies. Karkade, a refreshing Middle Eastern drink served cold, is made from whole flowers that have been soaked for 24 hours. Whole hibiscus flowers can also be floated in drinks or stuffed with cheese and baked.
The red calyces — which contain vitamin C and significant amounts of calcium, niacin, iron, and riboflavin — are widely used in East Africa, Thailand, the Caribbean, and Mexico to make hot and cold drinks. In Mexican markets, bags of dried calyces are sold as “Flor de Jamaica.”
To make hot or cold hibiscus tea, harvest the calyces when they have turned bright red. Make a cut on the side of each one and remove the seeds. Steep the remaining part in water — the liquid will turn bright red — and add lemon and sugar to taste. You can also add the chopped fresh calyces to fruit salads, or you can cook them with sugar to make a sauce. For a finer-textured syrup, run the cooked sauce through a sieve. The syrup can be added to puddings or salad dressings, or used as a topping for desserts.
Hibiscus’s young leaves taste something like spicy spinach. Add them to salads, or cook them with vegetables, rice, or fish, as they do in Senegal.
Most parts of the hibiscus plant are used in the traditional healing practices of many world cultures. In East Africa, the heated leaves are applied to wounds and other skin irritations. In India, a decoction of the plant’s seeds, which are considered a diuretic, is given to relieve painful urination and indigestion. The calyx tea is also believed to be a diuretic.
Folk traditions suggest that the tea is good for treating anxiety, and numerous clinical trials have shown that those who consumed the tea had lower blood pressure levels than those who took a placebo or drank another type of tea. One study showed that consuming a powder made from the calyces reduced blood glucose levels and total cholesterol, as well as triglycerides.
Hibiscus can also help with constipation. The bitter roots are valued for their emollient properties and for toning the stomach and increasing appetite. The plant is rich in anthocyanins (a type of flavonoid), which are thought to provide some of the health benefits.
Caution: Do not consume any part of hibiscus if you are pregnant or taking acetaminophen.
With showy yellow flowers, bright red calyces, and bright red stems with contrasting dark green leaves, hibiscus makes a beautiful addition to the garden — even in areas where the growing season isn’t long enough for the plant to set fruits. In subtropical or tropical regions, the bushy plant can be grown in a border or as a hedge. In temperate regions, grow it in a large container on a sunny deck or patio.
An extract made from the calyx is used as a natural red food coloring. Hibiscus seeds have been used as a coffee substitute, chicken feed, and source of oil. Some consider the seeds an aphrodisiac.
How to grow it
Frost-sensitive hibiscus thrives in full sun and moist, fertile soil. It can be started outdoors from seed in Zones 8 through 11. In cooler regions, start the seed indoors and move the plant outdoors after all danger of frost has passed and temperatures have warmed. The plants take up to 8 months to fruit.