The History of Hibiscus: A Starting Point

The History of Hibiscus: A Starting Point

It goes without saying that we’re a bit obsessed with the hibiscus flower, and The Rubyverse (and Ruby) is just the latest addition to a lengthy narrative that spans The Milky Way (or at least Earth). In The History of Hibiscus, we’ll take you around your world and share how people have prepared, grown and used hibiscus. So, where to begin? We figured the beginning…

Which isn’t necessarily easy to do. You all know the spiel about the big bang and what came after… well some billion odd years after that “whammy” the hibiscus popped up, with eight specific species, which were indigenous to Hawaii (arnottianus and kokio), Mauritius (genevieve, fragilis, liliflorus), Fiji (storckii), Madagascar (schizopetalus), and either China or India (rosa-sinensis). Forgive the either/or, it’s tough to trace a plant back and back and back and suddenly we’re forward again. But that final strain, the rosa-sinensis was the common root for what, in some places would come to be known as the comfortroot.


These eight strains had a number of the characteristics we’ve come to know in present-day -> they could form seeds using their own pollen, they were free flowering, though they were a little bit smaller, which to The Ruby Team, kind of sounds adorable… Already they were popping up in different colors, the Hawaiian strain in particular was unique with its white leaves, while the other strains were pink and red.

Hawaiian Hibiscus

Now, Ruby uses hibiscus sabdariffa, which is indigenous to West Africa and Southeast Asia. We specifically source ours from an ethical farm in Burkina Faso. You’ll notice that we didn’t list that in the ancestral roots: that’s because these eight strains were the “source code” for the eventual hundreds of strains that have popped up around the globe in the last three hundred years or so. Think of them as “The Architect” in Matrix terms… Cross pollination took place when the pollen from one plant landed in the pad of another, et voila, nouvelle espèce.

HOLD UP! HOLD UP! HOLD UP! How did the plants get so spread apart? I mean, Mauritius and Madagascar we can open our minds to, but Hawaii to Madagascar?


Speculation is continental drift, evolution, but we’ll stick to our belief system, which involves a parallel universe and a few wormholes here and there. But a combination of the above (WORMHOLES INCLUDED) is the likeliest answer. Even today, in Hawaii, hibiscus species develop unique characteristics as they grow and evolve on separate islands.

Wait wait wait, that’s all well and good, but when and where was the plant discovered?

Good question! One Mr. Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist was the first to describe the strain of hibiscus rosa-sinensis in 1753. Rosa-sinensis literally translates to “rose of China.” (If interested in the other names for the plant see: Chinese hibiscus, China rose, Hawaiian hibiscus, rose mallow, and (our personal favorite, though most random) shoeblackplant). Mauritius and Madagascar were port islands, and likely the key source for how hibiscus spread around the planet. We'll discuss the role of colonialism and slavery on the flower’s now-global presence throughout the series, an inseparable part of the conversation about how hibiscus became a staple of different cuisines.

Prior to the 1700's hibiscus was already all around the globe. And in this series, we’ll explore how hibiscus is globally prepared as beverage, whether as saril in Panama, karkade in North Africa (and carcade in Italy), agua de jamaica in North America, Central America, South America and The Caribbean (aka sorrel in the Caribbean), jus de bissap in West Africa, the hibiscus tea and water (hot or cold) prepared in North America, Malaysian hibiscus tea, where hibiscus is the national flower, and many, many more. (Maybe we'll even talk to someone at Starbucks about that whole Very Berry Hibiscus Blaster...)

We'll have some guests along the way to tell us about their experience with this wonderful plant. We hope you'll join us!