The History of Hibiscus: The World Over

The History of Hibiscus: The World Over

For our second edition of History of Hibiscus we reached out to the stellar Darra Goldstein to write about the global uses of the flower (and ingredient). Darra is a James Beard-award winning author and food scholar. She has published 17 books and is a frequent speaker at events around the world.

Who would have guessed that the gorgeous hibiscus flower comes from the same family as durian and okra, plants known not for their beauty but for the love-them-or-hate-them edibles they produce? Unlike its cousins, hibiscus has no naysayers. For centuries the plant’s 200-plus species have captivated cultures around the world. So beloved are the blossoms that several countries, including South Korea and Malaysia, claim hibiscus as their national flower. In Hindu mythology, the hibiscus is closely associated with the goddess Kali, who embodies nothing less than the force of life itself. Red hibiscus flowers, presented as offerings to Kali, represent her divine consciousness. 

The allure of hibiscus goes way beyond ritual. Besides adorning gardens, the leaves, roots, and flowers of the plant have long been prized for their medicinal benefits. Rich in Vitamin C and antioxidants, hibiscus is considered especially helpful for digestive issues and hypertension. It also has cosmetic applications. The juice was once used to darken eyebrows and hair. If shoes needed polishing, hibiscus dye was the answer.

Numerous species of hibiscus are found throughout Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Caribbean. Though no one is sure, its birthplace is likely India. From there the plant spread to Polynesia and beyond, where European explorers encountered its dramatic blossoms. The first mention of hibiscus in a Western text, by the Flemish botanist Matthias de L'Obel, dates only to the late sixteenth century. The plant’s great popularity in Europe can be attributed to Captain James Cook, who brought it back to England from Tahiti a century later. By the late nineteenth century hibiscus had become the rage, grown in hothouses as a “stove plant” to bring cheer to the gray English skies.

Yet the beauty of hibiscus is also palatable. While the most widespread varieties are cultivated for their showy blossoms, another species, Hibiscus sabdariffa, is valued for its edible parts, especially the deep red calyxes—the sepals of the plant that protect the blossom. Egyptians steep hibiscus calyxes in water to make a refreshing drink called karkade, which is most often drunk cold, like lemonade, though it can also be enjoyed hot. A similar drink made in Senegal is known as bissap. It was African slaves who brought hibiscus seeds to the New World, as they did okra and other crops, guarding these precious seeds on slave ships that sailed the horrifying Middle Passage. So-called “red drinks” today remain a touchstone for African American communities, who prepare them for celebrations.

Popular names for Hibiscus sabdariffa reveal how widespread its use is: Jamaican sorrel, Guinea sorrel, Indian sorrel, Queensland jelly plant, Thai hibiscus, flor de Jamaica. It’s also commonly known as roselle and sorrel, a word that derives from “sour” and attests to hibiscus’s tart flavor. And what a wonderful flavor it is, like cranberry but more complex, with a lovely citrusy note and a hint of raspberry. And the color! If you’ve ever visited a Mexican taqueria, you’ve surely been drawn to the ubiquitous container of ruby-red agua fresca de jamaica.  

Dried hibiscus leaves commonly used for various beverages

Although the calyxes can be used fresh, most often they’re dried for long keeping. Their main use is in beverages. In addition to tea, they find their way into a special Jamaican drink made at Christmastime, when the hibiscus blooms. Known simply as sorrel, the drink is prepared by steeping the dried flowers at least overnight and up to several days with a goodly amount of grated fresh ginger and some allspice berries before straining and mixing with simple syrup. Sorrel is served over ice, preferably with a glug of overproof rum. Hibiscus juice can also be fermented into wine or added to beer for a hibiscus shandy, though more often than not it’s valued for its detoxing effects. Lab studies have shown that hibiscus decreases the body’s rate of alcohol absorption, so hibiscus juice might just be a good drinking companion.

Like cranberries, hibiscus calyxes are high in pectin, so they cook up into a lovely jellied sauce. Queensland, Australia, was once the capital of the roselle jelly industry, exporting large quantities to Europe where it was much in demand for its taste of the tropics. But because hibiscus flowers are extremely frost sensitive, an unexpected temperature drop could wipe out an entire year’s crop, so the Aussie jelly industry gradually died out. More popular today is roselle syrup, made simply by simmering the calyxes with sugar and water until slightly thickened. Besides serving the syrup over pancakes or desserts, you can add the candied calyxes to salads and use them for cake garnish. Or for dramatic effect, drop them into cocktails along with some of the syrup—think red margaritas!

Hibiscus in its many guises delivers a beautiful sweet and sour punch that refreshes and energizes. And its brilliant ruby color is dazzling. Like the gemstone, hibiscus juice seems to radiate with an inner light. Who’s to say that drinking it doesn’t lead to higher consciousness?