Daily, thousands of Hibiscus "tea" beverages are served around the globe! People love the sweet, burgundy, refresh and slightly tart aftertaste that this beverage offers. It is really versatile, you can sip it cold or warm (the plant itself is also versatile, it adapts itself easily to balcony gardens in crammed urban spaces and can be easily grown in pots as a creeper or even in hanging pots).
There are some people a little bit more adventurous that will put milk or cream into it! It is just a matter of liking, as many things in life!
But, are you familiar with the origin of Hibiscus as a beverage? Is it a tea? Is it a flower? What is it? Let's set straight some facts!
The eight hibiscus species that are considered to be the ancestors of the modern exotic hibiscus were originally native to Mauritius, Madagascar, Fiji, Hawaii, and either China or India.
These eight hibiscus species have all been involved in the development of the modern hybrids that we are familiar with today. That means that they have proven to be cross-compatible with at least one other of these ancestral species. In other words, applying the pollen of one of these species to the staminal pads of another of these species will result in seeds that are viable. Most hibiscus species are not genetically compatible with each other and cannot reproduce with each other, but these eight can do so and have been so used over the last 300 years. Hibiscus has been subject to so much Hybridization that the hibiscus hybrids were sprinkled all around the globe, following the Equator from one warm, tropical land to the next. Domesticated about 6000 years ago; leaves and green flower calyx (base) are used as a vegetable; flower petals and the ripe flower calyx are steeped and used as an infusion.
Fiber is also produced from the stems of the plant; the fiber produced is called bast and is used to produce cords and rope.
Its name comes from the Greek ibiskos, the name the ancient Greek botanist and physician Pedanius Dioscorides gave to the marshmallow plant. Hibiscus is also known as rose mallow.
Hibiscus goes by many names: bissap in parts of West Africa; karkade in North Africa (specifically in Egypt, Sudan, and South Sudan); rosela, rosella, grosella, and sorrel in Indonesia, Australia, and across the Caribbean and Latin America; mathi puli in Kerala; krachiap in Thailand; luo shen hua in China; and flor de Jamaica in Mexico and across North America.
Interestingly, botanists don't know how the original 8 species of hibiscus came to be separated from each other. They speculate that at one time they grew closer together but that continental drift eventually separated them. Or, it is possible that they all come from the same ancestral hibiscus and that this ancestral plant evolved into the different but related species once stands of this ancestral species were separated from each other. They see this happening even now in the Hawaiian islands when plants of one of the Hawaiian native hibiscus species develop unique characteristics as they grow and evolve on separate islands. Another theory worthy of consideration is that in pre-historic times the ancestors of the Polynesian people set out from their original home in southeast Asia and migrated throughout the Pacific, carrying with them seeds of the original hibiscus species that they planted in various locations during this long migration. However it happened, by the year 1700, eight cross-compatible hibiscus species were growing naturally on tropical islands off the east coast of Africa and all the way to Hawaii.
Another interesting fact:
By the 1700's, Carl Linnaeus (yes, the same that first described C. Arabica) named one of the species Hibiscus rosa-sinensis.
Hibiscus flower's life cycle stages
So, what is the Hibiscus served in beverages?
Often—and erroneously—described as a flower in infusions, the hibiscus used for beverages is actually a collection of sepals (known as a calyx), the part of a flowering plant that protects the bud and supports the petal once in bloom. Before the plant flowers, the calyx resembles a pointed bud, holding the seed pod, but it unfurls as the flowers push through the pod.
As you can see in the very explicit video attached, no flower is used in the process of drying the calyx to be used later on the infusion. Consequently, we should not call it hibiscus flower infusion.
It is also not correct to call it Hibiscus Tea, because it does not come from Camellia Sinensis, the plant that produces the tea leaf (the different types of tea will depend on how that leaf is processed).
In traditional medicine, people use hibiscus preparations to treat ailments such as liver problems and high blood pressure. Today, a growing body of research supports these benefits, among others.
It has a long history of uses, mainly focused on culinary, botanical, floral, cosmetic, and medicinal uses. The latter being of great impact due to the diuretic, choleretic, analgesic, antitussive, antihypertensive, antimicrobial, immunomodulatory, hepatoprotective, antioxidant, and anti-cancer effects. These therapeutic properties have been attributed to the bioactive compounds of the plant, mainly phenolic acids, flavonoids, anthocyanins, and organic acids (citric, hydroxycitric, hibiscus, tartaric, malic, and ascorbic).
It is a super nutritional infusion, isn't it?
What else can you do with Hibiscus?
The options are amazing and unlimited. You can use for cooking recipes at home in jams/jellys, cakes, tacos/enchiladas, mocktails, cosmetic use, and many more. Just check some of my favorites recipes in this link.
I really hope that you enjoy learning a little bit more about this incredible flower and its calyx, and next time you sit with your super fresh glass of Hibiscus, you will be more comfortable knowing exactly that what you are drinking is not a flower nor either a tea, it is a calyx infusion!
Thank you for reading and if you like it, feel free to share it and leave a comment.
María Esther Thome-López