Hibiscus (botanical name Hibiscus rosa sinensis) is one of the most showy flowers found anywhere across the globe. Also known as rose mallow, it has bold colors and large petals and is recognized easily owing to its outstanding staminal tube, which is a unique characteristic in all flowers belonging to the mallow (Malvaceae) family. This characteristic of hibiscus is so pronounced that the length of staminal tube of the species called Hibiscus schizopetalus often surpasses the petals’ diameter. From the botanical point of view, this structure is a result of the fusion of the stamens and filaments which merge together to form a tube that originates from the petals’ base and encircles the filiform or thread-like style.
Although the entire plant families possess certain unique characteristics which are used to classify the plants, the affinity among the different plants belonging to a particular family is not obvious all the time. For instance, Euphorbiaceae, which is a vast plant group that comprises wafting perennials, tall trees as well as lonely desert cacti grown in gardens, has such wide diversity that it can pose a challenge even for the most perceptive botanist.
Plants belonging to the Malvaceae family can be identified much easier. Apart from the central staminal tube found in many plants of this family, the formation of flowers (usually having five petals) is often arranged in a form that they overlap one another. This arrangement is obvious most in the buds of these flowers. This unique petal arrangement of hibiscus flowers is known as the “windmill type”. The Malvaceae family comprises over 42 genera and in excess of 1,000 species, which include several plants that are of commercial value, for instance those yielding fiber, paper and oil. There are other plants in this family that possess excellent therapeutic properties. Nevertheless, Hibiscus and Gossypium are the two most widely cultivated species of Malvaceae family. While the Hibiscus is mostly grown as an ornamental plant, the Gossypium is among the most crucial crops of the world and has had profound influence on the global economic as well as political history.
Cotton is produced from Gossypium. A number of varieties of this species are in existence, including G. arboreum, G. herbaceum, G. barbadense, G. hirsutum, and G. tomentosum. In fact, G. arboreum has its origin in India and is considered to be a cotton tree. In case you have ever tried to know which precise part of this plant produces the feathery white material that is used to make thread and clothe several nations, it is actually the filaments of the flowers of this plant. Gossypium produces yellow flowers with purple stripes and a blob at its base. When the flowers fade, they leave behind rubbery seedcases. These seedcases enclose several black seeds that are covered with a white fibrous mass.
Herodotus, the renowned historian of ancient Greece, wrote in the 5th century B.C. that certain trees growing in the wild produced “wool” rather than fruits and the beauty as well as quality of the “wool” surpassed those of sheep. He further reported that people in India made their clothes from the wool borne by these trees. In fact, Gossypium is some sort of an incredible plant, because apart from the fiber used to make thread, the seeds of this plant yield oil fit for human consumption and a number of other substances that can be used instead of butter. In addition, the substance left behind by the seeds after oil is extracted from them is used in the form of oilcloth, stock feed, putty, soap, fertilizer and nitro-glycerine.
Flowers of several species belonging to the Malvaceae family, including the hibiscus, are edible. These flowers have large petals, usually of the size of a plate not only appear showy and succulent, but they are quite edible as well as nourishing, if not very delectable. Moreover, while the flowers may not be gourmet, their lively hues have the potential to liven up any salad. Hibiscus esculentus, also known as Abelmoschus esculentus, is the most commonly grown as well as flavoursome Malvaceae species. It is cultivate in the form of a food crop and the vegetable is called okra.
Several other species belonging to the Mallow family are also widely grown in gardens. These include the Chinese lantern, Abutilon or the flowering maple, which have elegant looking leaves as well as flowers. This plant naturalized well in gardens located in places having mild to temperate climatic conditions. The other plants include Malva parviflora; Alcea rosea (also called Althaea rosea) – a well-liked hollyhock; Sida fallax; Malvastrum coromandelinum – the false mallow; and Pavonia hastata – the shrub bearing pastel-hued flowers. Among all the Malvaceae species, the hibiscus as well as the tropical hybrids hybridized from various hibiscus species native to several different countries have yielded very stunning flowers among all the species cultivated.
Although tropical hybrids are more preferred by gardeners, the original species are also cultivated. Gardeners have not banished them altogether. Even now several original mallow species grow as well as propagate in the wild, while there are some others that are cultivated in gardens worldwide. All said and done, the genus Hibiscus includes roughly 250 species, or may be even more. Many of these species are low growing or herbaceous plants, while some others grow to form shrubs about the height of our shoulder. There are other hibiscus species that form large, well-developed trees. These plants are mainly found in places having tropical or sub-tropical climatic conditions, instead of temperate climatic conditions.
Nevertheless, the progeny of hybrids developed from these hibiscus species have been hybridized further in order to make them endure more cold. Consequently, the hybrids found currently possess the aptitude to grow excellently when cultivated outdoors in places having sub-tropical and mild temperate climatic conditions, in addition to doing well in tropical conditions. In fact, sub-tropical climatic conditions can be easily differentiated from tropical climes, as the winters in these places are somewhat chilly. While the chill is mild, it is enough for making the plants go in for a dormant period during the winter months, only to re-emerge during the next spring. Hibiscus flourishes in such climatic conditions. In such conditions, the temperature raises only a couple of notches during the spring allowing the plants enough time to achieve their peak and excel. It also allows the plants to flower for a prolonged period and continue blooming into the fall.
People often grow several Hibiscus species for their flamboyant flowers or simply use the plants in the form of landscape shrubs. On the other hand, many species of this genus are grown to attract bees and butterflies to the garden. In addition, the flowers of hibiscus are employed as the main element in several herbal teas.
One Hibiscus species called Kenaf (botanical name Hibiscus cannabinus) is widely employed for making paper. There is another species called roselle (botanical name Hibiscus sabdariffa), which is used in the form of a vegetable and also to prepare herbal teas. It is also used to make jams, particularly in the Caribbean region.
People in Jamaica as well as several other Caribbean islands call the herbal tea prepared from Hibiscus sabdariffa as sorrel and it is a very popular drink in the region during the Christmas. It is worth mentioning here that Hibiscus sabdariffa and another species Rumex acetosa have the same common name – sorrel, and one should not mistake one of these herbs for another. Sorrel is usually served cold and is often blended with other herbs, spices and roots, before sweetening the drink with sugarcane juice.
Frequently, sorrel is blended with Jamaican rum or wine, but this is a refreshing drink even when you do not mix it with any alcoholic beverage. Usually, roselle flowers are boiled in a large pot having an enamel coating, because nearly everyone in West Indies are of the view that boiling the herb in pots made from metals like aluminium, copper or steel will wipe out its normal mineral and vitamin contents. In fact, they use a large number of roselle flowers to make sure that the tea is substantial and dark red. This herbal tea is widely used in the form of a diuretic. As roselle is rich in vitamin C and mineral contents, people in the Caribbean Islands have traditionally used it in the form of a mild remedy.
People in other places of the world also drink the herbal tea prepared from rosselle flowers. People across the globe consume it either hot or cold. In West Africa, this tea is called Bissap, while it is known as Karkade in Sudan and Egypt. People in Mexico call this tea “flor de Jamaica”. Some people also call this drink rosselle, which also denotes hibiscus flower’s common name.
Rosselle is a well-known drink, especially for its color, spiciness and gentle flavour. After adding sugar, the flavour of this drink is somewhat akin to that of a concentrated tea prepared using herbs and berries, such as blueberry, cranberry and raspberry. People who are on diet or those enduring kidney problems consume unsweetened rosselle because it offers several health benefits and is also a natural diuretic.
People in Cambodia use rosselle flowers to prepare a cold beverage. They steep the petals of the flowers in hot water till their colors seep into the water and subsequently add lime juice to the infusion, which changes the color of the beverage from deep brownish-red to vivid red. They also add sweeteners like sugar or honey and serve it cold with ice cubes.
In addition, Hindus use the hibiscus flowers in the form of an offering to their gods and goddesses, such as Lord Ganesha and goddess Kali.
In Chinese herbal medicine, the hibiscus species called rosa sinensis or the Red Hibiscus, which is believed to possess various therapeutic properties, is used to treat a number of health conditions.
The bark of hibiscus plants enclose strong Bast fibers and you can obtain them by stripping the bark and soak in sea water for some time with a view to allow the organic substance to decompose. In Polynesia, people use these fibers (locally known as fau, pūrau) to make “grass skirts”. In addition, some people also use these fibers to make wigs.
It is believed that some Hibiscus species particularly the Red hibiscus (botanical name Hibiscus Rosa-sinensis) and the white hibiscus possess therapeutic properties and are widely used in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine system. The roots of these species are used to prepare a variety of potions that are thought to cure a number of health conditions, including cough. On the other hand, the flowers of the White and Red hibiscus species are simmered in oil together with different spices to prepare therapeutic hair oil that helps to put off hair loss and untimely greying of hair. Even the leaves and flowers of hibiscus species are pounded with a small amount of water to prepare a fine, but leathery paste that is used in the form of a shampoo as well as a hair conditioner.
Children in the Philippines entertain themselves by employing hibiscus (locally known as gumamela) in the form of a bubble-making pursuit. For this, they crush the leaves and flowers of hibiscus plants till they release a sticky juice. Subsequently, they dip the hollow stalks of papaya into the juice using them as straws to blow bubbles.
In fact, dried out hibiscus flowers are also edible and people in Mexico often use them as a delicacy. These dried flowers may also be used for garnishing and make candies.
Traditionally, the flower of the Red hibiscus is used as a floral ornament by women in Tahiti, who wear them as wreathes or on their head. Often they even tuck a single Red hibiscus flower at the back of their ear, indicating that the woman wearing the flower is available for matrimony.
Outdoor cultivation of hibiscus
Growing hibiscus in containers
Propagation of hibiscus
Pruning of hibiscus
Pests of hibiscus
Diseases of hibiscus