If your pet or your toddler just munched down part of your hibiscus, don’t panic! Hibiscus are definitely edible by creatures both great and small. Hibiscus flowers are traditionally used for tea in Asia and the Nile Valley area of Africa. Many hibiscus teas are made from a different species of hibiscus, called Hibiscus sabdiriffa, but Hibiscus Rosa-Sinensis, the ancestor of the modern, exotic hibiscus, is also frequently used for tea. Tea makers report that all parts of the hibiscus plant can be used, but that the flowers make a sweeter tea, and the leaves make a more astringent tea.
Hibiscus tea was traditionally used to soothe or help a variety of ailments, from coughs and skin diseases to high blood pressure, gallbladder attacks, heart disease, and even some cancers. Whether these claims have any basis in science or fact, we have no idea. It is known that hibiscus leaves and flowers do contain certain antioxidants, such as flavonoids, and proanthocyanidins, and have a kind of diuretic effect on at least some animals. There have even been a few recent medical studies with animals on the effects of using Hibiscus Rosa-Sinensis flowers as a treatment for certain medical conditions because of these antioxidants, some with successful results. One of the most interesting areas science is currently researching is the use of Hibiscus Rosa-Sinensis to lower blood sugar, and to aid in weight loss! Don’t get too excited and start eating hibiscus flowers by the handful though – this is a brand new area of study with very preliminary results on animals only. No one knows what the effect on humans may be or even what dosage humans would need. Plus, hibiscus is known to have interactions with certain other medications – aspirin among them. Still, it’s an interesting idea that our beautiful hibiscus blossoms may be more than just “another pretty face.”
Hibiscus Rosa-Sinensis is used as a food and food flavoring too. The young, tender leaves of the plant are cooked and eaten in China like spinach. In other places, the most tender leaves are put raw into salads. In various places around the world, the flowers are eaten cooked, raw, pickled, as a spice, or even as a food dye. The flowers are the most used part of the hibiscus plant in cooking. In China, flower petals are baked in cakes, and in India, they are boiled with sugar into a sweet, iced drink. The petals have a mild, tart, citrus taste and can apparently be used for anything that a tart citrus flavor could go with, like rum drinks, fruity or spicy cakes, or even meat dressings. Hibiscus stalks are sometimes added to soups in Central America to give them this same flavor. Some say even the root is edible, although it is supposed to be very tough and mostly tasteless. The plants are safe for animals, but pesticide residue can be harmful.
Even more promising, a 2008 study from the US Department of Agriculture and the American Heart Association found that hibiscus tea lowers blood pressure in adults with mildly high blood pressure! In the study, 3 cups per day of tea made from Hibiscus sabdariffa flowers over a period of 6 weeks lowered systolic blood pressure an average of 7-13 points, and diastolic blood pressure 6.4 points. The higher the participant’s blood pressure was, the bigger the drop tended to be. So people who only needed to lower their blood pressure a little bit did not have the problem of the hibiscus lowering it too much. This is only preliminary data, of course, and further studies are needed to say for sure that hibiscus tea is an effective tool against high blood pressure, but these results look promising. At the very least, it’s nice to know that our favorite plant is not only safe but healthy for any of our loved ones who may happen to munch on it.