The hibiscus flower brings to mind a tropical paradise. The large, flirty bloom is a popular motif for Hawaiian shirts, but one particular variety—Hibiscus sabdariffa (also known as roselle or red tea)—originates from Egypt. Today, roselle is cultivated in nearly every warm region around the globe.
Roselle is the source of hibiscus tea—a pleasantly tart, ruby red beverage drunk throughout North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Egyptians have sipped hibiscus tea since the Pharaohs ruled the Nile.
When roselle came to the New World, Mexicans and Jamaicans quickly developed a taste for hibiscus-based beverages, but it didn’t catch on in North America until the 1970s when Celestial Seasonings released its Red Zinger tea blend. Today, hibiscus is found in nearly every fruity tea on the market. It’s also used to flavor yogurt, ice cream, soda, champagne, and anything else that could use a tart taste.
While the flower is the showiest part of hibiscus, the choice piece for tea is the calyx—a deep red plant part from which the flower emerges. The term comes from a Greek word that means husk or shell. Calyx pieces are usually sold dried for tea, but fresh calyx buds are a popular sour vegetable in many parts of the world. They have a mucilaginous texture similar to another hibiscus variety, okra (Hibiscus esculentus).
In traditional herbal medicine, a sour taste signifies a cooling herb, which explains why tart hibiscus is used to soothe conditions characterized by heat and inflammation. Roselle is frequently used in traditional Ayurvedic and Middle Eastern herbal medicine for diabetes, liver, and gallbladder problems, and inflammatory skin and bowel issues.
The hibiscus calyx has a taste similar to cranberry, in fact it is sometimes called the Florida cranberry. Like cranberry, hibiscus tea is also used to soothe urinary tract infections.
Refreshing hibiscus tea is great for hydration, but it’s also a reliable diuretic, which means it can rid the body of excess fluid. Hibiscus can also play a role in weight loss. Researchers have found that drinking hibiscus tea inhibits amylase, a pancreatic enzyme that helps break down carbohydrates and sugars. This indicates that in the presence of hibiscus, the body absorbs less of these fattening substances.
Hibiscus is high in iron, vitamin C, and other antioxidants that support immunity. It also has antibacterial properties, so it is often used for colds, flu, and cough.
Heart, Mind, and Pain
In traditional herbal medicine, hibiscus is used to calm the mind, and it also has an affinity for the heart. A clinical trial from the American Heart Association found that after six weeks of drinking hibiscus tea, blood pressure dropped as much as 13 percent. Several other studies have shown that hibiscus may also reduce cholesterol and prevent atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
Hibiscus may also treat arthritis pain. An animal study from the University of Bagdad, published in October 2015, demonstrated that hibiscus sabdariffa demonstrated “significant anti-inflammatory activity.”
Further research suggests that hibiscus tea may also have some anti-cancer properties. Hibiscus tea contains protocatechuic acid, and one study found that it may slow the growth of cancerous cells.
How to Use
Hibiscus is very safe, although there are rumors that it can cause mild hallucinations in some people. However, for a popular product that has been used for so long, evidence for this claim is hard to find.
To make a cup of tea, simply add a teaspoon of dried calyx pieces to a cup of hot water and steep for at least 10 minutes. Drink one to three cups a day.
For many, plain hibiscus tastes too sour. The solution in Mexico and other places is to heavily sweeten hibiscus drinks with large amounts of sugar. Another option is to brew your hibiscus with sweet herbs, such as licorice root or stevia, to achieve a healthier sweet and sour balance.