Becki Garza is a community herbalist in Tucson, Arizona. She grew up in a south Texas border town on the Gulf of Mexico, and is a former biology teacher. She is a wife and mom to two grown-up children. Her online business, La Yerberia Herbals, takes its name from the tiny yerberias of the lower Rio Grande Valley.
In the border town where I grew up, standard selections at a restaurant were sweet tea, Coca-cola and aguas frescas. Literally translated as “fresh waters,” aguas frescas are actually herbal teas sweetened with sugar. Each state in Mexico has their own traditional flavor. In the United States the three common flavors are Horchata (cinnamon rice water), Tamarindo (a tea of Tamarind pods), and Jamaica (pronounced Ha-my-kah, a tea of hibiscus calyces—the collective sepals of a Hibiscus sabdariffa).
Aguas frescas originated as household refreshments often made as a way to use up ripe fruit. They are served by street vendors in Mexico and at most taquerias in the southwestern United States. Mexican grocers in the U.S. sell the dried calyces by the pound in open bins alongside the beans and rice.
Imagine my delight when I stumbled across an article discussing the healing properties of hibiscus. The article talked about research in which an infusion of H. sabdariffa lowered blood pressure in patients with mild hypertension. My curiosity peaked, I began to read more about this household herb.
I learned that researchers are studying water extracts (or teas) of the H. sabdariffa calyx as prevention for kidney stones, for protecting the liver from toxins, to reduce insulin resistance in type 2 diabetics and to lower triglyceride levels.
Many studies attribute the activity of H. sabdariffa to its anthocyanins, the pigments that give the calyx its red color. Calling it “red sunscreen,” one researcher described how these compounds absorb the sun’s energy and vibrate (even hum!) to protect sensitive plant tissue from damage. In humans, this protective effect can help in many different organ systems. For example in one study an extract of hibiscus proved to elevate glutathione levels (a compound necessary for detoxification by the liver) and in another study the same plant is shown to protect cells of the immune system.
Although nutraceuticals and functional foods containing H. sabdariffa are surely in the works, it is lucky for us that its tea is both delicious and easy to prepare. I like to add a bit of honey to tame its tart edge (1/8 cup herb to 2 quarts hot water plus 2 tablespoons honey). Hibiscus syrup is also delicious when added to seltzer water on ice. For holiday meals, add 1 calyx per glass of sparkling wine. The bubbles stream off the calyx making a beautiful presentation.
Hibiscus Calyces in Syrup
MAKES 4 1/2 pints
• 2 cups whole hibiscus calyces
• 5 cups water
• 5 cups sugar
• Canning jars and lids, sterilized
1. Sort through your dried hibiscus selection, choosing whole calyces.
2. Place in a pot, add water, and simmer gently for 10 minutes.
3. Using a slotted spoon or strainer, remove hibiscus calyces. Set aside and add sugar to the liquid, 1 cup at a time, stirring to dissolve sugar between cups.
4. Mix hibiscus calyces into the syrup and simmer gently 5 minutes.
5. Distribute the hibiscus calyces equally into hot jars (this recipe will fill 9 half-pint jars), then cover with syrup leaving a 1/2-inch headspace if preserving in a water bath. Refrigerate or preserve by the hot-water-canning method for 10 minutes.
Check out Becki’s products at her Poppy Swap online shop, La Yerberia Herbals. Use the promotional code YERBAS for 15 PERCENT OFF your next purchase!