Known for its crimson beauty, this tropical native is gaining recognition as a go-to herb for heart health.
• Hibiscus sabdariffa
• Also known as roselle, red sorrel, Jamaican sorrel, sour-sour and Florida cranberry
• Hardy to Zone 10
Tropical paradises lush with colorful plant life are typically associated with hibiscus, a flower prized for its striking good looks. But did you know that this exotic plant’s utility extends far beyond its beauty? Hibiscus is a medicinal herb that has the potential to naturally lower blood pressure.
With about 200 species and more than 5,000 hybrids associated with the genus, hibiscus can be had in a rainbow of colors. One common hibiscus, Hibiscus sabdariffa, is most often grown in warm temperate regions for its vibrant bell-shaped flowers. It can reach up to 8 feet in height and features crimson stems, lobed leaves with red veins, pale yellow flowers and a large red calyx. The calyx (a whorl of sepals), is largely responsible for hibiscus’ spicy flavor.
In the kitchen, hibiscus is delicious when tossed into fruit salads, used to garnish ice cream, thrown into tart and pie fillings, and blended into jams and jellies. This nutritious plant even makes up a popular side dish when served with ground peanuts in regions of Africa. When steeped into an infusion, it’s transformed into a tart-tasting tea that is loaded with antioxidants and vitamin C. This tea is often sipped to relieve coughs and treat colds; it is also highly regarded as an appetite suppressant, a diuretic, a hangover reliever and a circulation booster. However, its most valuable benefit may be in its role for cardiovascular health.
Recent studies show that hibiscus tea can naturally lower blood pressure as effectively as some standard hypertension drugs. This isn’t brand-new information, as hibiscus has been used to treat high blood pressure in both African and Asian traditional medicine. In a clinical trial performed in 2004 and published in the journal Phytomedicine, hibiscus tea lowered the blood pressure of people with hypertension. In fact, it was as effective as the popular prescription medication captopril.
Similarly, in a study presented to the American Heart Association in 2008, researchers found that drinking three cups of hibiscus tea a day lowered blood pressure by as much as 13.2 percent in pre- and mildly hypertensive adults. Researchers have a few possible explanations for this. Hibiscus is a natural diuretic, it opens the arteries, and it may act as a natural angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor, meaning that it slows the release of hormones that constrict blood vessels.
While more research is needed, many experts believe that incorporating hibiscus tea into a daily diet will prove beneficial for hypertensive patients.
Most hibiscus species thrive in subtropical and tropical regions all over the world. The plant flourishes in rich, moist soil and full sun. With these balmy growing conditions in mind, it’s not surprising that Hawaii claims the endangered yellow hibiscus (Hibiscus brackenridgei), also called “pua ma’o hau hele,” as its state flower. Gardeners in Florida, California, Louisiana and Kentucky grow hibiscuses commercially, but it’s possible to grow the plant as a warm-weather annual as far north as New Jersey in the United States.
In temperate climates, plant hibiscus seeds in a pot at the same time as you would tomatoes. Wait until the seedlings are 3 to 4 inches high, then move them to a sunny spot outside in soil that is high in organic matter. Make sure the plants are 3 feet apart in rows that are 5 feet apart. Let the plants grow, weeding and watering them evenly, until they are about 2 feet high. Mulch to prevent weeds from growing during the rest of the season.
To harvest hibiscus calyxes for tea, simply snap off the calyxes with your hands when they are fully grown, but still tender. Use clippers to harvest hardened stems. Then, add 1 teaspoon dried calyxes to 1 cup boiling water. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes, and enjoy.
These products heal with hibiscus.
Hibiscus Flower tea by San Francisco Herb & Natural Food Co., $1.90.
Heavenly Hip Hibiscus tea by NOW Foods, $4.49.
Hibiscus High Tea by Mountain Rose Herbs, $6.85.
Bulk hibiscus flowers by Frontier Natural Products Co-Op, $19.90.
Hibiscus Flower capsules by Gaia Herbs, $19.99.
Justine Patton is an editorial intern for The Herb Companion.
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