Donna PorterIt's a Wonderful World of Plants

Renewing Respect for Red Hibiscus

hibiscusBy Donna Porter

My heart goes out to the Red Hibiscus; a plant that seems as though here in Costa Rica has lost respect  and gained un-popularity through overuse and abuse. It is machete- massacred probably worse than any other plant around, and can no longer lay claim to even its very own spot in a garden or landscape other than being shoved into an overcrowded hedge.  Sadly, it appears as though its only purpose here in Costa Rica is to provide a living screen between neighbors or other unsightly nuisances.  This world- renowned, sacred to some, plant has been belittled, de-throned and Insulted and I would like to shed some light upon the Red Hibiscus in hopes that it will spark a new found awareness and appreciation for this unsung beauty.

Ok, so go ahead and ask – what is so darn interesting and important about the Red Hibiscus/Amapola (in Spanish), Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, a member of the Malvaceae Family that deserves not only singing praise to, but a whole article in Quepolandia?

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is an ancient mystery.  In the botanical world it is considered a cultigen, which is a plant that has been in cultivation for so long that its origins are unknown.  The flower’s usage in ancient oriental art suggests an ancestral origin somewhere around the Indian Ocean to China. Oddly enough, this species of hibiscus has never been found in the wild, so it is probably a result of hybridization that occurred thousands of years ago.

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis has a genetic characteristic known as polyploidy, in which there are more than two complete sets of chromosomes.  A Polyploidy produces offspring that are quite different from the parent, or any ancestor in fact, and therefore offspring can possess a random expression of the characteristics of all previous generations. Because of this characteristic, H. rosa-sinensis has become very popular with plant breeders and hobbyists who cross and re-cross varieties, creating new named varieties and holding competitions to exhibit and judge the medley of strikingly-unique flowers.  To add to the genetic opportunities, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, a tropical plant, has also been successfully hybridized with the cold-hardy Hibiscus moscheutos and several other North American Hibiscus species, producing cold-hardy hybrids.

A variety of H. rosa sinensis called “kermessinus”, exhibits fanciful green and white variegated leaves, along with its lovely red flowers.  This colorful variety is a plant that should not just be shoved alongside the green-leafed species in a hedge, but should be given its own special place in the garden to show-off its red, white and green display.  For Christmas, use cut stems of “kermessinus” in arrangements to add more holiday spirit to your dwelling and/or cut smaller twigs with a flower to adorn those special holiday gifts.

H. rosa-sinensis is the national flower of Malaysia, where it is called Bunga Raya which translates into the “celebration flower” and is imprinted on Malaysian notes and coins.   It is the state flower of Hawaii where the flowers are commonly eaten raw to aid in digestion.   Throughout the South Pacific Islands, the hibiscus is held in very high regard to the point of being considered sacred.   Wearing a hibiscus flower over one’s right ear signifies that you are looking for a mate.  Islanders also use the strong fibers from the bark to make fish nets, grass skirts and wigs.   In Central America, the leaves and flowers are used medicinally to alleviate skin conditions, headaches, fever and menstrual cramps.   In China, the crushed flowers are commonly used to make a purple-black dye used in hair color, shoe polish and mascara and in India the flowers are prepared into a lotion and lathered into the scalp to prevent hair loss and dandruff.

Studies conducted by the USDA in 2008 concluded that drinking a cup of red hibiscus tea daily will significantly lower high blood pressure due to its antioxidant properties.  It is also rich in Vitamin C.  Cold teas and beverages made from the flowers are considered a natural body refrigerant. – reducing and cooling the body’s temperature.    A delicious, refreshing beverage can easily be made from it flowers:   Harvest 30-40 flowers, wash lightly under water, mash and squeeze through a sieve to create a jelly-like substance.  Add water to dilute to desired consistency, fresh lime juice and honey or sugar to taste and chill.

A singular flower of the Red Hibiscus is an exquisite botanical illustration of the anatomy of a perfect flower. The roundly- fringed, ruffled, reflexed red  petals are supported at their base by the trumpet-shaped sepal, the delicate star-shaped bract (as compared to Heliconia) and finally its slender stem. The petals provide the attractant color and platform for insects and surround the flower’s very pronounced,  long and pendent reproductive organs; the male stamen (anther, filament, pollen) and the female pistol (ovaries, stigma, style) which dangle ever so gracefully out of the flower’s center, making this flower, in my opinion, quite the artistic and awe-inspiring creation of nature.  I recommend that you take the time, today, to stop and pick one for closer examination – a “stop and smell the roses” sort of therapy.

So, after you have treated your eyes to the menagerie of the hybrid hibiscus collection (which are all offspring of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) at the future botanical garden, you can cool yourself down out on the patio of the garden café sipping a refreshing, tall glass of iced Red Hibiscus tea.

Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 7 years.  She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private homes and hotels and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area. [email protected],  2777-5149