Hibiscus is the name given to more than 250 species of herbs, shrubs, and trees of the mallow or Malvaceae family. The most commonly used species of hibiscus for medicinal purposes are Hibiscus sabdariffa, commonly known as the roselle; Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, also called China rose and common hibiscus; and Hibiscus syriacus, known as the Rose of Sharon. These three shrubs are native to tropical climates, but are now grown around the world. Hibiscus is renowned for its beauty as well as its medicinal uses, and gardeners cultivate the plant for its showy flowers.
Hibiscus is used for a variety of ailments partly because there are so many species. Roselle lowers fevers and high blood pressure, increases urination, relieves coughs, and has been found to have antibacterial properties. All parts of the plant are used, from the seeds to the roots. Common hibiscus is used mainly for respiratory problems, but is also widely used for skin disorders or to treat fevers. Rose of Sharon is used externally as an emollient, but is also taken internally for gastrointestinal disorders.
As a natural febrifuge, roselle contains citric acid, which is a natural coolant. In Pakistan and Nepal, it is the flowers that are used as a treatment for fever. Common hibiscus has been found to be particularly useful for children's fevers.
Common hibiscus is used to treat coughs by placing extracts from the plant in the patient's bath or in water used for steam inhalations. Hibiscus is often combined with other herbs to make a cough syrup. Hibiscus is used widely in Cuba, where the tropical climate contributes to respiratory illnesses, and where hibiscus is readily found.
Roselle and rose of Sharon contain hypotensive compounds that lower the blood pressure. Roselle's ability to lower blood pressure may be due to its diuretic and laxative effects. The plant contains ascorbic and glycolic acids, which increase urination.
Hibiscus is a natural emollient, used for softening or healing the skin. The leaves and flowers of the roselle are used all around the world for their emollient qualities. When the leaves are heated, they can be placed on cracked feet or on boils and ulcers to promote healing. Since the herb is a cooling herb, when applied externally it cools the surface of the skin by increasing blood flow to the epidermis and dilating the pores of the skin. A lotion made from a decoction of hibiscus leaves can be used to soothe hemorrhoids, sunburn, open sores, and wounds.
Hibiscus has been credited with a wide range of healing properties. In Colombia, the plant is used to treat hair loss and scurvy; in Samoa, it is commonly given to women who are suffering from menstrual cramps or who are in childbirth, as the leaves ease labor pains. In the Cook Islands and the Philippines, the flowers are used to induce abortions. In a 1962 study, hibiscus was confirmed to be hypotensive, as well as antispasmodic, anthelminthic, and antibacterial. In subsequent studies, the plant was found to effectively work against such diseases as ascariasis and tuberculosis. Studies in France, Malaysia, and Egypt have found that the plant has anticarcinogenic effects.
A decoction of hibuscus can be made by pouring 1 cup of boiling water over 2 tsp of dried blossoms or 1 tsp of crumbled blossom. Steep for 10 minutes. In addition, many commercial herbal teas contain hibiscus.
Since there are over 250 species of hibiscus, it is essential to identify the species of the herb before taking it. Since some species of hibiscus are used as abortifacients, the plant should not be used by women who are pregnant or nursing.
Some drinks made from roselle can have alcoholic effects. The plant can also be mildly hallucinogenic.
There are no known interactions between hibiscus and standard pharmaceutical preparations. Because it is a tart plant, however, it may not mix harmoniously with other tannic herbs. Mint leaves or rose hips are good to blend with hibiscus.
Chevallier, Andrew. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. London: Dorling Kindersley Publishers, 1996.
Keys, John D. Chinese Herbs. New York: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1976.
Katherine Y. Kim