Wolof: Bissap; Arabic: Karkade (Arabic script); Alternative English name: Sorrel; Wonjo: The Gambia; Mali: Dabileni, Niberia: Zobo, Tsobo
Hibiscus flowers (and leaves) are an African superfood.
Hibiscus flowers grow on a bush that has a wide family of variants growing all over Africa. It got its name from the Greek physician Pedanius who wrote De Materia Medica that formed the backbone of western medicine. Hibiscus is a favorite plant on lawns and in gardens because it thrives easily in mild and tropical climates, can handle a good bit of wind, and enjoys itself immensely in the sun.
Check around your neighborhood or in some of the fancy hotels, and you’ll definitely see one. Hibiscus shrubs grow to be quite tall, presenting bright flowers at eye level the size of a woman’s hand. Hibiscus flowers come in scarlet red (the most common), bright yellow, baby pink and a delicate white.
How to Use Hibiscus Flowers
Hibiscus is loved deeply across the continent. In Egypt and Sudan, a glass of hibiscus juice is traditional at weddings. Throughout the continent, hibiscus juice or hibiscus tea is served to honored guests and at special occasions.
The red flowers are used exclusively in hibiscus juice and hibiscus tea. They are dried whole in dark red contortions on the hand and easy to crumble. Plunged into boiling water, they instantly bleed in long trails, coloring whatever they touch — and it will stain. Dried white flowers, by contrast, make a delicate cocktail syrup or add an intriguing sour roundness when infused in hot milk for a white sauce, delicious with roast fish. Tea made from the white flowers is also preferred in parts of western Sudan.
In West Africa, cold bissap juice is sold on beaches iced and frozen into thin clear plastic bags. In Egypt, it is poured ceremoniously from copper vessels in the street. In all cases where others are allowed to adjust the sweetness level, I find it can be overpoweringly syrupy and loose most of its textured and developed sour. It is hard to find things that can hold so much mouth-puckering sourness, and such a thing should be celebrated.
Health Benefits of Hibiscus Flowers
Our traditional medicine teaches that hibiscus tea, especially when drunk hot, holds healing properties for the blood and the liver. Science has backed this up with published studies that show hibiscus has more antioxidants than BHA and beta-carotene. A USDA study showed that hibiscus tea’s anthocyanins have medicinal properties similar to prescription blood pressure medication.
Another unexpected benefit of hibiscus, especially if you drink your tea with minimal sweeteners: hibiscus contains an enzyme inhibitor that blocks amylase production and seems to make it harder for your body to absorb carbohydrates.
Hibiscus is also a diuretic, so if you think cranberry juice or watermelon juice is good for curing cystitis and urinary track infections (UTIs), try hibiscus tea. It’s better, and at least in our part of the world, way easier to find.