By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator
As we move through the changing seasons of the year, so do our bodies change, along with what we need and crave. In the summertime, obviously, most of us are looking for ways to stay cool, refreshed and hydrated in the sometimes-unbearable heat. Especially with our recent tropical-like weather, it is important to balance out the heat of the season with foods and herbs that help to cool and rejuvenate the body.
So, let’s look at an herb used, grown and beloved in all tropical areas around the globe: the wonderful and beautiful Hibiscus.
Most people are familiar with some of the garden varieties of hibiscus, which have large, showy flowers that are brightly colored in shades of orange, red or pink. But hibiscus sabdariffa is a bit different from these other family members in that its flower is a pale pink or peach.
However, the flower is not the sought-after part of this plant — it is actually the calyx (the leaf-like structures that surround the flower) that are harvested and used for tea and other herbal preparations. Hibiscus sabdariffa — also called roselle — grows in most tropical areas of the world including Mexico, Latin America, India and North Africa. It has been used for centuries in various healing traditions and contains many wonderful healing properties for the modern-day, city-living human, especially those of us who deal with stress, inflammation, and heat on a regular basis.
The deeply pigmented calyx is high in anti-oxidant bioflavonoids, which offer many potent anti-inflammatory and cardio-protective qualities. Traditionally, hibiscus tea was used to address heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and as a general preventative against free radical stress on the body. It is an excellent heart tonic, especially because of its high content of bioflavonoids, which help protect the entire cardiovascular system.
Hibiscus is my go-to summer herb. As soon as the temperature starts to rise above 80 degrees, I break out my stash. There is no other herb that I have experienced that is so well-suited to the dog days of summer. Hibiscus is tremendously cooling, and helps to bring the body temperature down. Also, perhaps due in part to its tart flavor, it is very thirst-quenching and helps to keep us hydrated while we are sweating away in the summer heat. The taste is refreshing and flavorful, a bit sour and energizing, and many people find that it is almost addictive. In my home as soon as one batch of hibiscus tea has disappeared I’ll make another one right away so that there is always plenty to gulp down when needed.
Besides its wonderful effects on the heart and on summer-weary bodies, hibiscus is known to have anti-bacterial properties. It has also been used as a beauty tonic to help smooth and repair the skin, lending its anti-inflammatory effects for topical use. Hibiscus has been known to improve scalp health, reduce dandruff, and improve overall hair growth. It was a traditional remedy for loss of hair and was used as a rinse over the scalp for this purpose. It also makes for a lovely natural colorant in cosmetic products (such as lip balm) due to its beautiful, deep, ruby-red color.
Although hibiscus truly shines as an important summertime herb, we must remember that it can be used throughout all seasons. Its high vitamin C content makes it useful for colds and flu during the winter season, helping to gently support our immune systems. And because it’s an herb that naturally contains mucilage (a type of soluble fiber that becomes viscous when extracted) it is also quite soothing for irritated and scratchy throats and coughs.
HOW TO USE HIBISCUS:
One of the best ways to use hibiscus in the summertime is to make a cold water infusion — also called a sun tea — with the dried herb. Simply add 1 - 2 tablespoons of the dried herb per one cup of cold water in a glass jar. Let this steep for 3 to 5 hours at room temperature; or place in a sunny windowsill to use the heat of the sun to extract the herbs.
You can also use this tea to make hibiscus ice cubes for adding to special beverages. Or, if you really want to be creative, mix a strong brew of hibiscus tea with your favorite chopped up fruit (strawberries, cherries or raspberries are all great choices) and an optional sweetener, and pour the blend into popsicle molds for a delicious and tart summer treat!
REFRESHING SUMMERTIME SUN TEA:
This tea is wonderfully cooling, refreshing and hydrating on hot summer days.
4 tablespoons dried hibiscus
2 tablespoons dried rose petals
1/2 - 1 tablespoon dried spearmint
Add all herbs to a quart-sized glass jar and cover completely with cold water. Give it a stir and then cap tightly. Place the jar in a sunny window and let it infuse for 3 to 6 hours until the desired flavor is reached. Strain out the herbs and enjoy! (The remaining herbs can be steeped again, but will be weaker the second time around.)
Use with caution in people with heartburn as the sour taste may be aggravating. Also, hibiscus is sometimes intercropped with peanuts so use with caution in people with nut allergies.
Steph Zabel, MSc, is an herbalist and educator who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world. She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual wellness consultations, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, Boston’s community herbal conference. Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org.
This blog post — Herb of the Month: Chamomile — is for general health information only. This blog post is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. Users of this Web site should not rely on information provided on this Web site for their own health problems. Any questions regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician or other healthcare provider.