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Hibiscus History

The exact origins of the Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) aren’t known. It is thought to have originated in the Old World Tropics, mostly in North Africa and South-East Asia, but a growing consensus places its origin to Angola around six thousand years ago. The primary use of the plant in ancient times were likely to be its seeds, as the meaty seeds make excellent feed for livestock and poultry. But this is mostly speculation; if we want to get to a solid history we need to look at all the referring documents

Ebers Papyrus - Egyptian Medical text from 1500 BCE mentions hibiscus.
Pictured here is the famous Ebers Papyrus, an Ancient Egyptian document written c.1500 BC, that outlines knowledge of medicinal herbs at the time. It discusses the use of steaming a bath of hibiscus leaves and flowers as a remedy for cough and cold. However, It is not clear that the plant mentioned is our beloved Roselle as there are over 600 hundred species of hibiscus.

The first known written account of Roselle comes from the Physician to William of Orange, Matthias de l’Obel, who produced the following image below in his 1576 work. Matthias comments on the acidic nature of the Roselle plant. Later Botanist, Jacobus Bontius, wrote nearly a century later regarding the medicinal uses by the north Africans and Arabs, and Indians in treating fevers. It appears that culinary use was only  adopted in Africa as most notes on the plants use in South Asia regard it’s fiber for ropes and burlap.

There are two variants of the Roselle plant. The first one is altissima,– tall, thin, and spiny and useless for foods. However, this variant is  the more commonly grown for fibers to make rope and burlap. This use led to its expansion across the continents. New Wold settlers saw it as useful for sacks to transport goods from the the West Indies. West African slaves likely brought the seeds of the Roselle plant to the west indies along the Atlantic Slave Trade. Its hard to imagine how exactly this was done, given the torturous conditions of slave ships. There, its culinary uses expanded primarily in Jamaica where a British physician, Hans Sloan, eventually came to comment that

"It is planted in most gardens in this Island. The capsular leaves are made use of for making Tarts, Jellies, and Wine, to be used in fevers and hot distempers, to allay heat and quench thirst."

This explains the name in Latin America where the drink is called “Jamaica” ( with the 'J' is pronounced as an English 'H') likely named after the location where it was sourced by peoples traveling between the Caribbean and Latin America.

Around the end of the nineteenth century, the plant was introduced to California and Hawaii for investigation by the USDA where it was distributed to farmers to investigate its potential. It also arrived in Florida naturally though Jamaican immigration --there it was named “Jamaica Sorrel”.

In 1907 P.J. Wester, working for the USDA, released a report on Roselle commenting on how it was cultivated in India for its fiber production, the leaves were used in salads, and the seeds as animal feed. Wester’s speculated an eventual explosion in popularity for the the plant.

"This fact, in view of its particular adaptability for jelly making should cause the roselle to become a plant of considerable importance in the United States at no distant date"

He also mentions that...

"In Florida, as in California, those who have tried the roselle have nothing but praise for the plant, and considerable interest in it is manifest"

Wester thought the naming “roselle” came from a variation of the french word “osielle” meaning sorrel, another word for the plant, combined with some version of the word “rouge” or “red” in front as in “rouge osielle”.

Roselle was most well received in Florida where fresh hibiscus calyxes were being sold by street vendors in Southern Florida and it was known as "Florida Cranberry". The Roselle plant in Florida may have been on the brink of a popularity explosion when unfortunately a 1960 hurricane and subsequent cold spell destroyed the sensitive Roselle plantations.

It is still grown abundantly outside of U.S., the majority of the calyxes in production today are used for food dies supplied by West Africa where the dried calyxes are compressed into 80 KG balls and shipped to pharmaceutical and food companies in Europe.

Today, Roselle is produced for export in Thailand and China with the Latin American and Caribbean countries producing it primarily for domestic use. United States shoppers can order the dried Roselle calyxes online or find them in ethnic shopping centers.

Interesting Facts Discovered while researching this post:

  • The Ebers Papyrus is not the oldest known medical text, that honor belongs to the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus. Which dates to 1800 BC and covers topics on women's health. The text is zealous in attributing any pains and aches to "discharge of the womb", likely in an over application of the phenomenon of menstrual cramps. It mentions of a Woman with a toothache that it is 'it is toothache of the womb' and one should 'Pour over her the urine of an ass'.
  • The British Physician Hans Sloan, who commented on the Roselle’s culinary adoption by the Jamaicans, had also discovered the culinary uses of the cocoa bean there. When he returned to Europe he made a recipe with chocolate using milk and sold it as an elixir under the name Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate making it the first brand name milk chocolate. The Cadbury brothers early drinking chocolate even referenced Sloan's recipe.
  • At the time that J.P Wester wrote his report on the Roselle he commented that of all the plants he knew Roselle was the only cultivated plants whose Calyxes are use for food. This guy went around the world documenting plants so he knew of a lot of plants.
  • In Hawaii, the common practice of placing a hibiscus flower on the ear has a secret interpretation. If you wear the flower on your left ear you are taken, your right you are single and approachable.
  1. USDA
  2. AramcoWorld
  3. JSTOR
  4. PROTA4U