Many of us envision hibiscus plants—at least those of us who can envision a hibiscus plant—as something with incredibly showy flowers, worthy of a place in any ornamental garden. There is a lot more to this massive— with several hundred species-genus of plants.
The hibiscus genus is composed of both annual and perennial plants, and they can range from herbaceous (no wood) to shrubs (several trunks) to trees (single, thick trunks). Hibiscuses have members that are native to the tropics, the subtropics, and the temperate climate.
The endangered (in its natural habitat) Hawaiian hibiscus, with bright yellow flowers, is the state flower of Hawaii. The flowers of the Chinese hibiscus have been used medicinally, as well as to make black shoe polish and black hair dye. It is also the national flower of Malaysia.
Most importantly in the world of edible landscape, though, is that many hibiscus plants, debatably all, have some piece of them that can be eaten. Some are downright delicious.
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1. Rosa de Jamaica (Hibiscus sabdariffa)
The rose of Jamaica goes by many names, including Jamaican sorrel and Florida cranberry. In addition to having beautiful blooms, rosa de Jamaica is grown for its tart-tasting calyxes (the base part of the flower), which are used to make hot and cold teas. The leaves of this hibiscus are also edible and perfect for adding an interesting flavor to salads.
2. Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus)
In terms of food, the hibiscus that probably has the most familiarity is okra, sometimes called ladies fingers and ochro. The okra plant, though, is a type of hibiscus, and it puts out some stunning flowers in the process of providing us with vegetables.
In this case, we are accustomed to eating the (typically) green seed pod of the plant, which has the deserved reputation of being quite slimy. Okra—the seed pod—is common in food from the Southern United States, the Caribbean, and India, especially. Interestingly, okra leaves are edible, too, and they can be eaten fresh or cooked, similar to dandelions.
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3. Cranberry Hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella)
Even more tart and cranberry-like than rosa de Jamaica (aka Florida cranberry) is the cranberry hibiscus. This plant doesn’t have significant calyxes and, thus, isn’t used for teas. More often than not, it is grown for ornamental purposes, providing striking red flowers and rich red foliage year-round. The leaves of the cranberry hibiscus are delicious.
4. Chinese Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis)
The Chinese Hibiscus is a tropical evergreen that has particularly attractive flowers, potential six inches across. It grows very quickly and can reach 10 feet tall with a spread nearly as large. However, at temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, it begins to suffer. It can be grown in a container to move inside during winter in colder climates.
In China, this plant is used medicinally for all sorts of ailments. Mostly it is consumed as a tea, either the flowers or the leaves. The flowers are edible, and they are used in salads throughout the Pacific Islands.
5. Mahoe (Hibiscus tiliaceus)
Mahoe’s flowers, like many species of hibiscus, come and go in one day, though the blooms keep coming on the plant. More uniquely, though, mahoe blossoms begin the day yellow and become a deep red by the day’s end. Much of this plant is edible, including flowers. They can be eaten raw or cooked. The young leaves can be cooked, and the roots are also edible when cooked.
6. Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus sinosyriacus/H. syriacus)
A perennial plant that grows moderately quickly and reproduces readily, Rose of Sharon is at home in the temperate climate and is even considered invasive in some states (It’s an Asian plant). Nevertheless, it puts out lovely flowers from summer into autumn. It can grow up to 12 feet tall and spread out nearly as wide. It has edible leaves and flowers, but it also has a reputation for plenty of mucilage, aka that sliminess associated with okra.
7. Edible-leaf Hibiscus (Abelmoschus manihot)
It seems rather obvious to put edible-leaf hibiscus on this list, but it belongs on it. This species is tropical and grows natively in Asia as a perennial plant. However, it grows very quickly at can reach over six feet in a single season, and it will flower and set seed during this time. (It can also be grown in a container.) Consequently, it can also be grown as an annual in temperate climates. The leaves famously are a good source of protein and can be eaten raw or steamed.
Growing an edible landscape is hugely rewarding, empowering, and healthy. When the edible plants provide nice scenery as well, that makes it all the sweeter. Without a doubt, hibiscus can play both roles—beauty and bounty—in many edible landscapes.
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