Flor de Jamaica : A Confusion of Hibisci*

*Hibiscuses? (both are valid it seems)

A vital component of medicinal herbalism is knowing EXACTLY what plant you are using. This is extremely important if you are taking the plant internally. Knowing a plant with 100% certainty is the equivalent of knowing the difference between milk and orange juice when you go to the fridge. If you don’t know the plant with this level of certainty then please proceed with caution.

Identifying plants can be problematic when using common names. One plant may have a dozen common names and a dozen different plants may be known by the same common name. The best way to avoid this is to rely upon the Latin binomial (1) nomenclature (2) as refined by Carolus Linnaeus (3). This system is (more or less) global and can be relied upon when trying to make a definitive identification.

  1. two – name
  2. a system of “giving names”
  3. oddly enough called the Linnean system

The example I’m going to look at today is one that particularly bugs me. There is no danger (medicinally speaking) of toxicity (or even drug interaction) when this particular cross over occurs but it does demonstrate the issue of absolute misidentification.

The herb in question is that of flor de jamiaca or Hibiscus sabdariffa. Various papers have this plant originating in either Africa (1) or Asia (2) and it has a long history of both culinary and medicinal use (Mahadevan etal 2009). In México its most well known incarnation is likely that of the agua fresca, or drink, known as agua de jamaica.

  1. Hibiscus sabdariffa probably originates from Africa, where it may have been domesticated in Sudan about 6000 years ago. : https://uses.plantnet-project.org/en/Hibiscus_sabdariffa_(PROTA)#:~:text=Hibiscus%20sabdariffa%20probably%20originates%20from,to%20India%20and%20the%20Americas.
  2. Roselle is native from India to Malaysia, where it is commonly cultivated, and must have been carried at an early date to Africa. : https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/roselle.html

The most commonly found misidentification of these plants on a commercial product is, to me, that of Red Zinger tea (1). This tea contains H.sabdariffa but as the image of the calyx is not as visually pleasing or perhaps not readily identifiable as a Hibiscus they just straight up use the image of H.rosa-sinensis.

  1. Red Zinger is also a common name for this plant.

This, from a medicinal viewpoint, is not particularly worrisome (from a botanical standpoint it bugs me though). When it come to the medicinal use of both of these plants things change. I follow many herbalists. My specialties are in Western Herbal Medicine (WHM) and that of the Americas (particularly México). My education in herbal medicine, much like my apprenticeship as a chef, involved Asian herbs and medicinal practices simply because of the proximity of Australia to the cultures of Asia. I was educated in the herbs of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) but did not formally study the philosophies of TCM. The use of herbs however, from a pharmaceutical point of reference, requires only an understanding of the chemistry of the plant. This is universal. The philosophy of the method of healing is each healers personal journey (and is a story for another time). This all brings me to one of the pages I follow. It is a page that produces easily digestible monographs on Eastern herbs with a strong focus on TCM. By and large I found them to be quite informative (particularly because I may have not even had heard of some of the plants) but one of the latest monographs was for Hibiscus (a plant I consider myself to have a passing familiarity with) and it immediately screamed to me of misidentification. A mistake of such a fundamental type now calls into question everything I have read by this author.

The herb is (herbs are) described using two medicinal viewpoints, Eastern and Western, and key medicinal uses are given for each plant. So far so good. The errors occur when the author notes that the plants can be used interchangeably (1) and that it is the flowers of each that are used (2). This is where potential problems begin. A closer examination of the uses of each plant as outlined by the author shows almost no crossover between the two systems and the question arises. Are these descriptions of the uses of one or two plants? Do they describe the same plant as used in two systems or has the author confused (and conflated) the use of two different plants because they are called Hibiscus?

  1. they cannot (except maybe as a tea)
  2. this is maybe a little pedantic as it it is not technically the “flower” that is used but the calyx (which is “technically” part of the structure of the flower.

The descriptions provided by the author are as follows……

Lets look into it a little further….

The plants themselves are quite different

The parts of the plant being described are the “flowers” (1)

  1. although in both plants the leaves, flowers, roots and in some cases, bark stem, all have either culinary or medicinal uses.

But…..When using H.sabdariffa, it is not the flower that is used but the calyx. The calyx is the somewhat thick and fleshy covering of the seed pod. The flowers of sabdariffa are delicate and short-lived and last less than a day once they bloom.

Now. Lets get into the medicinal properties of both plants.

H.rosa-sinensis has been noted in various studies as having the following medicinal actions….

  • Abortifacient
  • Anti-catarrhal
  • Antidiarrheal
  • Antifertility
  • Aphrodisiac
  • Contraceptive
  • Demulcent
  • Diuretic
  • Emmenagogue
  • Emollient
  • Expectorant

It has been used (and is still being used) in the traditional medicinal practices of many countries.

For the treatment of women’s health it has been used in….

  • In Bangladesh – a decoction of flowers is used for the regulation of menstrual cycle and this same infusion is used in Trinidad to treat amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation).
  • In China –  a hot water extract of flowers & bark  is used as an emmenagogue (something that stimulates or increases menstrual flow). It is used for this same purpose in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Peru (Peruvians also use it as a contraceptive).
  • In India a hot water extract of stems & flowers is not only used as an emmenagogue it treats menorrhagia (heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding) but it is used also as a contraceptive/anti-fertility agent and as an abortifacient (“that which will cause a miscarriage” from Latin: abortus “miscarriage” and faciens “making”).
  • In Indonesia it is not a hot water extraction (decoction or infusion) that is used but the juice of the leaves and flowers. This juice is used as an emmenagogue, an abortive agent and for women in labour.

This use is similar in many other countries (and includes plant parts other than the flowers)….

  • The East Indies- a hot water extract of flowers is used to regulate menstruation and produce abortion
  • Malaysia – a hot water extract of roots & flowers is used as an emmenagogue
  • New Caledonia – a decoction of flowers is used as an abortifacient
  • Vietnam – an infusion (weaker extract than a decoction) of flowers is used to treat dysmenorrhea (painful menstrual periods which are caused by uterine contractions)
  • Vanuatu – it is not the flowers being used but a decoction of the stems and bark which is used to treat menorrhagia.

WARNING : Any herb which stimulates uterine contractions or menstrual flow has the potential to cause spontaneous abortion.

Other aspects of women’s medicine utilising H.rosa-sinensis include…..

  • In Northern Ireland a water extract (type not noted) of the flowers has been used too induce labour and in Hawaii the flowers have been used as a galactagogue (stimulates lactation in nursing mothers)

H.rosa-sinensis can also be used for digestive and/or respiratory issues……

  • Fiji – the leaf Juice is used to promote digestion  and treat diarrhea
  • Japan – a decoction of leaves is used as an antidiarrheal
  • Mexico – an infusion of bark & leaves is used in cases of dysentery
  • Haiti – a decoction of flowers & leaves is used for influenza, cough, stomach pain, and as a wash for eye problems
  • Nepal – a hot water extract of the roots is used to treat cough
  • Malaysia – aside from womens health, a hot water extract of roots & flowers is used to treat fever, and as an expectorant (helps loosen and cough up mucous)
  • Philippines – a hot water extract of flowers is used to treat bronchial catarrh (an accumulation of mucous)
  • India – a hot water extract of stems & flowers is used as a diuretic (increases flow of urine) a demulcent (a substance that relieves inflammation and irritation of the mucous membranes by forming a protective film) and for the treatment of coughs and bronchitis.

Now lets take a look at flor de Jamaica

The medicinal actions of H.sabdariffa are listed as….

  • anti-anaemic (any drug that increases the number of red blood cells or the amount of haemoglobin (an oxygen-carrying protein) in the blood, deficiencies of which characterize the disorder known as anaemia).
  • antibacterial
  • anticholesterolemic – cholesterol lowering
  • antidiabetic
  • antifungal
  • anthelmintic – antiparasitic (helminths – The word helminth (from Greek: “intestinal worm”) is a term used to superficially describe worm-like organisms, some of which are strictly parasitic or worms)
  • antihypertensive – blood pressure lowering
  • anti-inflammatory
  • antilipidemic
  • antilithic – substances that help to prevent the formation of stones in the urinary system and can help remove those which are already formed.
  • anti-nociceptive – inhibits the sensation of pain
  • anti-obesity
  • antioxidant
  • anti-parasitic
  • antipyretic
  • antispasmodic
  • diuretic
  • galactagogue (seed)
  • hepato-protective
  • nephro-protective

I have gone into greater detail about the medicinal uses of this plant in my earlier Post : Flor de Jamaica (Hibiscus sabdariffa) so I wont repeat the information here. One thing that is immediately apparent though is the lack of the use of this plant specifically as it regards women’s health.

There is a small amount of crossover but you can see they are both used quite differently and most certainly not interchangeably.

The descriptions above, even though they contain a fair amount of info from Asia, are essentially from a Western herbal medicine viewpoint.

How does TCM view these plants?

H.rosa-sinensis is known in TCM as Fu Rong (Mu Fu Rong) and all parts of the plant are used medicinally.

First we look at the flowers Mu Fu Rong Hua (as this is the primary cause of my griping in the first place)

Flos hibisci (See the bottom of this Post for definitions of some of these – largely unused these days – Latin terminologies)

Another variety of Hibiscus, Mu Jin Hua, Hibiscus mutabilis (1) is also used in TCM (more on this plant a little later)

The philosophies behind TCM are quite different to those of WHM.

Mu Fu Rong Hua (Flowers)

Properties : Pungent, cool; lung and liver meridians entered.
Actions : Clear lung heat and cool blood, dissipate heat and remove toxicity, resolve swelling and expel pus.
Indications : Scrofula (1), cough due to lung heat, leucorrhea (2), acute appendicitis; sores and boils, burns and scalds, innominate (3) swelling and pain, purulent ear for external application.

It is contraindicated in pregnant women and people with a cold “deficiency”.

  1. Scrofula is a condition in which the bacteria that causes tuberculosis causes symptoms outside the lungs. This usually takes the form of inflamed and irritated lymph nodes in the neck. Doctors also call scrofula “cervical tuberculous lymphadenitis”:
  2. leucorrhoea, also spelled leukorrhea, flow of a whitish, yellowish, or greenish discharge from the vagina that may be normal or that may be a sign of infection. Such discharges may originate from the vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, or, most commonly, the cervix.
  3. not named or classified.

Fu Rong Ye (Leaves)

Properties : Slightly pungent, cool; lung and liver meridians entered.
Actions : Clear lung heat and cool blood, dissipate heat and remove toxicity, resolve swelling and expel pus.
Indications : Cough due to lung heat, acute appendicitis, scrofula for oral administration; sores and boils, burns and scalds, otopyorrhea (1), unknown boils for external application.

WARNING : Contraindicated in pregnant women

  1. Chronic otitis media (inflammation or infection located in the middle ear) resulting in perforation of the eardrum and a purulent (consisting of, containing, or discharging pus) discharge.

Fu Rong Gen (Roots)

Fu Rong Gen is Hibiscus taiwanensis (or the Taiwan cotton rose) , a native plant in Taiwan, which lives in China and Taiwan. The form of flower is different from Hibiscus mutabilis (of which it is a variety) in China, which is “double” flowered.

Same same but different.

Now lets take a look at how TCM classifies H.sabdariffa.

Chinese / Pin Yin Name: Luo Shen Hua, Mei Gui Qie

Other names include : Belchanda, Tengamora, Gal-da, Amile, Hanserong, Sougri, Dachang, Datchang, Gongura, Saril, Flor de Jamaica, Jamaica sorrel or Luo Shen Hua.

Hibiscus flowers are a traditional Chinese medicinal herb to clear summer-heat, promote appetite, relieve cough, promote diuresis, promote the production of body fluids, clear infection, relieve thirst, promote healthy blood pressure, support healthy cholesterol levels, may benefit weight management, and support kidney health.
Hibiscus Flower Properties: Sour, Cool
Hibiscus Flower Channels / Meridians: Kidney

Main actions according to TCM: Eases hypertension and hangover. Eases coughing due to Lung Qi deficiency.

In TCM, H.sabdariffa calyxes are plants that belong to the ‘Herbs that relieve coughing and wheezing’ category. In TCM Phlegm is a condition of Stagnation of Fluids which tends to start in the Spleen and then goes to the Lungs. If this overly accumulates it thickens and becomes pathological Phlegm. Phlegm, being a form of Stagnation, often starts as being Cool and transforms to Hot as the condition progresses. Herbs that relieve coughing and wheezing treat branch symptoms of this Stagnation and tend to have antitussive, expectorant, diuretic or laxative properties. This medicine belongs to the group of plants that are Cool in nature. This means they tend to help people who have too much ‘Heat’ in their body, although with less effect than a plant that would be Cold in nature. Balance between Yin and Yang is a key health concept in TCM. Those who have too much Heat in their body are said to either have a Yang Excess (because Yang is Hot in nature) or a Yin deficiency (Yin is Cold in Nature).
Flor de Jamaica also tastes Sour. The so-called ‘Five Phases’ theory in Chinese Medicine states that the taste of TCM ingredients is a key determinant of their action in the body. Sour ingredients like roselle flower buds help with digestion and restrain abnormal discharges of Fluids from the body, such as diarrhoea or heavy sweating.
The tastes of ingredients in TCM also determine what Organs and Meridians they target. As such roselle flower buds are thought to target the Kidney. According to TCM, the Kidneys do not only regulate the urinary system but also play a key role in the reproductive system and the growth and aging process of the body.

An interesting formula that I stumbled across during the research for this Post follows.

The Wu Hua formula is produced entirely of flowers and most of these flowers are probably growing somewhere in your neighbourhood.

  • Japanese honeysuckle
  • Hibiscus (not sabdariffa) flower
  • Cockscomb flower
  • Magnolia flower
  • Puerariae (Kudzu) flower

This formula looks to be great in cases of gastrointestinal distress.

Images of these flowers and instructions for their harvest/preparation follows

The Processing of Flos Lonicerae (Japanese honeysuckle)
You want the unopened flower buds (collected before the plant fully blossoms in early(ish) Summer) or the flower at the initial blossoming stage (the complete flower, white-yellowish in colour and big in shape). Dry them in the shade.

Ji Guan Hua is the dried flowers of the cristate (crested) variety of the celosia (cockscomb) flower (Celosia argentea var. cristata). Inflorescences (1) are velvety, shaped like a fan or rounded and convoluted, resembling a brain or the cock’s comb, thus the common name ‘Cockscomb’. Flowers are harvested in full bloom and dried in the sun. For medicinal use, the best quality Ji Guan Hua consists of dried flowers that have a clear, fresh colour (2).

  1. the complete flower head of a plant including stems, stalks, bracts, and flowers.
  2. The dark pink to red flowers are considered superior for treating disorders of the blood, while white to yellow flowers are better for use in the treatment of qi disorders.

Magnolia : Collect flower buds in spring, remove impurities, wash, steam slightly and dry under low temperature.

Puerariae (Kudzu) : the flowers are harvested at about the stage of blooming that you can see in the middle image above (once about 1/4 – 1/3 of the blooms are open). Dry in the shade.

Short Version.

H.sabdariffa vs H.rosa-sinensis

Both are medicinal.

Both are used for quite different purposes.

They are NOT interchangeable.

Reference Notes

Plant Parts (crude drug terminology)

  • Aetheroleum: Refers to the essential or volatile oil as a distinct aromatic product obtained from the plant.
  • Balsamum: Refers to a solution of resin and volatile oil usually produced by special cells in some plants.
  • Bulbus: Refers to the bulb or an underground bud (specialized stem structure) of a plant, from which both a shoot and roots may extend.
  • Cortex: Refers to the bark of the plant. Bark can be collected from the root, stem, or branches.
  • Flos: Refers to the flowers of the plant usually consisting of a single flower or the entire inflorescences (e.g., head, umbel, panicle, spike, etc.).
  • Folium: Refers to the leaves of the plant. Usually the middle leaves of plants are collected.
  • Fructus: Refers to the fruit (the ripened ovary of the flower-bearing seeds) or berry of the plant. In pharmacognosy, fructus is not always synonymous with the botanical definition.
  • Herba: Refers to the aerial parts or the aboveground parts of plants which may include the flower, leaf, and the stem of the plant, and occasionally fruits too.
  • Lignum: Refers to the wood or the secondary thickening of the stem. This may or may not include the bark.
  • Oleum: Refers to the fixed oil preparation pressed or squeezed from the plant material.
  • Pericarpium: Refers to the peel or rind of the fruit.
  • Pyroleum: Refers to the tar from dry distilled plant material.
  • Radix: Refers to the root of a plant, though radix is sometimes synonymous with rhizome
  • Resina: Refers to the resin that is secreted by the plant or by distillation of the balsamum.
  • Rhizoma: Refers to the rhizome or a creeping horizontal stem, generally bearing roots on its underside.
  • Semen: Refers to the seed of a plant, usually removed from the fruit, and may or may not contain the seed coat.

Reference Texts

  • Hoi, C. P., Ho, Y. P., Baum, L. and Chow, A. H. (2010), Neuroprotective effect of honokiol and magnolol, compounds from Magnolia officinalis, on beta‐amyloid‐induced toxicity in PC12 cells. Phytother. Res., 24: 1538-1542. doi:10.1002/ptr.3178
  • Jadhav, V. M., Thorat, R. M., Kadam, V. J., & Sathe, N. S. (2009). Traditional medicinal uses of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. J. Pharm. Res, 2(8), 1220-2.
  • Mahadevan, N. & Shivali, & Kamboj, P.. (2009). Hibiscus sabdariffa Linn.–An overview. Natural Product Radiance. 8. 77-83.
  • Missoum, A. (2018). An update review on Hibiscus rosa sinensis phytochemistry and medicinal uses. J Ayu Herb Med, 4(3), 135-46.
  • Serban C, Sahebkar A, Ursoniu S, Andrica F, Banach M (2015). “Effect of sour tea (Hibiscus sabdariffa L.) on arterial hypertension: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials”. Journal of Hypertension (33.6). doi:10.1097/HJH.0000000000000585.
  • Tungmunnithum, Duangjai; Intharuksa, Aekkhaluck; Sasaki, Yohei (2020). A Promising View of Kudzu Plant, Pueraria montana var. lobata (Willd.) Sanjappa & Pradeep: Flavonoid Phytochemical Compounds, Taxonomic Data, Traditional Uses and Potential Biological Activities for Future Cosmetic Application. Cosmetics, 7(1), 12–. doi:10.3390/cosmetics7010012
  • K. Watanabe, H. Watanabe, Y. Goto, M. Yamaguchi, N. Yamamoto, K. Hagino (1983). Pharmacological Properties of Magnolol and Hōnokiol Extracted from Magnolia officinalis: Central Depressant Effects. Planta Med, 49(10): 103-108. DOI: 10.1055/s-2007-969825

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