Recently I was in a Central New Jersey Shop Rite grocery, and beheld something a bit odd in the fruit section--dried, edible flowers. I'd heard of hibiscus as a tea flavoring, but I wasn't aware that the flowers themselves were edible, or at least palatable. Needless to say, I snapped them up and gave them a try.
Hibiscus, which includes dozens of species and subspecies, is a plant that lives in warm or hot areas all around the globe. This plant is best known for its large, showy flowers, which can be up to 18 cm. (about 7 inches) in diameter, and whose colors range from white, purple, yellow, orange, and pink. Their original home isn't conclusively known, but probably candidates for their various ancestor species include Madagascar, Fiji, Hawaii, Mauritius, India, and China. They're a popular choice for gardens, because of their pretty flowers, and because these flowers help attract bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. As I mentioned earlier, they're a common flavoring for both hot and cold teas, in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa, Europe, and Thailand. More rarely, in the Philippines people sometimes use them as a souring agent for soups and vegetables. The Chinese enjoy their leaves as a cooked dish similar to spinach, and others eat their raw leaves in salads. And, in Mexico the dried flowers are considered a delicacy.
As far as the plant's medical benefits or detriments, there's a lot of disagreement. Hibiscus is thought to have health benefits in traditional Chinese folk medicine. Studies have suggested that it may lower blood pressure, and perhaps cholesterol. On the negative side, hibiscus has been proven to have adverse effects on pregnant rats. While a corresponding effect hasn't been proven in humans, doctors still advise pregnant or breastfeeding women to avoid hibiscus to be on the safe side. It also reacts badly with some drugs, such as chloroquine and acetaminophen. So take this under advisement before consuming it.
The hibiscus I got was made by the Nutty & Fruity company out of California. Unlike many of the companies I discuss on this blog, their website was sparse and not very helpful. It was basically a section on which supermarkets stock their products, a contact page, and little else. They don't even have a good product list--it just has a series of images that flashed by very quickly. So I can't include any interesting or funny tidbits about the company's history or anything. Other food shopping websites included their other offered products, and not surprisingly, their output consists of dried fruits (kiwi, strawberry, tangerine, banana, golden berries (see June 13th, 2015 post), passion fruit, figs, etc.) or nuts (flavored almonds, cashews, peanuts, etc.).
The container I bought was 5 ounces (141 grams) and cost about $5. The dried flowers were a purplish-red color, and about 4 cm. (about 1.5 inches) in diameter. Their dried petals were curled down, and resembled tentacles. Each one reminded me of a baby octopus, or should I say pentapus, given that there were 5 "arms" per flower. They tasted, and had a texture that was very much akin to raisins. They were a little tart, and chewy. I like raisins okay, so I also thought the hibiscus was alright. Not awesome, but a solid snack--I had no trouble finishing up the package, and would consider buying these again. I was amused by something on on the outside label, though. It proudly proclaimed that there's "no flavors added," but then the ingredient lists mentions "cane sugar." So a bit of a discrepancy there! Their claims to be gluten, GMO, and fat free are more legit, it seems. All in all, then, unless you hate raisins, I would recommend dried hibiscus flowers to eat. Unless you're pregnant, or are on certain medications, etc.
Finally, in traditional Hawaiian and Tahitian culture, hibiscus flowers were reportedly used by women as a social signal. A flower behind her left ear meant the woman was married, or in a relationship, One behind her right ear meant she was available. I don't know what a flower behind both ears indicated, or if a flower awkwardly jammed up one or both nostrils meant anything.