Hibiscus Medicine

Hibiscus Medicine

Hibiscus sabdariffa: West African Bissap, Caribbean Sorrel, Mexican Flor de Jamaica, is the same thing as Roselle, aka Hibiscus.  

This took me 8 years to figure out. (Face-palm)

Photo by Emily Adams

Photo by Emily Adams


In 2010 I spent six months learning and living in the Gambia, West Africa. I had a lot of memorable culinary experiences while I was there, but sucking on an ice cold plastic bag of Bissap juice on a 105-degree day was probably the best. I came home and spoke about Bissap like it was an exotic nectar that I would probably never have again.

Fast forward to 2012. I was fresh off the plane from Baltimore, on my second day living in San Francisco. There was a Street Food Festival in the Mission, one block from my apartment – naturally I intended to spend all day there buzzing around, stuffing my face. In a sea of eclectic kimchi dishes, tacos, and pork sandwiches, there rose a West African booth selling Bissap Juice and drop doughnuts. I immediately gave them all my money and drank my body weight in juice. The same juice that I thought I would never have again. Little did I know that about twenty taquerias within a 1 mile radius of my Mission District apartment served Bissap juice in the form of Fluer de Jamaica aqua fresca. (Facepalm number two). For 5 years I lived in the Mission, ordering my favorite Jamaica agua fresca, not realizing it was the same thing as my beloved Bissap juice or the Hibiscus tea my roommate stored in the cabinet...

Jamaican Breakfast

It was during a recent trip to Negril, Jamaica that I had my “a-ha” moment. In more ways than one. It was also on this trip that I realized I was due for a career shift. While visiting what was probably the most serene natural café in the world, I ordered a traditional Jamaican Breakfast: Ackee, saltfish, callaloo, and fried dumplings with Sorrel jam. The best meal I have had in a long time because 2 tablespoons of Sorrel jam kissed the plate. I asked for more and begged the café owner, Theresa, to share her recipe*. “No, it’s a secret”.


So I moved on to ask the cook at our bed and breakfast and she laid it on me, “Sorrel is the Hibiscus flower. We grow it here in Jamaica and drink it with spices around the holidays. It’s traditional. My mom grows it. I can get you some!”

And as soon as she said “it’s traditional”, I magically realized that Sorrel in Jamaica, is Fluer de Jamaica agua fresca in Mexico, is Bissap Juice in West Africa, is Roselle, is Florida Cranberry, etc. Same plant, same flavor, different name, different preparations. It is a humbling and humiliating experience when you realize your favorite herbal flower from many culinary cultures is in fact the same flower stemming from one lineage. We are all more connected than we realize.

It is important to pay attention to how specific plants show up on our lives. Living abroad in a country so different than my own was equally exciting as it was terrifying, much like moving to a new coast, or making a risky career change. Hibiscus tea has consistently shown up during times of stress and transition. In a world of unknowns, an unexpected comfort that makes wherever I am feel like home. 


Hibiscus Mocktail

Hibiscus Flower

The beauty of this plant goes beyond its seductive rouge and brilliant flavor. The beauty of this plant lies within its properties, and the gifts they provide. Drinking hibiscus tea is like going on vacation. A natural stress reliever. Studies show that the mineral, vitamin, and flavonoid content of the plant lower blood pressure, reduce oxidative stress, and boost mood. It's rich in vitamin C and Quercetin, which can naturally alleviate those Spring time allergy symptoms. Hibiscus tea is also good for your immune system and maintaining healthy skin. 

This Hibiscus Mocktail is sugar free. Traditionally 1 cup of sugar is added for sweetness. Without the sugar the drink is tart, like unsweetened cranberry juice or rose hip tea. If you wish to add a little sweetness, feel free to add a little honey. The added spices are traditional and more warming. For a brighter drink, I brew the hibiscus flowers alone in cold water, strain, and add a little mint and lime or orange as garnish. If you have trouble finding the Hibiscus at your local grocery or apothecary, try looking for it under its other names and ask an attendant. You can also order quality dried flowers online through sources like Mountain Rose Herbs**. 


Dried Hibiscus Flower

2 quarts water

1 cup dried hibiscus flowers

½ stick cinnamon

1 tsp whole allspice

1-2 in sliced ginger

Lime wedges for garnish


Bring 4 cups of water to a boil with cinnamon, allspice, and ginger. Remove from heat and add hibiscus flowers. Let sit for at least 20 minutes before staining, the longer it steeps the stronger the flavor. Play around with that you prefer. Add remaining 4 cups water and chill in fridge. Serve with ice, a splash of soda water, and lime wedge as garnish.

And if you REALLY want a vacation, add a shot of rum or gin to this and thank me later. Learned that trick in the Gambia. I typically don’t recommend drinking alcohol to my clients, but “life is about balance” – said every health coach ever, so drink responsibly.

* The next day I went back to the cafe to conduct more Sorrel jam "research". Unfortunately they had moved on to Banana jam for the week. I fully realize how ridiculous it is to describe any Banana jam experience as unfortunate, but you can imagine my disappointment. I am still working on a sugar-free Sorrel Jam recipe. I promise that as soon I unlock the secret I will share. Maybe… ; )

** Mountain Rose Herbs is out of dried flowers right now, but I was told they should be back ASAP. 03/21/18



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