What Is Hibiscus? Here's Everything You Need To Know

Photo: Marija Kovac

If you’ve ever wondered, "What is hibiscus tea, and why should I drink it?" I hear you—you've probably heard it's delicious and good for you, but maybe you have yet to try it. First, let me tell you this: I've never been a big fan of tea, because I never liked the taste. I’m a straight-up New York City coffee drinker. But when I realized I had to ditch my four-cups-of-coffee-a-day habit to heal from adrenal fatigue, I started to experiment with no-sugar, noncaffeinated beverage options. That's when I found hibiscus tea.

Here’s the quick and dirty. Hibiscus tea has many uses and health benefits—the caffeine-free, sugar-free brew is anti-inflammatory, is a powerful antioxidant, and can improve digestion, promote circulation and blood flow, lower cholesterol, and regulate blood pressure. And while the health benefits of hibiscus tea are plentiful, the uses of hibiscus tea are just as versatile.

As a health coach and author of Self-Care in the City, I’m always sharing natural ways for my clients to unwind, de-stress, get off the stimulant cycle, and return to nature to find some peace and respite from a busy, stressed, urban lifestyle. In this article, we’ll chat about juicy hibiscus tea recipes that you’ll actually want to drink and ways to use hibiscus tea to slow down, stress less, and even promote your natural beauty practice using hibiscus tea.

Ready, set...steep.

First things first: Hibiscus is really a flower.

Around the world, the hibiscus plant thrives in tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate climates. There’s a Hawaiian tradition that says that if the hibiscus flower is worn behind the left ear, the woman is in a relationship. If the flower is worn on the right, she is single and available. Remember that the next time you pose for a photo with a hibiscus flower in your hair!

In continuing our brief history of hibiscus, the plant has symbolic meaning across many cultures: Hibiscus is the national symbol of Haiti, the symbol of Hindu goddess Kali in India, and the national flower of Malaysia and South Korea.

So why not bring the tropical vacation vibe back home with you and try to grow your own hibiscus plant?

How to grow hibiscus.

If you have a green thumb and want a plant that’s beautiful and medicinal, my favorite resources are this guide to growing different types of hibiscus, this article on how to grow hibiscus in gardens, and this manual on how to plant a hibiscus in a container pot.

While beautiful, hibiscus is actually a very hardy plant. It can grow anywhere from lush gardens to cramped urban balconies. The hibiscus flower is a perennial and flowers through the year. Because of its beautiful and bright flower, it also acts as an attractive signal for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.

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What hibiscus tea tastes like.

Now that you know more about this gorgeous flower, I bet your curiosity is piqued. So what should you expect hibiscus tea to taste like? While I think it has a mild sweetness to it, it does have a bit of a reputation for being tart, sour, or bitter. Don’t let that scare you away! Just like cranberry juice, hibiscus tea has a zing to it; you’ll want to try it a few times and make your own decision on the flavor profile.

Leslie McDonald, wellness blogger of Balanced Life Leslie, recommends sweetening hibiscus tea with a bit of raw honey to enjoy this ruby-red, medicinal flower tea. Leanne Maciel of Brew You Wellness shares, "Hibiscus tea has a tart taste, so I generally add some combination of ginger, cinnamon, cloves, or nutmeg to balance it out. Heaven in a cup, I like to call it!"

As with anything, adjust the level of added sweetness to your liking. Over time, as your taste buds adapt, continue to reduce your added honey or stevia or natural sweetener of choice. I drink mine as is—and I find it just sweet enough! But if you want to go the refined-sugar-free route, consider adding honey, maple syrup, stevia, or coconut sugar. If you try a little added sweetness, I can pretty much guarantee you won't be able to get enough of it.

How to brew hibiscus tea.

The most important thing to remember when brewing hibiscus tea is not to over-steep it. If you let the petals brew too long, you’ll end up with a tea that’s bitter to the taste. More, in this case, is not better—the best thing you can do is get it just right! And remember, hibiscus tea is caffeine-free, so you don't have to worry about getting the jitters if you drink too much of it! Does it get better than that? Here are step-by-step instructions for brewing the perfect steaming mug of hibiscus tea:

  1. Boil water.
  2. Add approximately 2 teaspoons of hibiscus tea leaves to your loose-leaf teapot, individual tea strainer, tea strainer mug, travel mug, or reusable tea infuser—really any of those will work in this case!
  3. Add boiling water to hibiscus tea and let it steep for five minutes.
  4. If you like strong tea, steep for a bit longer; if you prefer weaker tea, steep for a bit less time. But remember, don't over-steep! So if you want stronger tea, don't steep it for more than an extra minute.
  5. Strain the tea using a mesh strainer.
  6. Sweeten or garnish with stevia, raw honey, coconut sugar, lemon, ginger, or mint.

If this whole process feels like too much, I promise it's not. Sometimes all you need is a little practice: If you feel intimidated by the steeping process, why not start by buying pre-made hibiscus tea bags and enjoy your self-care moment and a chance to breathe? You won't regret it.

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Health benefits of hibiscus tea.

I'm a health coach, and let me tell you this: It's an excellent tea to incorporate into your self-care routine. Here's why you should add it. Hibiscus is a great tool for:

  • Hydration
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Loading you up with vitamin C
  • Increasing immunity
  • Improving digestion
  • Promoting circulation
  • Regulating blood pressure
  • Lowering cholesterol
  • Fighting cancer-causing chemicals with all those antioxidants

Since I’m always telling my clients to watch their sugar and stimulant intake, I’m partial to the caffeine-free, sugar-free properties of hibiscus tea. Caitlin Padgett, a certified holistic health coach who works specifically with successful women who struggle with alcohol, also points out that hibiscus tea eases menstrual pains and protects the liver. Talk about an added bonus!

Hibiscus tea for stress relief.

When we race through our day, never taking a moment to breathe or slow down, cortisol (the stress hormone) is in the driver’s seat. One of the "lures" of coffee breaks or cigarette breaks is the opportunity to slow down for five to 10 minutes, take a few moments to yourself, and come back to your workday refreshed and recharged. Want to know a great way to do that without stimulants? Try noncaffeinated tea.

I spoke with Carolyn Birsky of Compass Maven for advice on stress relief in the office, and she told me, "As a career coach, I'm always advocating for ways that my busy clients can take a moment for themselves throughout the workday. Getting a 3 p.m. cup of tea is a great alternative to caffeinated coffee (which might keep you up late) and keeps you hydrated. Just getting up from your desk for a glass of water isn't super enticing, but getting up for a tasty cup of tea is a great reward."

Plus, curling up with a hot cup of hibiscus tea can be the perfect moment to exhale and create your own few minutes of self-care.

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How to use hibiscus tea: Here are my favorite hacks.

Replace your coffee with hibiscus tea.

While you don't have to totally ditch your morning coffee, try subbing out your afternoon coffee with a tea, and you’ll soon notice you’re sleeping better. How great is that?

Use hibiscus tea for hydration.

Don't forget that your hibiscus tea is water, so you’re adding to your daily recommended ounces of water by sipping on this noncaffeinated beverage.

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Use hibiscus tea as a cranberry juice replacement.

Don’t want to load up on sugary packaged cranberry juice? Go, you. Try brewing some strong hibiscus tea instead.

Try a tasting flight of teas.

Brew You Yoga at Work has revolutionized corporate wellness events by offering yoga, tea, and chocolate pairings. How great does that sound?

Sip hibiscus tea instead of alcohol.

Make your next mocktail with hibiscus (see recipes below), or bring hibiscus-flavored iced tea or kombucha to your next party if you’re going alcohol-free.

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Add flavor to your seltzer water.

Need a little more zing in your bubbles? Brew hibiscus tea first, let it cool, then add carbonation via your SodaStream. It will become that much more delicious; I promise.

How to use hibiscus tea for beauty.

I spoke with Jen Steen, NYC–based esthetician and founder of The Whole Hive, about how we can use this powerful plant for upping our natural beauty routine. She explained the science: "Free radical damage from stress, pollution, and poor diet choices are huge factors in premature aging and overall skin quality. Hibiscus tea is full of antioxidants that combat free radicals, to keep a youthful appearance." I’ll drink to that.

Then Steen shared one of her favorite beauty efficiency hacks: "One of my favorite ways to use hibiscus tea is to freeze it into ice cubes and rub it directly onto the face in the morning. Not only will it absorb directly into your skin, but the cold temperature helps tone your pores and reduce puffiness."

If you’re not sold on the taste of sipping on hibiscus tea—then this one’s definitely for you.

Hibiscus tea recipes.

Lemon Hibiscus Tea Mocktail

By Alyssa Rimmer of Simply Quinoa

I love using hibiscus tea, especially in the summer, because it has a fruity, naturally sweet flavor (without the added sugar). I usually make it into an iced tea by adding four to six bags to a large Mason jar, filling up the Mason jar with filtered water, and then letting the brew sit in the sunshine for 24 hours. The tea will naturally steep; you'll end up with a gorgeous pinky-red color that tastes delicious! To spice things up even more, sometimes I'll also add some lemon juice or mix it in with some seltzer water and make a hibiscus tea mocktail!

Cranberry-Spiced Sangria & Hibiscus-Mulled Wine

By Caitlin Padgett, author of Drink Less, Be More

Hibiscus is quite tart and makes the perfect stand-in for drinks or mocktails that call for cranberry juice. I love that it can be served hot or cold and have a spiced version that is a fantastic mocktail substitute for mulled wine in the winter or spiced sangria in the summer. Simply boil the hibiscus flowers with ginger, cloves, and cinnamon and sweeten to taste. You can serve your hibiscus mocktail hot with slices of citrus and apple (or other winter fruits) or mix equal parts chilled hibiscus tea with pomegranate juice, add finely chopped strawberries and oranges, pour over ice, and top with carbonated water for your own hibiscus sangria.

A word of warning on hibiscus.

While hibiscus tea is a delicious, hydrating beverage, there are certain things you should consider before you start incorporating hibiscus into your everyday routine. Hibiscus tea can be dangerous for pregnant women (it can cause menstruation or induce contractions), and super-high doses of it can be toxic for the liver. So sip with caution!

Want to drink more tea? Here are 9 surprising health benefits.

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