Hibiscus Leaves Helped Save Australian Lives

Peasant food: Rosella, Hibiscus sabdariffa
Peasant food: Rosella, Hibiscus sabdariffa

I’ve just found a letter written years ago in response to an article I wrote about edible members of the Hibiscus family (the Malvaceae). This refers to rosella leaves (Hibiscus sabdariffa), an icon of Australian backyards, and also peasant food or famine food in Bangladesh, Thailand and Burma. Rosella leaves helped Australian prisoners survive the second world war:

“To the Editor, Gardening Australia magazine,

I was particularly interested in your article on edible Hibiscus.

I am a 90 year old veteran, a former prisoner of war, stationed in Changi and on the Burma Railway.

From your information I am enclosing an extract from a recent newsletter of our newsletter which has been running since 1946.

Our Regimental Medical Officer, Dr R. Richards, is still with us and has been President of our Association since its inception.

Mr Gordon Butler
15th October 2008″


2/15 Field Regiment A.I.F. Association (Australian Infantry Battalion)

Origin of the name ‘Hibiscus Leaves’

Many members know the story behind the name, but there are still some who don’t. Ian Painter wrote some time ago with a request for an explanation.

In the early days of captivity some of the lads expressed concern that their inadequate diet may render them impotent and unable to father children when they returned home. The R.M.O. knew the leaves to be non-toxic, so he suggested the lads should eat these in order to maintain their virility. At least this could do no harm, so these leaves were eaten happily.

When our Association was formed, in 1946, a newsletter was initiated by the first Secretary/ Editor, Scippy Maher. Items of interest, including reports of new additions to our families, were included.

Remembering the R.M.O.’s suggestion that hibiscus leaves would aid virility. Scippy named the newsletter and that’s been its name ever since.

No prizes for guessing the identity of the R.M.O!”

I’ve cooked rosella leaves in curries and stir fries. They’re tangy, a quality that earns them the name ‘sorrel’ in Africa (compare with European sorrel, Rumex acetosella, a sour-flavoured perennial vegetable). In West Africa and SE Asia rosella leaves are used for flavouring meals. The bright green leaves quickly turn yellow on contact with boiling water, another surprise for the uninitiated. Young leaves make good eating, and simmering them for 4-6 minutes makes them tender.

In SE Asia, young leaves and tender shoots are also eaten raw in salads and chutneys, added to curries and for seasoning some Malaysian dishes.

Many medicinal uses for rosella have been developed around the world. The calyxes, stems and leaves of rosella are antioxidant rich, calyxes especially so. Sudan tea, made from dried calyxes, is a particularly pleasant and healthy way to take these antioxidants. Like Hibiscus, rosella flowers contain  mucilage, which makes a different kind of tea – one that relieves sore throats.

Of course, the main reason we grow rosellas is for the red, fleshy calyxes surrounding the flowers, and these make a wonderful jam. The jam recipe I use was published in this blog in 2012.

Other edible Hibiscus growing at Bellis, my home, include:

* Philip Island hibiscus, Hibiscus insularis, the leaves are a famine food and may be eaten by stock. It’s not tasty, but it is nutritious. The wild population is endemic to Philip Island, a part of the Norfolk Island group, where it almost became extinct because introduced goats, pigs and rabbits either gobbled them all up, or excavated the soil they were growing in. I use their petals to make a soothing, but bland, tea for sore throats;

* Okra, aka lady’s finger, Abelmoschus esculentus, a tropical annual sown in spring for its edible pods. Flowers are edible and can be made into tea, but picking flowers means no okra fruit. There’s a huge range of recipes using okra, all worth trying. Leaves may be added to salads, stir fries or curries;

* Hibiscus spinach, aka Island spinach, Abelmoschus manihot. I grow an uncommon cultivar of this  short-lived shrubby species from New Guinea which came from the Seed Savers’ Network. There are numerous cultivars, but only a few of them are grown in Australia. The flowers are edible and can be used to make tea, but only open for a day. The leaves make a delicious, juicy spinach, just don’t over cook them;

* Cranberry hibiscus, Hibiscus acetosella. A decorative, short-lived, evergreen shrub with leaves rather like purple maple, and upright, spindly stems. In the wild this grows up and through other shrubs and trees as the stems break easily in wet and windy weather. Mine is trained against railings, and I keep the stems tied in. This reaches 4m and is easily propagated by tip cuttings 6-8cm long. The slightly more compact cultivar ‘Red Shield’ can be raised from seed. Flowers are beautiful, and can be used to make a pleasant green tea which blends well with lime juice and honey to make a refreshing drink to ease a sore throat. Leaves taste slightly bitter. Use them in place of sorrel, and lightly steam young, tender leaves as spinach.

* Jute, Corchorus olitorius. A slender, tropical annual 2-3m high that requires moist, fertile soil and a sunny position. Ultimate height depends on how closely they are sown and how warm, moist and fertile the growing conditions are.

Commonly seen growing in Bangladesh, a world centre for jute fibre production, where it is grown on flood plains and islands of silt deposited by flood waters. In other hot regions of the world, especially Egypt, the young seed capsules are eaten raw, cooked or preserved like capers. Leaves are edible raw or cooked like spinach. Edible flowers are highly attractive to bees, especially Australian blue-banded bees.

* White jute, Corchorus capsularis. Another slender, tropical annual primarily grown for jute fibre.  In SE Asia, including Vietnam, this plant is grown for its edible leaves and juvenile seed pods. The leaves are dull, unlike the lustrous leaves of C. olitorius, and the stems are purple.  The flowers are quite insignificant and, in my garden, they only attract stingless bees.

White jute requires the same growing conditions as jute, however unlike jute, seedlings of white jute may rot in wet soils. They are a pioneer species in seasonal tropical wetlands, germinating early in the wet season to grow above competition. Once seedlings are established, they can grow in saturated soils as well, as tall, and as fast as jute.

* Australian rosella, aka sâm bố chính (Vietnam), musk mallow (Singapore), Abelmoschus moschatus subsp. tuberosus. A compact, shrub-like, short-lived perennial native to India, southern China, tropical Asia and Australia to the Pacific Islands. Edible leaves, flowers and roots. Roots are cooked before eating. Butterfly attracting flowers. As with most hibiscus, you may need to pick off caterpillars if you want to try eating the leaves.

In the subtropics, sow seed in mid-spring. Flowers from summer into winter in Queensland. Requires sunshine, moisture and good drainage. In fertile conditions, plants can exceed 1 metre high and 0.5m across – and this is when the edible taproot is worth harvesting and preparing like carrot.

Gardeners in a warm temperate climate should note that rosella prefer a long, warm growing season. Here in subtropical Brisbane, I sow them outside in early October. In Sydney, sow in a warm, sunny position in late September to give them extra time to mature.

For best results, plant rosella, okra, island spinach, Philip Island hibiscus, jute, white jute and Australian okra somewhere they will receive all day sunshine. Well dug, compost-rich soil is important for their shallow roots. Pick off caterpillars. Make sure to water rosella and okra well during dry weather.

In February 2023, I was contacted by Judy Horton, a well known member of the Australian Horticultural Media Association (NSW) and former colleague of Gordon Butler. Both were employed by Yates, a horticultural supply company primarily for the home gardening market in New Zealand and Australia.

I have attached the obituary for Mr Butler written by Ms Horton when he died in 2013, which provides greater insight and context.

newspaper obituary page
Gordon Butler Obituary

Final word (also in February 2023): “Hi Jerry, I run a chef’s garden in Singapore and we use Hibiscus acetosella (cranberry hibiscus) and H. sabdariffa (rosella) leaves for our salads.

One of my great uncles was a Prisoner of War at Changi and another on the Burma Railway, so your blog was great read, as I had no idea. Thanks so much!” B.P. 21.2.23

Jerry Coleby-Williams

13th April 2014, revised 3rd March 2023


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Mackney says:

    My father was in Changi during the war and still alive today he is 95 and a half years old the only just recently that he told me about Hibiscus leaves so on that I know that it is good for you as he is still alive today thank you very much for allowing me to comment on your page.

    1. Bless him! Give him my thanks and appreciation for shaping the world! 🙂

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