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.

Love your magazine,

Mr G. Butler
15th October 2008″

Extract:

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 surprisingly 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, a rare, short-lived shrubby species acquired from the Seed Savers’ Network with edible leaves. Flowers are also 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. I imagine that in the wild this grows up and through other shrubs and trees as the stems break easily in wet, windy weather. Mine grows against railings, and I keep the stems tied in. This reaches 4m and is easily propagated by tip cuttings 6-8cm long. Flowers are beautiful, and can be used to make a pleasant green tea. Leaves taste slightly acidic because they are. Use them in place of sorrel, and lightly steam young, tender leaves as spinach.

Rosella prefer a long, warm growing season, so here in Brisbane I sow them in early October. For best results, give rosella, okra, island spinach and Philip Island hibiscus all day sunshine and start them off in well dug, compost-rich soil. Make sure to water rosella and okra well during dry weather.

Jerry Coleby-Williams

13th April 2014