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Hibiscus (Malvaceae)

This is one of the oldest plants cultivated by mankind, for its generally edible fruit. For example, Hibiscus esculentus bears a fruit which has been used extensively as a vegetable in Africa, Asia, Central and Latin America. Known as gombo or lalo on Réunion Island, it resembles somewhat courgette (zucchini). It is eaten in salads when young, cooked when mature. More than 30,000 varieties are known.  Flowers remain twisted until they briefly open: for instance, they only last a single day in the species H. rosa sinensis. Bernard Shaw wrote: “The hibiscus is a flower to please, / Grown in a warm and temperate clime. / Reds, blues and whites do tease,/ With glowing colours so sublime.”

Each flower has five sepals and five petals. The petals are often iridescent, which serves as a visual clue to insects such as bumblebees. The iridescence is due to the presence of a series of overlying cuticular striations that act as a diffraction grating. The five stamens are welded together into a long tube. The pistil often has five ovaries and a long style going through the tube of stamens. The flowering machinery of the hibiscus is most impressive in its frequent output. Leaves, often a deep green, are alternate, simple, ovate or lanceolate, with toothed or wavy edges. In many a folk culture, remedies draw on the hibiscus. For instance, teas made from the sepals of H. sabdariffa remedy hypertension.

Does the word evoke the Pacific Ocean, even the South Seas? Does it make one envision the gorgeous, highly colorful flowers ? Yet, these effects would be due to a cultural overload. The actual meaning, in today's English is marshmallow —children around the world indeed treat this plant as a kind of edible bubblegum. As for the name "hibiscus," it is simply a Latin transcription of the Greek hibiskos, with the meaning of —  marshmallow.

Coming back to the flower, it is worn traditionally by Hawaïan and Tahitian young women. If worn behind the left ear, it warns people away : the woman is unavailable, married or in a steady realationship. If the flower is worn instead on the right, she is single or open for a relationship.

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem, "Hibiscus on the Sleping Shores."  It emulates the freedom of a Polynesian woman! It is a tale of idleness on a seaside, during naptime perhaps, with the flaming colors of an hibiscus flower:

"Rose up besprent and sought the flaming red

Dabbled with yellow pollen— red as red"