You’ve probably seen hibiscus on the menus of your favorite restaurants, infused in margaritas and martinis, or dried and packaged like licorice in grocery store aisles. The flower even dominated Starbucks at one point with their Very Berry Hibiscus Refresher, which caused a major uproar when it was discontinued.
The hibiscus craze, however, is nothing new. Hibiscus tea is beloved and consumed by a multitude of cultures and holds many names, such as bissap in Senegal, karkadé in Egypt, or sorrel in the Caribbean, where the beverage is typically consumed during Christmastime.
It all stems from roselle, a flowering plant native to West Africa. Despite the fact that hibiscus continues to grow in popularity, there are few roselle farms in the United States, as the plant thrives in a tropical climate and requires rainfall. However, farms like family-run business Pride Road in Lithonia, Georgia—which grows and sells their own hibiscus products such as chutneys, jellies, sodas, and teas—have begun to emerge.
“My dad said if we were going to start our business, we were going to have to grow it ourselves,” says Pride Road owner and operator Najeeb Muhaimin. “Most of the hibiscus being sold and consumed in the United States is imported, so not many people actually have the capacity to grow and process it.”
The growing process all begins with collecting the seeds from the season’s previous harvest and planting them in Pride Road’s greenhouse. Once the roselle reaches a certain height, it is transplanted to the fields. It is ready to harvest after the roselle blooms and the flower petals (which can also be used for consumption) wither off. The red calyx, which sits behind the petals and holds the delicious flavor, is then hand-picked and processed in their facility.
Hibiscus itself is mainly exported to the United States, Mexico, and multiple parts of Asia and Europe—they receive their imports from farms in the northern region of Nigeria, Sudan, China, and Thailand. But, growing roselle in the United States is becoming more common, with what is to be believed the first roselle farm in South Carolina popping up in Bucksport, Mishoe Legacy Farms. While Mishoe and Pride Road are some of a few companies in the United States growing and harvesting their own roselle, many other businesses have their own connection to the specialty crop.
Trinidadian couple Khalid Hamid and Shelly Marshall began their shop in Brooklyn, Island Pops, after Marshall was homesick and unable to track down sorrel as tasty as the one she had in her home country. Island Pops sources their hibiscus in the form of dried sorrel petals from wholesale grocer Chef Choice in Brooklyn, who receive their goods from Nigeria.
“Sorrel was one of our favorite things growing up—the smell of the leaves brewing with cinnamon and cloves,” Hamid says. “It just takes you to all the warm feelings and the nostalgia you get from an island Christmas.”
People flock to Island Pops to experience that feeling with one of the shop’s most popular flavors, their sorrel rum sorbet, which begins by brewing hibiscus leaves overnight in boiling water. And while their customer base began as being rooted in people like Marshall, who are longing for a taste of home, the shop has begun to see many new patrons desperate to feed their hibiscus obsession. “All of the sudden hibiscus is trending, but it’s what we grew up on. It’s like second nature to us; I can’t tell you when we’ve not had it,” Marshall says.
Clearly, hibiscus is a buzzy ingredient on the rise, and the demand is only increasing. In 2019, the roselle plant had a market value at over $113 million, with expected annual growth of 7.2 percent in the next five years. With its naturally sweet flavor, beautiful red hue that can replace synthetic dyes, and myriad health benefits such as lowering blood pressure and preventing liver damage, the plant is becoming a sensation. The 2022 Food and Beverage Flavor Trends Report state hibiscus use as an ingredient has gone up 65% in ubiquity on drink menus.
Even though there is an overwhelming desire for hibiscus, Marshall and Hamid ultimately welcome customers and their newfound love with open arms. “There’s so many positive traits of this flower, and now the word is getting out,” Hamid says. “People are starting to see our passion for it, and it’s a blessing.”