Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis)

Singapore Infopedia


The common hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) is an evergreen shrub belonging to the cotton family Malvaceae which comprises about 300 species.

Origins and distribution
The exact origin of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is unknown, although it has been cultivated in China, Japan and the Pacific islands for a long time. Two white-flowered species, Hibiscus arnottianus and Hibiscus waimeae, are believed to be native to Hawaii.2

Hybrid hibiscus flowers are today available in many different colours, such as pink, yellow, orange, purple, lavender and even in multi-colours.3 

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is the national flower of Malaysia.4 The announcement of the decision on the national flower was made by then Prime Minister Tengku Abdul Rahman on 28 July 1960.5 The Hibiscus rosa-sinesis, also known as Bunga Raya, was chosen because it was a popular flower that could be found throughout Malaya and was also known by the same name in the whole country.6 The national flower was the basis for the intricate design adorning the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s baju maskat (the Malaysian King’s royal costume) worn during the installation ceremony of Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak in 1989.7 In addition, the thrones of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Raja Permaisuri Agong (the Queen) were decorated with carvings of the flower save for the legs and armrests.8 Interestingly, the first diesel train of the Malayan Railway and the first ship of Malaysia’s national shipping line were also named Bunga Raya in 1957 and 1970 respectively.9

The hibiscus is an evergreen shrub, growing to a maximum of 10 m in the wild. Its bark is light-grey, easy to peel and smooth.10

Hibiscus leaves are ovate, simple and 8 to 10.5 cm long. They are spirally arranged around a long stalk.11

The flowers are bisexual, large and showy, grow up to 25 cm wide, stalked and arising singly from the upper leaf axils. The five free petals joined at the base may be white, yellow or red colour. Sepals are joined in a five-lobed cup with an epicalyx of five to seven lobes. The superior ovary has five stigmas with a long style. The plant flowers perennially.12

The ovoid fruit has up to 20 seeds, is beaked and splits into five parts.13

Uses and potential
A juice-drink made of hibiscus flowers was developed and jointly marketed by the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute, Universiti Malaya and the Terengganu government in 1992.14

Based on records from the 19th and early 20th centuries, the hibiscus plant including its roots, leaves and flowers were believed to have medicinal properties and were used in traditional Malay healing in Malaya and in the Dutch Indies. For example, a decoction of the root was offered to provide relief from venereal disease, fever and sore eyes. Also, a decoction of the roots of the red and white flowered plants served as an antidote for poison. The juice of the white flower was given to those suffering from seriawan, an ailment symptomatically similar to thrush, sprue or diphtheria. An infusion of the flowers was used as an expectorant for bronchitis. Its leaves were applied to boils and sores and as poultices to provide relief from headaches and swellings.15 The white-coloured flower buds were ingested to treat hypertension.16

Other uses

The juice of the hibiscus petals and flowers was used as a dye by the Chinese and Indians to darken eyebrows and hair. This use of the hibiscus was passed on to the Arabs and Portuguese. Malays used the flowers in exorcism for epidemics and diseases.17  In Malaya and Indonesia, the flower petals were used to produce a black dye for shoe polishing,18 hence hibiscus is also known as shoe flower.19 Hibiscus flowers are worn by women in the Pacific islands to reflect their single status.20

Variant names
Malay name: Bunga Raya, Kembang Sepatu, Bebaru, Bunga Pepulut (Malaysia), Pucuk (Indonesia).
Gumamela (the Philippines)21

Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

1. Chin Hoong Fong, “Introduction,” in The Hibiscus: Queen of Tropical Flowers (Kuala Lumpur: Tropical Press, 1986), 2–3. (Call no. RCLOS 635.93317 CHI)
2. We Yeow Chin, Tropical Trees and Shrubs: A Selection for Urban Planting (Singapore: Sun Tree Publishing, 2003), 65. (Call no. RSING 582.16095957 WEE)
3. Chin, Queen of Tropical Flowers, 64.
4. Ewe Paik Leong, “Our National Flower,” Straits Times, 15 August 2016.
5. “Bunga Raya Is Picked as the National Flower,” Straits Times, 29 July 1960, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “National Flower: Reason for the Choice,” Straits Times, 13 September 1960, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Symbols of Power and Tradition,” New Paper, 18 September 1989, 10; “Sultan Azlan Installed as King,” New Paper, 18 September 1989, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “These Royal Symbols Hold a Wealth of Meaning,” Straits Times, 11 April 1966, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Bunga Raya, Railway’s Pride,” Straits Times, 1 August 1957, 7; “Malaysia’s Very Own Ship on Maiden Run,” Singapore Herald, 4 December 1970, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Wee, Tropical Trees and Shrubs, 65.
11. Wee, Tropical Trees and Shrubs, 65.
12. Wee, Tropical Trees and Shrubs, 65.
13. Wee, Tropical Trees and Shrubs, 65.
14. “Hibiscus Drink Likely to Hit Market Next Year,” Straits Times, 27 September 1992, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
15. I. H. Burkill, A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula (Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives, 1993), 1188. (Call no. RSING 634.909595 BUR)
16. Muhamad bin Zakaria and Mustafa Ali Mohd, Traditional Malay Medicinal Plants (Kuala Lumpur: Fajar Bakti, 1994), 117. (Call no. RSING 581.634 MUH)
17. Burkill, Dictionary of the Economic Products, 1188–189.
18. Elisabeth Chan, Tropical Plants of Malaysia and Singapore (Hong Kong: Periplus Editions, 1998), 47. (Call no. RSING 581.70913 CHA)
19. William Warren, Tropical Flowers of Malaysia & Singapore (Hong Kong: Periplus Editions, 1996), 36. (Call no. RSING 581.95957 WAR)
20. Wee, Tropical Trees and Shrubs, 65.
21. Plants of the Philippines 2nd ed (Quezon City: Foundation for the Advancement of Science Education, Inc, 1996), 268. (Call no. RSEA q581.9599 PLA)

The information in this article is valid as at December 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.





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