03/10/2011 08:07 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hibiscus: One Lovely Flower, Thousands of Fascinating Uses

Sure, hibiscus plants provide beautiful splashes of color to our warm-climate gardens each year, and I remember them lining the tennis courts at my grandparents country club in Florida, but those big bright flowers aren't just for tucking behind your ear. People from around the world have been putting hibiscus to good use for thousands of years. The well-balanced, mild, berry-like flavor and aroma make the flowers and buds a perfect ingredient for herb teas, sauces and syrups.

I learned from my co-author of my second cookbook (out in October through Lake Isle Press) that Jamaicans call it sorrel and combine it with other herbs, roots, spices and cane sugar to make a delicious beverage. Mix it with Jamaican rum or wine, and you've got an irie night ahead.

The flower makes a colorful, edible garnish but the tender hibiscus leaves and stalks are also used in salads and to season curry dishes. Like the foodie fave squash blossoms, hibiscus flowers can be stuffed and fried and the buds can be pickled or boiled.

In Egypt and Sudan, they make a popular hibiscus punch known as Karkade and at Mamasita's Restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, hibiscus is the star player in their icy granita dessert. 

Aside from its many culinary uses, hibiscus plants also carry many health benefits. A 2008 USDA study showed that regularly consuming hibiscus tea lowered blood pressure in a group of pre-hypertensive and mildly hypertensive adults.

In the Indian holistic system of medicine known as Ayurveda, white and red hibiscus is believed to have many medicinal properties including soothing a cough and treating liver disorders as well as aiding in digestion and weight loss. 

In Guinea, the leaves are used as a diuretic and a sedative where as the succulent calyx is boiled in water to make a drink that's believed to improve overall health.

My preferred hibiscus dosage is to make a simple tea with dried petals and mix it 1:1 with something bubbly like cava or prosecco. How do you take your hibiscus? Share your favorite recipes/dishes in the comments section.