Hibiscus: 11 Facts About Malaysia's National Flower

Red hibiscus flower | © Jason Kautz / Shutterstock
Red hibiscus flower | © Jason Kautz / Shutterstock
Photo of Michelle Leong
24 March 2018

The “Queen of Tropical Flowers” boasts many subspecies, but none is more splendid than the hibiscus rosa-sinensis, Malaysia’s national flower.

It has many names

The hibiscus rosa-sinensis is known variously as “rose mallow,” “shoe flower,” “Queen of Tropical Flowers,” and — in Malaysia — bunga raya.

In Malay, bunga means “flower,” and raya refers to a “celebration.” Bunga raya literally means “celebratory flower.”

It became Malaysia’s national flower in 1960

Running competitors included the jasmine, magnolia, medlar, ylang ylang, lotus, and rose, but the solid red flower with a yellow stamen won out.

Baby hibiscus flower | © MajestiX B/Shutterstock

The red petals symbolize courage, and the five petals represent the Rukun Negara (National Principles). Yes, you remember reciting that pledge in school.

It can be used to polish shoes

If you run out of shoe polish, have no fear, the bunga raya is here! Just rub the flower petals against your squeaky leather shoes, and walk out the door looking like you just bought them.

It likes warm temperatures

Red Hibiscus flowers | © svf74 / Shutterstock

This pretty flower doesn’t tolerate temperatures below 10 °C (50 °F). It’s Malaysian, basically.

It is made of 15–30% plant acids

The reason it makes such a strong, tart tea is because of its abundance of citric acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, and its own unique hibiscus acid (allo-hydroxycitric acid lactone). Don’t worry, these are the kinds of acids that won’t hurt.

Bees and butterflies really like it

If you visit the Entopia Butterfly Farm in Penang, you’ll see butterflies flocking to hibiscuses like bees to honey. Actually, even the bees enjoy a hibiscus meal or two.

Butterflies feeding on hibiscus flowers | © Hussain Ajina

Other nectarivore birds, including hummingbirds, have also been known to regularly feed on hibiscus nectar.

It is used in traditional medicine

This flower has been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic traditional medicine. Its roots are used to make herbal mixtures to remedy hair loss, excessive coughing, and head lice.

Recent studies have found that hibiscus may help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and can be used as a weight loss aid because of its effect on the human metabolism.

Its leaves are toothed

Leaf Chinese hibiscus Flower | © nitinut380/Shutterstock

The green, ovate, petiolate leaves of a hibiscus plant are jagged-edged, and they’re arranged alternately on the stems.

It makes great tea

Hibiscus tea is very popular, and not just in Malaysia. Ever had hibiscus tea at Starbucks? You can have it hot, iced, carbonated, or bottled. It’s a thing.

It can grow into a small tree

It can grow up to 16 feet (5 meters) tall, and as wide as 10 feet (3 meters). Depending on its environment, this will look like an evergreen bush or a small tree.

Hibiscus flower on Crete island | © lapsa03/Shutterstock

It could signal marital availability

If you’re single and ready to mingle in Tahiti or Hawaii, you can do what the locals do and tuck this flower behind your right ear. Men may or may not come flocking.

If you’re married, or simply not looking to couple up, you can use the hibiscus as a fashion piece, too — just be sure to wear it behind your left ear.

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