The Hibiscus Flower: Meaning, Symbolism, and Folklore

Hibiscus flowers are prized in cultures worldwide, with references dating all the way back to mythological times. These short-lived but dramatic and exotic beauties traditionally symbolize youth, beauty, success, glory, and femininity. Their stunning range of colors also carries additional meanings in the language of flowers. Join me as I explore the famed hibiscus flower’s rich symbolism and cultural significance.

A bright yellow hibiscus flower in bloom

Etymological Meaning

The term “hibiscus” comes from the Greek word hibiskos or mallow. Some posit that an ancient botanist named Pedanius Dioscorides originated the term. Today, they are sometimes also known as the Rose Mallow or Rose of Sharon.

Hibiscus Flowers in Hawaiian Culture

Hibiscus Flower blooming in Hawaii against a deep blue sky

For residents of the Hawaiian Islands, hibiscus flowers have many special cultural meanings and uses. In fact, Hibiscus brackenridgei, a yellow species endemic to the Islands, is the state flower. Known in native Hawaiian as ma’o hau hele, they used the plant for several purposes.

Hibiscus bark was used to make cords to secure outrigger canoes, create sandal straps, and for sewing clothing. Flowers were used to treat stomach ailments, while hibiscus wood was used to create charcoal for cooking and heating.

Hibiscus blossoms also have ornamental uses in Hawaiian culture. Flowers placed in the hair are a sign of beauty. Depending on which ear they’re tucked behind, they may symbolize the wearer’s availability for a romantic relationship.

Leis featuring hibiscus blooms are also prized, though the blooms are notoriously short-lived.

As for symbolism, the flowers are often used to represent hospitality. Sometimes, they also symbolize power and respect.

Greek Mythology

Hibiscus flowers play a role in Greek mythology. The story of attraction and drama between the god Adonis and the goddess Aphrodite involves symbolism tied to the hibiscus blossom.

In some stories, Adonis turns into a hibiscus flower in order to stop Aphrodite from arguing with the goddess Persephone. In other variations of the tale, Aphrodite turns Adonis into an anemone flower. He’s then reborn as a handsome god.

Ancient Egypt

Several cultures use hibiscus tea to boost mood. But the ancient Egyptians took it a step further. They believed that the flower was an aphrodisiac and used it to arouse licentious moods. As a result, unmarried women weren’t allowed to drink hibiscus tea.

Hinduism

In Hinduism, the red hibiscus blossom belongs to the goddess Kali, and sometimes may represent her tongue. The flowers feature prominently in art that depicts Kali, especially from the Bengal region. Often, Kali is shown merging into a hibiscus blossom.

Another deity, Lord Ganesha, is also associated with hibiscus. Ganesha is believed to prize the flowers for their ability to take consciousness to a divine level. Hindus may present hibiscus flowers when making offerings to Kali and Ganesha.

Chinese Culture

In China, the hibiscus flower is often associated with personal power, fame, and glory. The blossoms may also be associated with wealth.

Both men and women can give and receive hibiscus flowers. A gift of a hibiscus may indicate that the gifter admires the giftee or that they wish them glory and success.

Hibiscus Flowers in Malaysia

The hibiscus is Malaysia’s national flower, where it’s known as Bunga Raya or “big flower”. Here, it’s a symbol of the country’s national philosophy, known as Rukun Negara.

The flower’s five red petals represent the inclusion of diverse races and ethnic groups. The hibiscus stands for unity, an important part of Malaysia’s national character.

Hibiscus Flowers in Haiti

Haitians prize the beautiful flower; while it’s not their official national flower, it’s largely been adopted as their national symbol. In Haiti, the hibiscus has many uses. Plant extract is thought to have antiviral qualities and is used to boost immune response and regulate cholesterol.

Hibiscus is consumed as a health drink. It’s also used as an ingredient in many products, from shoe polish to fabric dye.

The Victorian Language of Flowers

Hibiscus emblems in a painting from the Victorian era

In mid- to late 1800s England, the hibiscus symbolized womanhood in the Victorian language of flowers. Specifically, the flowers represented a certain style of delicate feminine beauty. Presenting a woman with a hibiscus flower was an acknowledgment of her delicate, beautiful nature.

Floral Symbols in Tattoos

Today, the hibiscus flower is a popular tattoo choice. For some, it may represent respect for Hawaiian culture. For others, the flower represents love, friendship, power, or success.

Color Symbolism

Hibiscus grows in a range of colors. Many are associated with specific meanings or imbued with symbolism.

White Hibiscus Flowers

Whie Hibiscus Flowers in bloom

White hibiscus flowers are associated with purity. In some cultures, this translates into an association with women, femininity, and innocence. Other cultures associate white blooms with beauty.

Yellow Hibiscus Flowers

Yellow Hibiscus Flower in bloom

Yellow hibiscus blossoms are often associated with fortune and good luck. Happiness and sunshine are other meanings often attributed to yellow hibiscus flowers.

Red Hibiscus Flowers

Red Hibiscus Flower in bloom

As with red roses, red hibiscus flower meaning is often associated with passion. It’s often used to symbolize romance and love.

Purple Hibiscus Flowers

Purple Hibiscus Flower in bloom

The purple hibiscus flower meaning is linked to knowledge and wisdom. Purple blooms may also be associated with mystery.

In some cultures, purple flowers are used to symbolize high class or royalty. They may be used to express the idea of worth or value, especially that of an individual.

Pink Hibiscus Flowers

Pink Hibiscus Flower in bloom

Pink hibiscus blossoms often symbolize friendship and various types of love, such as platonic or familial. Giving someone a pink flower is a way to express that you care about them.

Hibiscus Flowers in Art and Literature

Hibiscus flowers have made notable appearances in art and literature, often symbolizing beauty, exoticism, and sometimes even the delicate nature of love. Here are some of my references:

  1. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Paintings: The American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, known for her large-scale and vivid depictions of flowers, painted hibiscus flowers in a series while she was in Hawaii. Her works, such as “Hibiscus with Plumeria” (1939), showcase the flower’s vibrant colors and sensual forms, emphasizing its exotic beauty and the allure of the natural world.
  2. “The Legend of the Hibiscus Flower” by Preeth Nambiar: This poem delves into the symbolic essence of the hibiscus, exploring themes of love, beauty, and the fleeting nature of life. Nambiar’s work captures the spiritual and emotional depth associated with the hibiscus, particularly in Eastern cultures.
  3. “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd: In this novel, hibiscus flowers, among others, are used symbolically to represent the main character’s mother and the theme of motherhood. The presence of flowers in the story adds layers of meaning related to love, loss, and the search for identity.
  4. Derek Walcott’s Poetry: The Nobel laureate from Saint Lucia often included tropical flowers, including hibiscuses, in his poetry to evoke the lush landscape of the Caribbean. His work reflects on themes of colonialism, identity, and the beauty of the natural world, with the hibiscus serving as a symbol of his island’s vibrant yet complex nature.
  5. “Hibiscus Town” (1986 film): This Chinese film, while not a direct reference to the hibiscus flower in its narrative, uses the name symbolically to represent the setting’s beauty and the resilience of its people during challenging times.

Suitable Gifting Occasions

Hibiscus plants make a wonderful gift for anyone who appreciates bright flowers and a lush, tropical look. Red flowering plants make a perfect flower as a gesture of romantic love or passion, while pink flowers represent non-romantic love.

To wish someone success or cheer, yellow flowering hibiscus is a good choice. A gift of white blooms may be taken as a compliment on someone’s physical beauty.

Wrapping Up

The hibiscus flower, with its vivid colors and delicate petals, holds profound symbolism across various cultures, embodying a wide range of meanings from love and beauty to unity and respect. In Hawaiian tradition, the hibiscus symbolizes hospitality, worn by women to indicate their relationship status. In Hindu rituals, it represents the goddess Kali and is used as an offering to signify respect and devotion. The hibiscus also carries meanings of fleeting beauty and the delicate nature of life in East Asian cultures.

Further reading: Discover the amazing uses and benefits of hibiscus flowers.

Editorial Director | andrew@petalrepublic.com | Full Bio

Andrew is the Editorial Director at Petal Republic. He holds a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and has trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris. In amongst overseeing a global editorial team, Andrew's a passionate content creator around all things flowers, floral design, gardening, and houseplants.

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