The hibiscus is a decorative, flowering plant that is most commonly found in warmer climates, especially tropical and subtropical regions around the globe. It is a popular landscaping shrub among gardeners and the plant is used in many cultures for such diverse purposes as herbal teas, hair products, and even paper making, but it is the ostentatious flower of the hibiscus that has made it synonymous with “delicate beauty” and a popular gift throughout the world. If you take a look at pictures of hibiscus flowers, you will notice their flowers are large and shaped like a trumpet. They include five or more petals and grow in a spectrum of colors that include yellow, purple, orange, red, pink, and white. Interestingly, just like a fine wine, hibiscus flowers improve with age, as their colors darken and become increasingly vivid.
Because hibiscus flowers grow in tropical regions, many people associate an exotic meaning with the flower. If you’ve ever seen a painting by the French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gaugin, then you likely are familiar with the Tahitian custom for native women to wear a single red hibiscus flower behind their ears. (According to Tahitian custom, the ear where a woman wears her hibiscus indicates if she is single and available for marriage or off the market.) Hibiscus flowers are also quite common throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Unsurprisingly, the hibiscus is Hawaii’s state flower. In Hawaiian culture, the hibiscus is a symbol of old royalty and communicates both power and respect. It is a common gift given to visitors, from state officials to vacationing tourists.
But, as mentioned above, the most common meaning attached to the hibiscus is “delicate beauty.” This meaning originated in England during the Victorian era when flower varieties were fewer and tropical flowers such as the hibiscus were especially rare. Because the hibiscus requires the precise weather conditions to bloom into a beautiful flower, it came to mean “delicate beauty.” Japanese culture has assigned a similar meaning to the hibiscus plant: There, it simply means “gentle.”