Our bold and beautiful red Bunga Raya
Let us pause for a moment and look at the name of Malaysia's national flower – Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. The English word “hibiscus” derives from the Greek word “hibiskos.” The flower received its name from the renowned physician Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40 – 90 AD). He was the author of "De Materia Medica", a 5-volume Greek encyclopedia about herbal medicine and related medicinal substances. Dioscorides was also a botanist.
Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in his Taxonomy – "Species Plantarum" (Species of Plants) describes the hibiscus in depth in the book. Linnaeus gave it the name "hibiscus" in 1753. He named the red double flower "Hibiscus rosa-sinensis", the first recorded document we have using that name. "Sinensis" in Latin means "Chinese".
The exact origin of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is unknown, although it has been cultivated in East Asia especially in China, Japan and the Pacific islands for a long time. Wherever it originated from, it was brought back to Europe by explorers in the 1700s and was later imported to Europe from China. It is the parent of the modern hibiscus, whose species still bears its name.
The top flower on the left selected as our national flower is a hybrid, crossed off any of the eight original native species of the hibiscus. Although different varieties of the modern hibiscus are all versions of Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, the truth is that they are all a mix of several species. But Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is actually the correct name of one of the original species plants (the photo on the right). It belongs to the Malvaceae family.
In the Western world, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is also known as the China Rose, Chinese Hibiscus, Sorrel, Rose Mallow, shoe flower and even titled as Queen of Tropical Flowers. It is called "Sembaruthi" in Tamil, "Gumamela" in Tagalog and in Indonesia, it is known as “Kembang Sepatu” which literally means “Shoe Flower” (as you can use the petals of the flower to shine your leather shoes).
In Malaysia, we call it Bunga Raya. In Malay, "bunga" means "flower" and "raya" means “celebration.” Thus, Bunga Raya means “celebratory flower”. Today, Bunga Raya has become a distinct symbol of Malaysia.
How did we crown the vibrant red Hibiscus rosa-sinensis as our national flower? Well, it all started following independence in 1957. The newly-independent Malaya needed a national flower to symbolise her identity as well as to reflect the celebration of unity in a multi-cultural nation.
In 1958, the Ministry of Agriculture sought proposals for a national flower from all state governments. Seven flowers were proposed including Hibiscus (Bunga Raya), Jasmine (Bunga Melur), Lotus (Bunga Teratai), Magnolia (Bunga Cempaka), Medlar (Bunga Tanjung), Rose (Bunga Mawar) and Ylang Ylang (Bunga Kenanga). The east coast states of the country preferred the rose and the west coast was happy with the jasmine.
On 28 July 1960, after much consideration, the then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj declared Hibiscus rosa-sinensis to be the national flower. The announcement was made public during the officiating of a Malayan Agro-Horticultural Association's (MAHA) exhibition at the Selangor Turf Club.
The reasons cited included that Bunga Raya was a well-recognisable flower among the locals. The strong red colour which out-matched the colours of its competitors is the colour of life, joy, splendour and above all, courage. The five prominent petals of the flower are wide and simply beautiful. The five petals represent the five Rukun Negara (National Principles) of Malaysia. I can still vividly remember reciting the pledge in school. Moreover, it blooms throughout the year and is non-seasonal. Suited for our climate, the plant can be grown easily, just from branch cuttings of the tree and it requires little maintenance.
The people of Malaysia have a high regard for Bunga Raya. The symbol of the flower is imprinted on Malaysian currency as well as stamps and commemorative minted coins.
Since then, the hibiscus has inspired the logos for several events, such as the Kuala Lumpur 98 XVI Commonwealth Games and Visit Truly Asia Malaysia 2020. The flower is also part of the Tourism Malaysia, National Mark of Malaysian Brand and Management and Science University logos to name a few. Annually, the prestigious Prime Minister’s Hibiscus Award presents an opportunity for public recognition of business and industry's environmental accomplishment and leadership. It also serves to create environmental awareness for a better Malaysia.
Even Lexis Hibiscus Port Dickson has a hibiscus-inspired architecture design spread across a secluded coastline.
During Merdeka week, along with the Malaysian flag, schools and buildings are also plastered with cloth streamers adorned with the National Flower. From logos to architecture, from Hawaiian shirts and kebaya motifs to nouvelle cuisine, the humble Bunga Raya had been infused into every aspect of Malaysian culture.
Hibiscus is a much sought-after choice for national flowers around the world. Hibiscus syriacus is South Korea’s national flower and the Yellow Hibiscus is Hawaii’s state flower. The hibiscus is also the unofficial national flower of Haiti locally called Rose Cayenne in the Haitian language.
Entopia located in Teluk Bahang started off as a butterfly farm and is today more than triple its original size. In the atrium, one can observe how much butterflies love the sweet nectar of the hibiscus. Bees and nectarivore birds including hummingbirds have also been known to regularly feed on the hibiscus nectar.
In July 2017, I visited GK Organic Farm for a tour and buffet luncheon. The buffet spread was visually arresting as the chef added flowers including the hibiscus into the dishes. The salads were full of flavours and the crunchy green somehow tasted much better. It was such a satisfying treat.
In Jamaica and Mexico, hibiscus tea is a common health beverage to reduce high blood pressure. The reason it makes such a strong, tart tea is because of its abundance of citric acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, and its very own unique hibiscus acid (allo-hydroxycitric acid lactone).
If you have a hibiscus bush in your garden, try making fresh Hibiscus tea. Just use the red petals and add about 10 flowers into a teapot. Pour hot over the petals and stir for about five minutes. The tea will turn dark red almost like burgundy. Discard the petals and add sugar to taste. Then add some lemon juice into the tea and you will be amazed that the colour will instantly turn a bright red. Garnish it with a slice of lemon and enjoy a refreshing cup.
A 2010 study published in the "Journal of Nutrition" found that consuming hibiscus tea lowered blood pressure in people at risk of high blood pressure and those with mildly high blood pressure. Established tea companies like Boh and Lipton have also added hibiscus tea to their list of flavours. Whether fresh or dried, try a cup today. However, to avoid side effects, drinking hibiscus tea in moderation is generally considered safe.
The hibiscus is also utilised for medicinal purposes throughout the four corners of the world. In India, Ayurveda physicians use it for ayurvedic and herbal medicines. All parts of the hibiscus plant are utilised including the leaves, flowers and even the roots to cure hair loss, headaches, colds, swelling, menstrual cramps, venereal disease, induce short-term infertility and stimulate menstruation. In the Philippines, the hibiscus root is used as an aperitif and tonic. Also, the Xhosa of South Africa dresses septic wounds with hibiscus leaves. If you are interested to know more about Hibiscus in the field of medicine, go online and read research studies carried out on it. You might be surprised by your findings.
The hibiscus has both male and female parts on the same flower. The five hairy red spots on the top of the flower from the stigma (female part) of the flower. The stigma is located at the end of the style branch. The male part (stamen) of the flower consists of stem-like filaments and each filament ends with the pollen-producing anther.
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is polyploidic, in which there are more than two complete sets of chromosomes, unlike most other species. Here, the offspring may be quite different from the parent, allowing possibly random expression of all (or any) of the characteristics of the generations that have gone before. Thus there are countless varieties and colours of exotic blooms in the hibiscus family. This beautiful and unique characteristic of the Bunga Raya reflects perfectly the rich multi-cultural fabric of Malaysia that we should cherish and hold dearly to our hearts.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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30 August 2019