The Versatile Shoe Flower

Within urban myths (defined by the Collins Dictionary as ‘a story, esp one with a shocking or amusing ending, related as having actually happened, usually to someone vaguely connected with the teller’), there should be a special category for ‘school myths and beliefs’  which could be defined as ‘stories and other things believed by a generation or generations of school children’.

One such myth subscribed to fervently by our generation was that if pencil shavings were soaked in milk, left in the moonlight, and some incantations recited over them, they would turn into erasers. Hundreds of children tried this, but since the incantations were not known to anyone in our circles, we attributed our failures to the lack of this knowledge.

The other widely held belief was that we could polish our leather shoes to wonderous lustre with the shoe flower or hibiscus. This was a very convenient belief to hold, as we thus avoided putting in 10 minutes hard work a day with brush and polish, and getting all messy. On the way to school, we would grab some red hibiscus flowers which were ubiquitous, and just before assembly, surreptitiously give our shoes a wipe-around. When the shoes were still kind of wet with the juice from the flowers, they looked ok, but I was never sure if they actually did anything.


But unlike other urban myths, maybe this one has some basis in fact. The hibiscus is called shoe flower because in Malaysia and Indonesia, the flower petals were used to produce a black dye for shoe polishing.

Hibiscus belongs to the genus Malvaceae of the mallow family. There are many hundred species, and the genus is native to warm temperate, subtropical and tropical  regions throughout the world. 

In fact, the hibiscus is an extremely versatile flower. It is used extensively in pujas, and having a bush in the garden assures the devout that they will have flowers throughout the year.

And then of course, its use as a hair tonic. Remember the jabakusum hair oil? The jabakusum or javakusum in fact is a name for hibiscus. It was C.K. Sen, a vaidya from a family of Ayurvedic practitioners, who took this oil commercial. He formed a company C.K.Sen & Co Ltd in 1878, with Jabakusum Taila as the first product. It became an instant hit. Its inherent qualities were assisted by smart marketing—it was positioned as ‘The Royal Toilette’ and ‘By the appointment to the Princess of India’ (no one seems to have asked who that would be!). It was the first hair oil brand in Asia to have a commercial film ad.

Even today, some people dry the flowers and steep them in coconut oil and use it for their hair. The leaves and flowers are also used as the base of hair packs and shampoos.

The humble hibiscus has several medicinal uses as well—it is a laxative as well as a diuretic. It is used to treat colds, fluid retention, stomach irritation and a number of other ailments.  There are claims that it may help to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol.  Hibiscus tea, made by steeping the flowers in hot water for five minutes is a popular drink and home remedy.

In the Philippines, children use the flower to make bubbles. The flowers and leaves are crushed until the sticky juices come out. Hollow sticks or straws are dipped into this and bubbles are blown. 

The hibiscus flower is worn by girls in Tahiti and Hawaii. Traditionally, if the flower is worn behind the left ear, the woman is in a committed relationship. If the flower is worn on the right, she is single.

The hibiscus is a national symbol of Haiti, and the national flower of many countries including the Solomon Islands and Niue, South Korea, Malaysia and Hawaii.

With all this, we seem to tend to take the hibiscus for granted just because it is so common and easy to grow. I never knew of a hibiscus which did not take wherever it was planted. Even a ten-thumbs like me can plant and see a hibiscus bush flower.

Hibiscus come in various colours, with red, pink, white, yellow, orange, multicoloured ones being most common. There are even purple hibiscus. In many cases, the colour of the flowers of a hibiscus bush will change with changes in temperature, hours of daylight etc. For instance, the hotter it gets, the brighter the orange and yellow flowers bloom.

There is something special in the bush outside your house. Marvel at it!


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