It’s that time of year when the crimson fruits of our native wild Rosa canina, or wild Dog Rose, are starting to soften or ‘blet’ in the colder air. Humans have been scoffing these rose hips since the dawn of civilisation – a 2000 year old English corpse has been discovered with rose hip seeds in the stomach. Obviously, this early person did not seem to heed the warning not to imbibe the hairy, itchy seeds within these gifts of winter flavour. I guess their stomachs were rather tougher back then. Since then they have been used throughout history in syrups, vinegars, oils, jams and love philtres from Persia to Scandinavia. The Romans used rose roots as a cure for rabies (warning – this doesn’t work!)…and it must have tasted revolting. While all the time they could have been eating the tangy, beautiful richness that is the puree of the rose hip…sigh.
Nowadays the rose is still used in many ways both as a food and a medicine across the world. Plus the seeds have a venerable heritage as itching powder for children to tip down each other’s backs as they make their way to school!!
So how can you recognise our humble wild rose?
It’s a deciduous climbing shrub which can be found in sunny locations, such as the sides of paths or roads and in hedgerows. In spring it graces us with pink or white 5 petalled flowers, which have a lovely subtle scent. The toothed, oval leaves divide into 2-3 smaller paired leaflets. There are hooked thorns along the stems. In autumn the rose hips are 1-2 cm long, shaped like torpedos and a shiny scarlet. You will know when they are ready to be feasted on as they turn soft and pastel-red and lose their shine. This is when I like to pick them.
A lot of people pick rose hips before this, and boil them up to make syrup. Apparently you can cheat and blet them in the freezer too, but when I tried this about a month and a half ago (using my neighbouring boat’s freezer) they didn’t release their delicious thick red paste and blatantly weren’t ready, exuding a watery yellow trickle instead. No sense in cheating then….you’ve just got to wait. Coincidentally, the symbolism of the rose hip is that of waiting for true love. in contemporary witchcraft and folklore, rose hips are consumed to mend a broken heart. (Chorus of sighs here)
For those who enjoy a good romantic story, you are in luck. (The rest of you can skip to the practical bit.)
Romantic Rose Myths
The Hindu goddess of wealth and good fortune, Lakshmi, was said to have been created from 108 large and 1008 small rose petals. The Chief of the Gods, Vishnu, bet his throne in a contest with Brahma to realise the world’s most beautiful flower. Vishnu argued that it was the rose, whilst Brahma, who had never seen a rose, declared this to be the lotus. Once Brahma was shown a rose he agreed with Vishnu that this was the supreme flower…and Lakshmi was created as Vishnu’s reward (and his wife!) This seems a not particularly challenging way to get a wife…
In both Western and Eastern traditions there are tales of how red roses were created. Most involve some kind of bloodshed, from the sacrifice of the Greek youth Adonis to that of the nightingale. In Oscar Wilde’s famous story, ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ a nightingale overhears a young student mourning that his beloved will only go to the ball with him if he presents her with a red rose. The noble nightingale sacrifices its own life to give the boy what he wants, impaling its breast to the thorn of the rose and singing its sweetest song as it is dying. The blood of the nightingale transforms the white winter rose overnight, and the boy picks it in the morning. How romantic, we all think. then, the girl refuses the rose, telling the boy she has been given gold and jewels by the Chancellor. The boy throws the rose in a gutter, exclaiming: “What a silly little thing is love.”
History and uses of the rose hip.
Rose hips have been eaten for thousands of years, but in England only in the 1930’s was the wild rose hip finally analysed and found to have a concentration of Vitamin C over 20 times that of an orange (weight for weight). It also contains useful amounts of Vitamins A, B and K. This was fortunate timing, as during the Second World War trade routes were cut off and English people were in dire need of fresh fruit. Enterprising country children could make 3d per pound of rose hips, which were processed into syrup by companies like Delrosa. All children were ensured a ration of rose hip syrup throughout the war years.
It was and is used to make rose hip tea, syrup, jam, wine and vinegar. In Sweden it is used to make soup!
It is said to be a great help to the immune system, diuretic – helping the body evict toxins – and to help fight infection in the digestive tract. Rose hips are used to combat colds, flu, sore throats and runny noses.
In case you didn’t realise, boiling stuff evaporates a lot of the Vitamin C. So that’s why I prefer to use raw rose hip puree. in an era without refrigeration, however, boiling things up with sugar was often the only option. It is possible to make raw rose hip syrup, packing the hips in layers of sugar.
Cultivated rose hips are all edible, such as the sphere shaped apple rose hip, but they are not as tasty. They can be red, purple, orange or black. Just ask the permission of whoever’s garden you are grazing in. It’s only polite…
Hairy seed oil…a tale of contrasts
Rose hip seeds are a nightmare of itchy hairs on the surface. However what is strange is that once pressed into an oil, the inner part of the seeds yields an oil known for hydrating and soothing dry and itchy skin conditions! The opposite effect. Weird or what. According to Holland & Barrett, the seeds contain unsaturated fatty acids, lipophilic antioxidants, and phenolic acids. These may help with oxidative stress. Which is when there is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidant defences in the human body.
There is a smorgasbord of websites and blogs out there stating how to make your own home made, much cheaper rose seed oil. all you have to do, they claim, is bung some crushed dried rose hips in a jar with some almond oil and heat it gently for 8 to 12 hours. Heed the words of Irish medical herbalist and forager Vivienne Campbell, who cautions us:
“Proper rose hip seed oil is pressed with mechanical means, which are beyond the reach of the average bush crafter or homesteader. The itchy hairs are also extracted. It takes kilos and kilos of seeds to create a small amount of medicinal oil. this is why shop bought seed oil is so expensive. It is a completely different thing to the home made rose hip oil infusion.”
That’s us told then. right, on to the recipes.
ROSE HIP SORBET
I’ve been mucking about with rose hips for a few winters now, and I always wanted to create a sorbet – the flavours are so intense, like a bomb going off in your mouth. (A good kind of bomb). All it needs is ice…
The only drawback to making sorbet…I don’t have a freezer. Luckily I have been taking my elderly neighbour’s bins out for him, so he was happy to stick a small, painstakingly gathered pot of raw rose hip puree in his boat freezer for the cause. I harvested this by squeezing red worms of pure rose hip puree straight out of each of the fruits. It took about half an hour and I was chased by wasps. I did this in the lovely sunshine on the roof of my boat, flinging the rest of the hips over the heads of passers by into the hedge. Hopefully some rose bushes will grow there and I’l feel justified in pinching all this bounty. Luckily I only hit one person. Who took it very well.
This was a bit too intense the first time I made it…so best to add more water as below. Luckily you can’t overdose on Vitamin C…it just gets weed out of your body.
You will need:
A pint of soft, bletted rose hips
1/2 cup of sugar
1 cup water
1/2 a lime
Sprigs of mint and rose hips for garnish
- Squeeze out all the rose hip puree in into a small pot
- Boil the water and stir in the sugar til it has dissolved.
- Take off the heat and leave to cool.
- Squeeze half a lime into the rose hip puree. Stir.
- Add the water.
- Stick it in a freezer overnight.
- Take it out and leave until ice cream consistency
- Smash it up with a fork.
- Form into balls and serve on meringues with a sprig of mint on top and rose hips on the plate.
ROSE HIP SHARBAT
Sharbat is popular in Persia and India. In many Eastern myths the hero or heroine downs a cool refreshing sharbat made with mountain ice. There are many different types, made with fruit, water, ice, and spices like cardamon seeds or herbs.
So I made the leftover rose hip puree into a bootleg sharbat with some mint in it. It was good once diluted to about 1/2 rose hip to 1/2 water. all I did was heat a cup full of water and add 1/4 cup of sugar til it dissolved, let it cool then mixed in the rose hip puree til all the lumps were gone. I would have added ice, but I didn’t have any. It was still nice!
So go out there and get picking. Just be sure to leave enough for the birds, and chuck them where more roses will grow…