Saturday, February 13, 2010

True Roses

(Valentine's Day issue...)

If it's true that, "Love is like the wild rose" (so said Emily Bronte), then true love must be relatively rare, fleetingly beautiful, and inherently healthy.

Wild rose bloom with green hip (c) John Ashley

All true, wild roses have single flowers with exactly five pink petals. No more and no less, no white and no reds. There are about 100 wild species worldwide, but they are relatively rare compared to the 20,000 hybrid roses and 200 additional, new hybrids that are developed each year. 

Roses have been cross-bred since Roman times. Two hundred years ago in France, Josephine (who went by the name, 'Rose,' before marrying Napoleon) was enamored with roses and was responsible for the creation of many hybrids. Is it coincidence that Josephine and Napoleon eventually divorced?

In the the good old new world, a few wild rose species grow in every state except Hawaii. There are at least six members of the Rosa genus here in Montana, and the Wood's Rose (Rosa woodsii) is our most common species. This true rose was named in honor of the Quaker Englishman, Joseph Woods, who in the early 1800's gave up architecture to pursue his one true passion -- botany.

While the wild rose plant has a relatively long lifespan, the rose blossoms are but fleetingly beautiful. The Wood's Rose begins to produce flowers after 2-5 years, and the plant may be 20 years old before reaching its full height of three feet. And yet, wild roses only bloom for about two weeks each summer, and each modest, ephemeral flower fades after just a few days. 

Wood's Rose hip with late summer leaves (c) John Ashley
After the pink petals have faded and fallen, however, the wild rose sets a fruit -- called a hip -- that often persists through the winter. Roses are related to apples and, in winter, the rose hips sort of look like little apples in the snow-covered woods. Like summer love, the short-lived pink petals provide a sudden flourish of beauty and intoxicating aroma, but it's the apple-like rose hips of winter that are in it for the long haul. Rose hips have a long, healthy history as both food and medicine.

Rose hips are full of fertile seeds, and most hips also have a fleshy pulp that is one of the highest sources of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in plants. In fact, pound for pound, rose hips have 20 times more Vitamin C than oranges. (And most of the orange's Vitamin C is in the bitter white under peel, which most people don't eat anyway.)

Some Native American tribes ate rose hips regularly, while other tribes avoided "Coyote's Berry," except as an emergency food during winter famine. Blackfeet, Kootenai and and Gros Ventre Indians boiled the roots and inner bark to make a tea for treating stomach ailments, and Flatheads made a wash for eyes sore from snow exposure. Crow Indians also made a tea from the roots that was gargled to treat sore throats and tonsillitis.

U.S. Government Poster from World War II
Wild rose hips also played a healthy role during World War II. German U-boats were effective at sinking cargo ships, and citrus fruits became hard to come by. So Europeans collected wild rose hips in great quantities to make a sweet Vitamin C syrup, especially in Scandinavia and the British Isles. The English collected more than five tons of rose hips in 1943 alone. The U.S. government also recommended roses in wartime "Victory Gardens" as a source of home-grown Vitamin C.

The best time to harvest rose hips is in the fall, right after the first light frost, but before a hard freeze. While a light frost turns some of the starches to sugars, freezing can make the hips taste bitter. Trim off the ends and cut them in half length-wise, and then remove the seeds and hairs as best you can (it can be difficult, depending on size and age). You can also just dry them seeds and all, and strain the seeds and skin out after cooking. Just be sure to use glass or stainless steel to cook with -- aluminum will discolor the hips and destroy the Vitamin C.

A spoon full of dried rose hips from a health food store (c) John AshleyIf you long for time, you can also take a shortcut and purchase dried rose hips at any health food store. This is probably the simplest way to fall in love with good old-fashion, rose hip tea. Dried rose hips just need to be simmered a little longer than usual, about 10-15 minutes, before the tea is ready to strain. Rose hip tea is slightly tangy -- try adding a little sweetener or half a teaspoon of dried mint to create a yet another flavor.

Summertime rose hips
If you make a good sized batch of rose hip tea, don't throw away the simmered leftovers. With a little butter and salt, the cooked hips make a good dinner vegetable, and they can also be added to soups and stews.
One step up in domestic skills, but still fairly easy, is to make your own rose hip syrup, jam and jelly. These handmade treats are still found occasionally in county homes, and recipes flourish on the internet. (Links to several recipes are given below.) In other cultures, rose hips are used for "Palinka" (a traditional Hungarian alcoholic beverage), "Nyponsoppa" (a sweet rose hip soup popular in Sweden), and "Rhodomel" (a type of mead).

If you spy a rose hip recipe that catches your fancy, give in to desire! You might just find yourself falling in love with something so rare, beautiful and healthy.