There is nothing quite as beautiful as the rose. Throughout its long history it has not only been admired, sniffed, and coveted, but it has also been used as food, as drink, and as medicine. Isn't it interesting how endearing and enduring the rose really is?
"Won't you come into the garden," said Richard Sheridan, "I would like my roses to see you." (1751-1816)
I spent my childhood drifting from one flower to another. My older relatives, the ones who had the greatest influence on my life, believed all plants were used for food or medicine and only rarely were they appreciated for their beauty. I was caught between my mother's love for their beauty and my Granny Ninna and great Aunt Bett's appreciation for the food and medicine they provided. I spent my childhood in a quandary!
I loved to decorate, to create things, to color my world, so I picked flowers for their beauty, and I used their petals and leaves for dyes. I wove flowers into my hair, and dressed in clothes that were painted with dyes. And of course we must never forget the streaks of color that ran through my hair. The rose was different. In my world, we used the rose only for its beauty in a bouquet, as a corsage, or blooming merrily in my mother's front yard. No one ever thought to use it for anything else.
It is a good thing that Aunt Bett didn't know about the ancient uses of roses for food and medicine. In those ancient days rose petals, which have tannin, were used as an astringent to control bleeding. They were also made into an infusion to treat stomach disorders. Rose oil and rose water were used in China for stomach problems. It seems that the Rosa Gallica was the most superior rose for medicinal uses. In liquid form it was used as a tonic, in powder form it strengthened the stomach and aided digestion. A conserve was considered excellent for treatment of colds.
I remember the first time I ever noticed rose hips. I thought they looked like tiny orange apples and wondered how they tasted. I don't remember if I tried them or not, I probably did, but I do know now that rose hips are indeed edible. They are very high in vitamin C and you will often see them listed as the main source of vitamin C in many commercially available vitamins.
Rose water was used to prepare food and to season dishes. It is mentioned in 14th century French cookbooks, and by the Regency period it was used for perfume, but also to treat infected eyes and eyelids. In Persia they drank rose water, and the Greeks created a drink from the Corinth grape mixed with rose water and spices. The French used enormous quantities of roses in sugar plums, creams, ices, oils, essences and fragrant powders. The petals of the rose when freshly picked can be bruised in a marble mortar until they reach the consistency of a paste, and the paste can be used in confectioneries. In England and France necklaces and bracelets were made by making small pea-sized balls of the paste and letting them dry. Just before they were entirely dry, a needle and silk thread were run through them. Finally after some time they become hard like wood and brown in color, and emitted a beautiful fragrance. The rose scent within the beads will last for many, many years. Some people today make rosary beads from rose petals.
If we travel even further back in time, we find that Pliny the Elder recorded thirty two different medicinal uses of roses in the first century. Roses were grown in Medieval gardens more for medicines and food than for beauty. Rosa rugosa were used for the prevention of scurvy. It also seems that red roses were the choice for medicines of the ancient healers. Among other treatments, rose oil was said to reduce cholesterol, tea made from dried rose petals was used to cure headaches. The petals combined with wine were used warm as eardrops. Women believed that if rubbed on the skin, the petals would eliminate wrinkles and preserve youth. In the 19th century, it was proved that roses contain essential oils, potassium and iron. Wow! That is more information than you really wanted to know, but isn't it interesting?
There are still those who believe the rose balances the heart and governs emotions. Maybe that is why roses have been the ideal gift to express love and forgiveness for thousands of years. My heart lifts when I see the first rose bud in springtime, and I continue to watch it through its every phase of blooming. I count the buds, waiting for the next one to open, knowing that each one will bring another smile. I remember the very first rose bush of my own. I don't remember the details, but I probably had been in trouble for one thing or another, like staying up on the mountain until after dark, or dyeing polka dots on my brother's best Sunday shirt. Or it could have been when I discovered bleach, and played tic tac toe on the knees of my little brother's jeans, with him still inside them. After a week or so of being denied the fun of roaming the mountains (the very worst possible punishment) my parents planted a rose bush just outside my bedroom window. It was the Sterling Silver rose.
Whenever I see a rose in the silvery lavender color that resembles Sterling Silver, I remember the rose blooming outside my bedroom window. Just like the Rose Window in churches, it is a sign of love and forgiveness.
Here is a recipe from the 16th century used to make rose hip tart:
Rose Hip Puree
1 1/2 cup prepared rose hips
3/4 cup water
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspon ginger
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
Simmer the prepared rose hips in water until soft, about 10-15 minutes. Stir in sugar, spices and lemon juice and simmer for 5 minutes. Use puree for tarts, ice cream toppings or to eat as a sauce.
Gloria Cole has written an excellent article on Native and Naturalized Roses of North America. It is filled with recipes and other valuable information. Please view Gloria's article here.
All photographs of roses in this article were taken by Zuzu, and are of roses in her gardens in California. For more photos visit her on DG's Rose Forum. This series of rose articles is dedicated to Zuzu, with thanks for sharing her love of roses with me.
Happy Birthday, Zuzu!
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.