Rose's quintessential role in human culture may be intuited from its botanical name Rosa, which simply means "rose." While other botanical names describe a plant's characteristics or location of discovery, it seems roses need no such distinction.
For over 3,000 years, roses have been cultivated for food, medicine and beauty. Greece, China, Persia and Egypt were home to the earliest rose gardeners. Romans imported shiploads of Egyptian roses to adorn their lavish feasts, and used them for food and (most importantly) as a remedy for wine hangovers. The phrase sub rosa comes from the expectation that gossip shared under a banquet's rose swag would be kept secret. In other words, "What happens under the roses, stays under the roses."
Because of rose's saucy reputation, early Christians shunned the flower along with Roman indulgence. Later, Middle Age monastery gardens used roses for their excellent nutrition and medicine. Prayer beads were made of rosewood or a paste of rose petals-- hence the name rosary.
Though colonists encountered native roses when they arrived in North America, they brought numerous species with them. William Penn added eighteen English roses to his garden. In his Book of Physic for Quaker settlers, he mentions roses many times for food and medicinal use. Author Claire Shaver Haughton imagines his recipe entitled "To Comfort Ye Brains" was a remedy to soothe homesickness.
Roses as Food
Roses are a delicious food. All roses are edible, and the petals and hips (berry-like fruit) are the most popular parts for consumption. Rosehips are extremely high in vitamin C. When England's food and drug imports were cut off during World War II, England organized "Operation Rose" to distribute tons of England's dog rose hips annually. The government produced rosehips syrup and capsules to prevent malnutrition, and it was used as medicine in England's hospitals.
This November in western NY, I have enjoyed eating our invasive multiflora rose hips (Rosa multiflora). After a frost or two, they taste like sweet strawberries; just spit out the seeds. Some rosehips are tougher and more mealy-- best for simmered teas and syrups. This herbal syrup recipe can be tweaked to include just 2-3 oz rosehips, 1 cup of honey and water.
In the summer, rose petals are a delicate addition to salads or cooked dishes. Their flavor varies greatly depending on the species; though i prefer the aromatic varieties, use what you have available. Fresh or dried petals make a lovely tea.
Roses as Medicine
In the 1600s, English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote that rose preparations are excellent for "humoring human aches and ouchings." Like North America's native people, today's herbalists turn to the rose family for astringency. Astringents reduce inflammation and improve the integrity of mucous membranes by tightening and toning tissue. Their tannins bind proteins together, reducing leakiness or looseness. Rose petal tea or tincture is a gentle gargle for bleeding gums, mouth sores, and sore throat. It can also help to heal gastrointestinal inflammation, and soothes sunburn and skin inflammation when applied topically.
For the cardiovascular system, rose's antioxidants and tannins can improve the health of vasculature, reduce heart palpitations, and help to lower high blood pressure. Ffibrous pectins in the fruit support healthy cholesterol levels and gut flora.
As one might guess from its Valentine's Day popularity, roses have traditionally been used to support the emotional heart. According to herbalist Kiva Rose, “Perhaps the most remarkable aspects of this flower are found in its ability to affect the heart and spirit. Long praised for its anti-depressant qualities and ability to open the heart, it has been used across the world to raise the spirits and heal broken hearts." The scent alone is enough to calm and uplift.
Cultivation & Wild-Harvest
Though North America is home to twenty-six native rose species, most of the thousands of rose cultivars are non-native. These roses can be tricky to grow, prone to disease and pests. However, our native roses are much more resilient in their native ecosystem, and there is renewed interest in growing these species. If you plan to consume roses, be sure to use plants that have not been sprayed with pesticides. Invasive multiflora rose is an excellent choice in WNY, since harvesting the flowers and hips can prevent this plant’s spread.
Identifying wild roses: Wild roses have five white or pink petals, while garden cultivars may have many more petals. All rose flowers have a single thick pistol (female part) in the middle, surrounded by many stamens (male part). Rose leaves are serrated and alternate up the stem. Look for thorns and viney canes.
De la Foret, Rosalee. Alchemy of Herbs. 2017.
Krohn, Elise. http://wildfoodsandmedicines.com/rosehips
Rose, Kiva. "Rambling the River: My Love Affair with the Wild Rose". 2008.
Shaver Haughton, Claire. Green Immigrants. 1978.
Herbal Writing & Recipes
For educational purposes only. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.