At our most enjoyable field trip, I heard our most kind host say that his roses were no good to talk about, as they were not edible so I thought I should mention that indeed they were.
Two parts of the rose are edible: the hips and the petals. The hip (fruiting body or berry) is in Northern Europe a well known gift of autumn, picked from briar roses. During the war years, school classes were let loose over the ‘commons’ and forest lands on school outings, though no doubt many hips were picked too green, for you need a lot of them to make cooking worthwhile. They were greatly valued for their vitamin C content, though how much of the vitamin survived the cooking process is questionable. Anyway, the jam tasted nice.
I remember having the time consuming task under my grandmother’s supervision of cutting the fresh hips open and scooping out the seeds and the hairy fluff surrounding them, leaving the exocarp and fleshy layer 2-3mm thick. Later I acquired a wonderful attachment for my hand mincing machine which squeezed the pulp of the boiled fruit through a cone of sieve holes and pushed out the pips and hair at the front end. This does not yield quite as much pulp, but it makes the job a lot easier.
The lovely hybrid tea roses of our Australian gardens are not normally suitable for producing hips. They stay green, the edible layer is too thin, and the hips are produced over most of the year, so there are never enough at any one time to make harvesting worth-while. Besides, most roses are pruned or have their fruit removed to conserve their strength for producing more flowers. Old-fashioned shrubs flowering once a year are more suitable, as buds open all at once.
Some roses, mainly Rosa Rugosa, a deciduous shrub species, have been grown in the Netherlands and northern Germany along roadsides expressly for their hips. They have single white to dark red flowers in early summer, mostly large, with a delicious perfume and a particularly high vitamin C content in their large hips. In times when citrus fruit was scarce or unavailable , they were highly prized. Rose-hip syrup is still sold in health shops to give to infants, but is rather expensive.
Now to the glorious edible petals. Most rose varieties are selected for long flowering seasons and for keeping well in vases, but what is worth saving is the fragrance. Without a really good old-fashioned damask fragrance, rose petals are of no use, for when boiled they are rather tough to chew. To make a good jam with them, you need to use enough apples to give it body.
Cordial I have used petals to make rose syrup as a cordial, using this recipe: fill a very large bowl with petals of fragrant, preferably red roses, and pour hot water over them, just covering them. Cover the bowl with a cloth, let it stand for a day to extract the fragrance and colour, and then pour the liquid into a big pot, squeezing out the petals and discarding them. Add an equal weight of sugar and, if you like, a little citric acid powder to taste. Boil up the mixture and pour into bottles with airtight screw tops to overflowing, screwing the tops down tightly. If you don’t care for the slightly bitter flavour, twist the petals all together off the stem end of the flower and cut off the white section at the base of the petals with scissors before soaking them. I have also found that rose petals with a little citric acid and plenty of sugar and gelatine make a nice dessert jelly. It’s best to add the rose petals freshly chopped, after the gelatine has cooked slightly.
Roses prefer a cold winter, preferably heavy soils, and/or constant attention. “Papa Meilland” seems to do quite well in Brisbane clay soils. In sandy soil where I live, nearly all rose cultivars deteriorate after one or two years. Only the particularly strong-growing “American Home” (bred by Boerner in the USA in the late 50s and 60s) survives long without spraying. Unfortunately it does not seem to be on the market anymore. Half a dozen plants of this cultivar would supply all the petals needed for a few bottles of syrup or wine in several flushes of perfect flowers a year.
Editor’s note: Helga supplied numerous recipes for using roses and a list of types of roses most suited to using in cooking – here is one recipe, for rose petal jam.
Rose Petal Jam 500g strongly scented rose petals, (red or pink are best), 2 cups pure apple juice, 1.5kilo sugar, juice of 1 lemon. Cut off white heels off rose petals because these become bitter in cooking. Combine rose petals and apple juice, bring to boil, strain liquid and reserve petals. Return liquid to pan, add sugar, stir until dissolved, add lemon juice, and rose petals, continue cooking over heat until mixture gels. Pour into sterilised jars, seal with paraffin wax.