Unlock the medicine of our hedgerows by foraging for rose hips
Rosa canina / Rosa rugosa. Dog rose / hedgehog rose Rosaceae family
Not that long ago, tens of thousands of people were foraging for rose hips, and getting paid for it. The recent resurgence of interest in wild plants and foraging has recent ancestral memories
During the second world war, the State sponsored foraging for rose hips. This was because with blockades in place, the British population were restricted access to Vitamin C in their diets.
The war period and the immediate period afterwards saw many tonnes of the high Vitamin C fruit collected by tens of thousands of people. The rose hips were taken to pharmacies and weighed in for cash reward.
What’s in a name?
Roses belong in a genus comprising approximately 150 species of mostly deciduous and semi-evergreen shrubs and climbers.
They are distributed throughout the temperate regions of the world, and their cultivation goes back thousands of years.
The generic name Rosa is apparently derived either from the Greek word roden – meaning red, or the Latin word ruber – also meaning ruby or red.
Roses are plants that over the course of history became synonymous with the Mediterranean region. The roses that grew in this area were reportedly a deep crimson colour, which gave birth to the legend that the flowers sprung from the blood of Adonis.
The roses have been important to us ever since ancient times. Historical records show roses were included in the preparation and use of cosmetics, medicine, ritual, and perfumery.
It is known that the Greeks, Persians, and Romans went foraging for rose hips, and employed many kinds of rose as medicines. In 77 AD the Roman diarist Pliny recorded more than 30 disorders that responded positively to rose preparations.
Different species of Roses were also widely grown in medieval apothecary gardens. Rosa laevigata was mentioned in medical literature as being used by the Chinese around 470 AD.
Our commonly planted urban hedging species, Rosa rugosa, has historically been used to a lesser extent, and is reportedly a fairly recent addition to the the Chinese materia medica.
It was first documented during the period of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The plant then reached Europe around the 19th century from its original homeland of China and Japan.
Wild, scrambling roses such as our dog rose (Rosa canina), are one of the quintessential hedgerow staples of British countryside.
How to identify roses.
This comprehensive glossary of terms will help you with learning the technical language of plants.
The dog-rose is a variable, deciduous shrub native to Europe, West Asia and Africa. Even though the different roses can be difficult to tell one from another, as a genus they are quite easy to identify.
These gloriously rampant roses are recognisable by their arching, green, thorny stems that can climb high into trees, as well as for their beautifully simple flowers.
The stems bear pinnate leaves which are divided into 5-7 oval-shaped leaflets approximately 6-7 cm long.
In contrast, Rosa rugosa (an introduced species, and now a schedule 9 invasive plant), is a vigorous shrub; having very dense, prickly stems and deeply veined leaves.
Once again, the leaves are pinnate; although in this instance bearing an average of 9 narrow, oblong leaflets growing to 3-5 cm long.
An occasional sight on roses are the pretty-looking galls produced by a tiny wasp Diplolepis rosae. These are sometimes called robins pin cushions.
The dog rose has one of the loveliest scents of all out plants. The Beautiful pink to pink-white blooms are borne singularly or in clusters of 2-4 from late spring to mid-summer.
The flowers are around 5-6 cm in diameter. Alas, the splashes of pink and white adorn our hedges for a short time only, because the petals are easily blown off by winds.
Rosa rugosa flowers are often a magnificent bright pink, being larger than the dog rose at 8-9 cm in diameter. You will still find the odd flower well in to the summer.
The flowers give rise to the familiar fruits known as ‘hips’, which duly ripen to their glorious rich scarlet colour during late summer / early autumn.
You find them nestling in and around our other major red-fruiting hedgerow plant, hawthorn. This provides a sporadic and welcome visual interlude in the hedgerow from the dominant brown and yellow leaves of autumnal decay.
The hedgehog rose produces its globular, almost tomato-like red hips in the mid to late summer. They are much fatter than the dog rose, with large persisting bracts.
The flesh of these is easier to nibble at when out walking, with noreal fear of eating the irritant hairs. They are almost the same length as dog rose hips. As far as any poisonous lookalikes, there are no plants you can mistake for roses, no matter what time of year.
The dog rose hips are oval-shaped and approximately 2cm long. Often the remains of the brats linger at the tip of the fruit. Rosehips will need a little twist for them to come away from the stalk.
The dog rose loves to grow in woodlands, copses, and hedges throughout Britain, but not higher than around 550 metres. It is a common plant of town and country.
The hedgehog rose can be found wild growing at altitudes of up to 400 metres. All roses like to grow in sunny or light shade and thrive in well-drained, slightly acid soil.
If you go foraging for roses in towns and cities, then you might find that the hedgehog rose is the species most commonly encountered.
This particular rose is very popular as an amenity planting in parks, cemeteries, gardens, around tower-blocks, and many development complexes.
This rose plant has hips that are bigger and ready earlier than the dog rose. Either can be used, but I would resist the temptation to get the hips off the showy roses in your garden. They are likely to have substantially less vitamin C in them and are not worth bothering about.
Parts used Petals (occasionally) and ripe hips (with seeds and irritant hairs removed).
Harvest: Fruits when ripe. The dog rose-hip in late September-October, the hedgehog rose-hips in late August-September. Dog rose-hips are better after a frost. My harvesting guide offers tips and tricks for best results.
Key constituents: Vitamin C (one cup-full of rose hip pulp reportedly has between 40-60 times as much vitamin C as oranges); vitamins A, B, D, and E; flavonoids; tannins; sugars; acids; pectin; carotenoids (lycopene); volatile oil; essential fatty acids; resin; minerals (including magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sulphur, zinc).
Actions: Astringent, anti-oxidant, anti-viral, diuretic.
Pharmacology and uses: The high vitamin C content of rose hips are useful in preventing and fighting infection, colds, flu, and pneumonia. No reason to think it won’t help our immune system fight off Covid-19.
The astringency of rose-hips helps relieve dysentery and diarrhoea. In addition, the various flavonoids and substantial amounts of Vitamin C in rose hips, have potent antioxidant action help protect the body from numerous internal and external stresses.
As previously mentioned in my article on medicinal plant constituents and actions Vitamin C and bio-flavonoid molecules always appear combined together in nature. This is how our bodies experience vitamin C when eating fruits. Rose-hips are rich in this vital chemical complex.
Together, these molecules help to strengthen body tissues as well as helping to build and maintain a healthy vascular system. They also prevent damage to fragile capillaries.
As life cannot go on without vitamin C, it almost goes without saying that regularly consuming plants such as roses, as a prophylactic, will be of more benefit the older you are.
During the mid 17th century, Culpeper, prescribed rose hips for ‘consumptive persons’, as well as for ‘tickling rheums’, ‘breaking the stone’ (in the kidneys), and to help digestion.
Rose-hips have mild laxative and diuretic properties as well as being of help in the treatment of urinary infections.
The iron in rose hips make them an excellent supplement for menstruating women, whilst an oil extracted from the rose is of value in reducing scar tissue and stretch marks caused by pregnancy and birthing, due to its tissue regeneration properties.
In Ayurvedic medicine, roses have long been considered ‘cooling’ to the body and a tonic for the mind, and Native American Indians are said to use rose-hips to treat muscle cramps.
The discovery of the nutritive power of rose hips was due to World War II. During this period there was a shortage of citrus fruit in England, and the British government organized the harvesting of as many rose hips as possible in England as a substitute vitamin C.
This eventually highlighted the importance of rose-hips as a superior source of the vitamin and began its worldwide popularity.
No matter which species used, be careful with the irritant seed hairs within the fruit. These are the basis for itching powder, found in joke shops. They will need to be strained off if boiling the fruit in the traditional way of making rose hip syrup.
Preserving rosehips can be done in a few ways. Traditionally, sugar and alcohol have been used. Making a rose hip syrup with sugar can be achieved through boiling and straining the fruit, or, more simply, and perhaps with more eventual Vitamin C content, by a cold infusion.
Alternatively, the fruit could be treated like others and made into fruit leather, which can then keep for months.
One of the greatest joys for me about foraging for rose hips is to make rose hip brandy for those chilly winter evenings round the wood burner.
The better the brandy you buy, the better the product will be. Simply steep the hips in brandy with some sugar to sweeten a little. Leave until the new year if you can!
For beginners to the wonderful world of foraging, there are plenty of tips, tricks and foraging hacks in my guide to starting out.