Roses are a quintessential sight of hedgerows and waysides. Our spring and autumn seasons would undoubtedly be much the poorer without their scent and colour.
Historically, roses have been important since ancient times, in the preparation and use of foods, medicines, cosmetics, ritual, and perfumery. It is known that the Greeks, Persians, and Romans, employed many kinds of rose as medicines. In 77 AD, the Roman diarist Pliny recorded more than 30 disorders that could be ‘cured’ with different roses.
The common Dog rose (Rosa canina) is a variable deciduous shrub, native to Europe, West Asia and Africa. Its arching, thorny stems produce pinnate leaves, approximately 6-7cm long, comprised of 5-7 oval-shaped leaflets, with serrated margins. Small leaf-like appendages - known as stipules - are present on all rose family plants.
In contrast, the popular introduced urban hedging species, Hedgehog rose (Rosa rugosa), has very dense, prickly stems, and deeply veined pinnate leaves. This plant bears an average of nine narrow, oblong-shaped leaflets. Each of these leaflets will grow to 3-5cm long.
Simple, yet beautiful blooms are borne singularly or in small clusters on the Dog rose, from late spring to mid-summer. Alas, the splashes of pink and white adorn our hedges for a short time only, because the petals can easily be blown off by winds.
Rose flowers display five petals and five green sepals, with numerous stamens. A typical flower will be 5-6cm in diameter. These give rise to the familiar fruits, known as ‘hips’, which duly ripen to their glorious scarlet colour during early to mid autumn. The fruits provide a sporadic but welcome visual interlude during autumnal hedgerow decay, highlighted against the dominant russet, red and yellow shades of senescence.
The flowers of R.rugosa are often a magnificent bright pink, although sometimes a deeper red-purple, or white. They are larger than the Dog rose (8-9cm in diameter), and swiftly give rise to globular, almost tomato-like red hips. They are broader than the Dog rose, but about the same length. Another wild rose species can also be used - Sweet Briar (R.rubiginosa) - notable for its apple-scented foliage.
R.canina loves to grow in woodlands, copses, scrub, and hedges, throughout Britain, up to altitudes of 550 metres. Where offered support, they can climb high into trees. The smaller Hedgehog rose (an introduced species), will be found growing at altitudes of up to 400 metres. All roses can be grown in sun or light shade, and thrive in well-drained, slightly acid soil.
Urban foragers may find that the hedgehog rose is the species they most commonly encounter on their travels around town, as this plant is widely used as an amenity planting. Look in parks, cemeteries, gardens, around tower-blocks and sundry development complexes. R.rugosa fruits are larger, and ready to harvest earlier than the Dog rose.
Petals (occasionally) and ripe hips (with seeds and irritant hairs removed).
Fruits R.canina from late September-October.
R.rugosa from late August-September.
Dog rosehips are usually better after a frost.
Vitamins A.B,D,E and C (approximately 20-60 times as much Vit C as oranges, weight for weight); flavonoids; tannins; sugars; acids; pectin; carotenoids (lycopene).
Actions Anti-oxidant, astringent, anti-viral, diuretic.
Uses Rose petals were included in the British pharmacopoeia as an astringent until the 1930s. They make an excellent, fragrant jam, most notably from the Damask rose, popular in Bulgaria.
The astringency of rose hips can help relieve dysentery and diarrhoea. In addition, the various flavonoids, coupled with the Vitamin C, have potent antioxidant action and help protect the body from numerous internal and external stresses. The high vitamin C content of rose hips will therefore be extremely useful in preventing and fighting infections, colds, flu, and pneumonia, (syrup is the classic way to preserve hips).
Vitamin C and bio-flavonoid molecules are always combined together in nature. This is how our bodies experience Vitamin C when eating fruits. Rose hips are rich in this vital chemical complex, known to strengthen body tissues and help to build and maintain a healthy vascular system, preventing damage to fragile capillaries.
The discovery of rose hip’s high Vitamin C content occurred during World War II. In this period of citrus fruit shortages, the British government organized the harvesting of as many rose hips as possible in England as a substitute source of Vitamin C. This eventually highlighted the importance of rose hips as a superior source of the vitamin, and began its worldwide popularity.
Rose hips also have mild laxative and diuretic properties, and can help treat urinary infections. The iron content in rose hips makes them an excellent supplement for menstruating women. The seed oil extracted from rose hips is of value in reducing scar tissue and stretch marks caused by pregnancy and birthing, due to its tissue regeneration properties.
Resist the temptation to pick the hips off the numerous, showy, cultivated roses in parks and gardens. They reportedly have substantially less Vitamin C in them, and will potentially have been sprayed with pesticides.
For more information about wild plant medicinal chemistry, please visit www.ipsophyto.com/Glossaries.html
You can virtually forage with me on www.facebook.com/Ipsophyto and https://twitter.com/Ipsophyto or watch bite-size foraging videos on www.youtube.com/ipsophyto777 or visit my website www.wildplantguide.co.uk
Christopher Hope BSc Med Hort is the author of a forthcoming book out this year, called Medicinal Plants in Town and Country - A Foragers Guide, plus two 'Wild plant hunter' foraging CDROMS. An experienced and qualified host, he offers a range of unique, fun, and informative foraging experiences, from walks and courses, to narrowboat day-trip foraging cruises.
More from Christopher Hope:
Herbal and garden remedies in: No Dig Organic Home and Garden