Textured rose beads give these necklaces a subtle, sweet scent.
• DIY: Rose Bead Instructions
Thousands of carefully harvested rose petals simmer on stovetops for long hours until they become mushy black goop. At this stage, it’s difficult to recognize their origins or envision their final form, but the scent is a clue. These petals are on their way to becoming fragrant and enticing rose beads.
Rose beads are the basis of a flourishing fund-raising effort by one of the nation’s most active herb groups, the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America (HSA). Its members gently shape the cooked rose-petal mash into beads, set them out to dry, and then string them together to fashion simple but elegant scented jewelry. Rose-bead necklaces have become the group’s signature.
When I joined the Potomac Unit last year, I became part of one of the most dedicated and energetic collection of women and men I’ve ever known. The seventy members take on one project after another—herb study groups, culinary events, craft workshops, educational trips, and fund-raisers—as well as helping to maintain five public gardens, but when I was introduced to the rose-bead project, I decided that I wanted to tell the story of how the Potomac Unit members turn rose petals into gold.
Beads made of rose petals that have been cooked, mashed, and molded by hand trace their origins to India, where the devout used them as a counting device while reciting their prayers. Eastern Christian monks adopted the use of rose beads in the third century, and the beads were given official approval in 1520 by Pope Leo X. The term “rosary” was coined in the fifteenth century; rosarium is the Latin word for “rose garden”. The word “bead” is derived from the Middle English bede, “prayer”. Many old rosaries were made from rose beads; while the scent gradually faded away to a memory, the beads themselves have survived for centuries.
Members of the Potomac Unit started making rose beads in 1967, reasoning that it was a good herbal tradition to revive and that it might become an ongoing project. Little did they know! The rose beads have become the most profitable of all the group’s fund-raising efforts. We now hold rose-bead workshops for members about six times a year, and the necklaces and earrings that we produce are sold at herb festivals, annual plant sales, and meetings. Members estimate that in the past three years alone, the group has sold about 600 rose-bead necklaces.
The money that we raise from this and other projects is turned toward a variety of worthy causes. The main one is the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., which the group has supported since its beginning in the 1970s (see “A National Treasure”, October/November 1993).
The National Herb Garden includes a 50-by-80-foot rose garden filled with antique varieties, and some of the petals that go into the rose beads are gathered by Potomac Unit volunteers during the course of their weekly chores here. The garden’s curator, Janet Walker, is a member of the Potomac Unit, as is Holly Shimizu, the former curator and now chief horticulturist at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington. Most Potomac Unit members grow roses of their own, and for some members such as Holly, roses are a specialty (See Holly Shimizu’s “Apothecary Roses,” which starts on page 54).
Potomac Unit members gather all colors and varieties of rose petals whenever the plants are in bloom. Our largest source of petals is the Bon Air Rose Garden in Arlington, Virginia. This public garden contains more than 2000 rosebushes, and every Monday during the season, Potomac Unit member and Bon Air volunteer Mildred Gordon deadheads the roses. She puts a tarp in the back of her car and fills it with basketfuls of spent rose blossoms. When she gets home, she has an all-day job removing the petals from their stems.
Another member, Jackie Dunlavy, works for a florist. She collects and dries many leftover rose petals, usually red ones. These are some of the prettiest petals that we gather, and if we don’t mix them in with other petals to make mash, we save them for potpourris to sell at our spring herb sale.
A rose-bead workshop may draw as few as eight or as many as fifteen volunteer workers. It’s much like an old-fashioned quilting bee. The members work steadily, enjoying each other’s company and accomplishing much. In just a few hours, large amounts of mash are kneaded, measured, rolled, and placed on wires to dry. The fun that we’re having, the camaraderie, and the shared belief in the value of our purpose keep us turning out beads by the hundreds.
We all have our roles. Some are mash makers or bead rollers, others design or package the jewelry, everyone tries her hand at stringing the beads, and some dabble in all aspects of production.
Ruth Smith has her hand in just about every stage of rose-bead making—from growing pink rugosas and drying the petals to making the mash and shaping the beads. She even rolls them in her truck as she and her husband drive out to their farm. Ruth, Mildred, and Cassie Yates design most of the necklaces produced by the group.
Cassie has written down the instructions that our unit uses and frequently gives lectures about this ancient craft. She and Ruth are the ones who make sure that there’s plenty of mash on hand whenever a workshop is scheduled. Cassie frequently has a pot of petals on her stovetop cooking down all day while she works around the house. At Bernice Pivarnik’s house, the mash bakes in the oven.
At a workshop, we all work carefully. Any bead that dries imperfectly is rejected—placed back in the mash pot and cooked down again—and any string with a bead out of place is disassembled and restrung. We mean business: we’re creating works of art. From mail-order businesses, gem shows, and local bead shops, members buy and collect other beads to string along with the rose beads for a greater variety in design and colors in the finished necklaces.
The rose-bead project has become a way of life for many members of our group. Some women roll the mash or string the beads as they watch television or listen to music in the evenings. Our families put up with freezers and attics full of rose petals, pots bubbling on the stove for days on end, mothers and wives with blackened hands, not to mention the sometimes overwhelming fragrance. We still laugh to think of Mary Jane Miller’s poor husband, who took a big taste out of a steaming pot, thinking it was dinner.
With this project, the Potomac Unit reclaims a lost art. The beads let us combine a passion for flowers with an appreciation of beautiful jewelry. A bonus is that the fragrance of roses is always with us.
Working with the beaders, I soon realized that there is no single correct method of making rose beads. Each woman has her own way of handling the mash, measuring, rolling, and finishing the beads. The instructions that follow were culled from many experienced rose-bead makers, but you may vary them as you like.
Any type or color of rose can be used to make the beads—they all turn black in the end. It takes clean petals to make a clean, smooth mash, so pick out any leaves, thorns, insects, or other debris. “The petals won’t dry well if they’ve been rained on the day before,” Mildred Gordon cautions, but a little dew won’t hurt them.
You can prepare mash from fresh, dried, or frozen petals, or any combination of the three. Potomac Unit members use all three. One member dries petals by spreading them on sheets in the attic, then packs them into paper bags, which she then places in the freezer to kill any insects that may have been clinging to the petals.
Our recipe makes about seventy-five smooth black beads, or about enough for one necklace (more if other kinds of beads are added for accent). The batch is easily doubled or even tripled. The materials that you need are easily obtained; you may have many of them on hand already.
Susan Belsinger is an herb gardener, an author of cookbooks, a chef, a longtime contributor to The Herb Companion, and an enthusiastic bead roller.
For more information about the Potomac Unit or to purchase one of its rose-bead necklaces, contact the Herb Society of America-Potomac Unit, PO Box 1055, Springfield, VA 22151. The HSA currently has thirty-six units; to find out about a group near you, contact the national headquarters: Herb Society of America, 9019 Kirtland-Chardon Rd., Kirtland, OH 44094.
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