2012 Herb of the Year: The Rose (Rosa spp.)

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Photo by Shelli Jensen
Learn to capture the essence of this useful 2012 Herb of the Year.

Rioting roses are usually considered the province of the gardener, not the chef or herbalist. But the gorgeous blooms can do much more than just look pretty. These useful plants have long been a culinary staple in Middle Eastern cuisine, and roses have been recognized for medicinal qualities since ancient Greek and Roman times. In fact, the rose (Rosa spp.) is intertwined with human history. Wreaths of roses have been found in Egyptian tombs, and artwork from the height of Minoan culture on Crete depicts roses.

Rose Recipes:
Easy Two-Step Method for Rose-Infused Vinegar
Rose-Scented Sugar
Simple Rose Water Syrup
Candied or Crystallized Rose Petals
Drop Scones with Rose Petals and Pistachios
Pomegranate Lemonade with Rosewater
Rosy Rice Pudding
Middle-Eastern Dried Fruit Compote with Spices and Flower Waters

Roses for Health

Ancient Greeks and Romans valued the aroma of roses and used the petals in their baths and for strewing herbs on the floors of banquet halls and under the wheels of chariots. The first recorded use of rose water was in the 10th century, prepared by Avicenna, while the essential oil of rose was not noted until sometime in the late 1500s.

Rose Essential Oil

The essential oil of rose has antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic and antiviral characteristics. Besides cosmetic applications, rose is used topically as an analgesic, anti-inflammatory and astringent, and is applied to abrasions, abscesses, boils, burns, dermatitis, eczema and rashes. It has been used as a rinse for conjunctivitis, for ulcers of the mouth and tongue, and as a gargle for sore throats, cough, fever and hay fever. It is also recommended for indigestion, nausea, gas and urinary tract infections. The uplifting fragrance is used in many ways in aromatherapy–as a nervine; for depression, insomnia, stress and emotional turmoil; and even as an aphrodisiac. Cosmetically, the perfume of roses is featured in lotions, perfumes, body- and hair-care products, bath oils and bath salts.

Rose Hips

The fruits of the rose, referred to as the rose hips, have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. They are also astringent and diuretic and are purported to relieve water retention, flush kidneys, and aid in preventing cystitis and urinary tract infections. Known for their vitamin C content, they also have a high level of calcium, iron and phosphorus, which make them a good tonic. Rose hips are used to treat colds, flu, sore throat, allergies, fever, and help boost the immune system and prevent infections. Rose hip oil is used for dry skin, wrinkles and scars. 

There is some controversy as to which roses have the best medicinal virtues. I have worked with Rosa damascene, R. gallica and R. rugosa with good results. Maude Grieve’s A Modern Herbal advises that any scented roses of a deep red color may be used: “the main point is that the petals suitable for medicinal purposes must yield a deep rose-colored and somewhat astringent and fragrant infusion.”

Cooking with Roses

When using this Herb of the Year for culinary purposes, it is important to smell and taste each type of rose, since some can be bland and mild-tasting while others can be bitter and sour. Usually, if they have a strong scent, they have a similar taste to that fragrance, and generally, the more fragrant, the more flavor.

To prepare roses for kitchen use, rinse and shake the water from them. Turn the bloom over, grasping the open flower in one hand, so the stem is facing up. Use a sharp pair of scissors and snip right above the stem, and the petals will fall freely. Taste each rose–many roses have a bitter white part at the base of each petal, which should be snipped away. This easily can be done when removing petals all at once.

An abundance of fragrant and flavorful roses provides plenty of choice for use in recipes. My favorite tried-and-true, go-to roses for taste and color in the kitchen as well as the apothecary are rugosa (R. rugosa), apothecary (R. gallica officinalis) and damask (R. damascene). It is of utmost importance to use roses with a lovely perfume and color for distilling and culinary use. I once took the time and energy to distill an assortment of colored rose petals that were not highly fragrant and was disappointed by the effort. Although the rose water had a small amount of rose aroma, it smelled more vegetable-like with a definite hint of artichoke–definitely not what I was after! So pay attention with your nose.

If interchanging fresh for dried petals, or vice versa, keep in mind that dried rose petals have concentrated essential oils and give a stronger flavor than fresh. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of fresh rose petals, I would probably use a generous 1/2 cup of dried petals. If 1 cup of dried petals is called for, substitute 2 cups of fresh.

Remember to use flowers at their peak for best flavor–don’t use buds that aren’t all the way open and don’t use faded or wilted flowers, as they tend to taste bitter. Be sure that your blooms are free of insects; rinse and pat them dry if necessary. Never use flowers that have been sprayed with pesticides or fungicides.

Rose petals are used in making rose water and syrup, to flavor honey and various alcoholic beverages, jelly, butter, vinegar, custards, tea cakes, scones, cookies, ice cream and other desserts. They are ideal for crystallizing and are good macerated with wine and fruit. Rose water is popular in the cuisines of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and is used in pastries, cakes and sweets, often paired with nut meats and/or dried fruits. If purchasing rose water, be sure that it is food-grade and not used for perfumery.

Rose-Infused Vinegar

Flower vinegars add variety to salads, sauces, mayonnaise, vegetables, even fruit salads–to any dish in which you might use vinegar. The milder, less-harsh vinegars work best for making flower vinegars. Try to imagine the taste of the flower you are using and match it to the vinegar that will best complement its flavor without overwhelming it.

I do not use distilled white vinegar since it is high in acidity, harsh-tasting and harmful chemicals are sometimes used in the process of manufacturing it. Rice wine vinegar and white wine vinegar are the best choices as they are milder-tasting and slightly sweeter–they allow the flower flavors to come out without overpowering them. They are also very pale in color and will take on the color of the infused flowers. Organic cider vinegar (which is golden brown) has a more distinct flavor and will not make a clear, pretty vinegar, but the flavor is still good and it makes a great facial toner.

Rose Essence Terms

Rose Essential Oil: Since it takes about 4,000 pounds of roses to get 1 pound of attar of rose oil, the pure essential oil is very expensive. However, a little goes a long way. There is an enormous difference in rose essential oils since there are many kinds of roses used in the process; look for an oil that is pure and unadulterated.

Rose Oil: Often, rose essential oil is diluted with a carrier oil and sold as rose oil. It is much less expensive, since some of these oils are only 10 to 20 percent pure essential oil. Read the labels. If you like the scent and the oil doesn’t use synthetic fragrance or other adulterants, it is perfectly fine to buy these for making herbal spa products.

Rose Hydrosol: Hydrosol is sometimes referred to as a hydrolet or distillate. This is the water-based liquid left at the end of the distillation process upon which the essential oil floats. Once the essential oil is removed, the hydrosol or distillate can be used for fragrance or culinary purposes.

Rose Water: Rose water is made most often these days from distilled water with the essential oil of rose added, though it also can be made by infusing rose petals in simmering water for about 15 minutes. This difference in techniques explains why rose water varies so much. Look for one that is natural, free of synthetics and chemicals; try a few and see what you like best.

Try These

I have tried numerous rose waters over the past year and here are a few I use in the kitchen and boudoir, listed in the order of preference.

Bulgarian Rosewater by Alteya Organics
Rose Petals Rosewater by Heritage Products
Rosewater by Cortas Canning and Refrigeration Company 

Susan Belsinger loves immersing herself in all things herbal and looks forward to researching, growing, cooking and photographing each new Herb of the Year.

To read more about roses, see the International Herb Association’s book, Rose, Herb of the Year 2012, edited by Susan Belsinger. To purchase, visit The International Herb Association website.

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