Round Robin: Roses, Rose Hips and Rose Leaves

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Flowers of fall

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia–Fall is a wonderful season in Cape Breton. The hay has been stored in the barn, the wood stacked in the shed, trays of tomatoes, onions, and beans are drying in the lean-to greenhouse, and apples are everywhere for the picking. Jigs, my partner-in-all-things, picks up buckets of fallen apples for the pig and picks buckets of the best Jon­a­thans, Winesaps, Russets, Cortlands, and Wolf Rivers (a huge, round, fairy-tale apple) to store in the cellar for eating and for pies all winter. The Jonathans will keep in good condition until next May.

There is still plenty of work to do, but the major jobs of haying and harvest are over. In this brief interlude before the storms of winter with their attendant hardships, we really enjoy each warm Indian-summer day, spending as much time as we can outdoors cleaning up garden debris, spreading wood-chip mulch on all our plantings (it will be worked into our soil in the spring, improving its tilth), and moving plants. Like most serious gardeners I know, I am afflicted with the move-its, the condition that just won’t let me rest until I move an offending plant to a new, presumably better site. I’m sure you know what I mean.

I am rather proud, though, that in the past few years I have mastered the urge to move my roses around by the simple expedient of planting them in the right place from the start. (Some, it is true, have traveled far, but that was in the past.) It’s really true, as all the gardening books tell you, that roses thrive when given plenty of sun and air circulation (water and nutrients are understood). It’s also really true, as Jigs insists, that roses (or any other sort of plant) won’t mature properly and achieve their maximum growth if they are continually moved about.

This newfound restraint in letting be has really paid off. Now at the end of October, several of the hardy roses are still blooming, among them ‘The Fairy’ (a cloud of tiny shell pink blooms), ‘Champlain’ (an acclaimed red Canadian Explorer rose), ‘Dart’s Dash’ (a low, wide purplish-flowered rugosa), ‘Grootendorst Supreme’ (clusters of small, double, feathery red flowers), ‘Survivor’ (a long-caned red hybrid-tea-shaped rose rescued from the Canadian Department of Agriculture’s rejects by Bob Osborne at Corn Hill Nursery in New Brunswick), ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’ (the luscious double white rugosa), the wild semidouble dark pink rugosa ‘Rubra Plena’ with its heavenly clove scent, and the Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana), the common rose of our dusty back roads.

Of all the roses I grow, none has given us so much pleasure as this last rose, whose range extends from Newfoundland to Missouri and south to Georgia. When we moved to the farm more than twenty-five years ago, we had the wit to dig up about six clumps and plant them by the front porch as an informal hedge. We and the hedge are still here enjoying each other’s company, and I have never had any inclination to move it.

The Virginia rose never gets sick; its foliage is always glossy and green, its plentiful flowers always charming–shades of pink in the classic design of five translucent petals loosely clustered around numerous golden stamens, a lovely and appealing flower in its simplicity. Right now, it is the star of our landscape with its bronzy golden leaves and clusters of small, round red hips, so numerous they give the bushes the appearance of a second blooming.

People are often amazed when I tell them that roses are herbs, that every summer I harvest gallons of petals to make potpourri and jelly and skin ­freshener. Since time immemorial, wild roses have been a source of food and medicine. The petals have astringent properties that soothe everything from a sore throat to skin irritations when added to lotions, creams, and washes, and the hips are rich in vitamin C. I don’t know why the Virginia rose is not more widely promoted for landscaping. Europeans seem to love it, having grown the semidouble variant since 1786.

I know I should do something with the hips. The birds eat them, and in the winter the horses nibble on them while we unload firewood from the sled, which we park alongside the hedge. But long ago, when our children were small and I was under the spell of the health guru Adelle Davis, I cooked up huge batches of rose hip syrup and fed the horrid stuff to our poor children, a tablespoon a day, which treatment they still recall with a shudder. Perhaps it really did, as claimed, keep colds away, but at what price?

In case you want to try what she referred to as “Unlimited Vitamin C Free for the Extracting” (Let’s Cook It Right, 1947), here’s what you do to make her Rose Hip Extract: Remove the blossom ends, stems, and leaves from chilled hips; for each cup of hips bring to a rolling boil 11/2 cups water; add the hips, cover the pot, and simmer for 15 minutes, then mash the cooked hips and let them stand 24 hours in the pot. Strain off the extract, bring it to a boil, add 2 tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice for each pint; pour into jars and seal.

You can also use this extract to make rose hip jelly, substituting the extract for fruit juice before adding the sugar and commercial pectin. The result is a lot more palatable than the extract (but perhaps not as full of vitamins).

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