Wild Roses: History & Health Benefits

Learn about the wild rose’s history, functions, and how to enjoy them in your own backyard.

  • Despite its name, the swamp rose is adapted to almost any soil type.
    Photo by Malcolm Manners
  • Rose hips are an excellent source of vitamin C and can be incorporated into teas, jams, and even baked goods, such as muffins.
    Photo by Stocksy/Harald Walker
  • The nootka rose produces the largest flowers of any native North American rose.
    Photo by Kent Krugh
  • While native roses don't require any care, they will respond to it.
    Photo by William Cullina
  • The pasture rose is known for forming a dense spreading mound over time.
    Photo by Malcolm Manners
  • Woods' rose is a native rose that is a superb choice for woodland plantings.
    Photo by Malcolm Manners

If asked to describe the rose, our national flower, few would answer that it’s one of the most indestructible plants in nature. Fewer would describe small, five-petaled, fragrant flowers and dense panicles of edible winter fruits. Our collective image of a rose is of jawbreaker-sized blooms on long stems, cut from plants on perennial life support. Such intensively hybridized roses, as different from their Asian and European wild rose relatives as a Shih Tzu is from a wolf, make peerless bouquets. But hybridization robbed them of their fruit, their rampant vigor, and often their fragrance.

Our original national flower is another story. Nicknamed “Rose of America” during an expedition funded by French King Louis XVI, the prairie rose (Rosa setigera) produces fragrant clusters of about 15 flowers and rose hips with some of the highest concentrations of vitamin C of any fruit — potentially even higher than citrus. Along with about 18 other wild roses native to North America, it’s part of perhaps one of the world’s most important gene pools for rose gardeners and hybridizers. Among our wild roses are repeat-bloomers, climbers, dwarfs, groundcovers, and cabbage roses — types that are carefree in virtually any landscape, from bayou swamp to arctic tundra. These roses can be burned as part of meadow maintenance or weed-whacked to the ground. They are so tough that some species have even been tested as highway medians.

But the pièce de résistance that’s finally bringing these flowers back into the limelight seems to come specifically from their more than 35 million years in an evolutionary arms race against another native: rose rosette disease, an incurable plague ravaging North America’s rose gardens. Our native roses’ potential immunity may be the key to the long-term survival of all roses.

You can welcome these North American natives into your garden and then use them for culinary and medicinal purposes, giving you not just a beautiful and fragrant flower, but one that you can add to your meals and home apothecary. You’ll be in good company, as this rose’s usage extends across continents and centuries.

Historical Medicinal Uses for Roses

Across North America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, the rose has a long and extensive history of apothecary use. Radically different cultures independently discovered its usefulness for treating similar conditions.

Unlike Europeans, who preferred uniformity in their medicinal solutions, Native Americans used whichever rose species grew naturally in their area. They applied seed treatments externally to relieve muscle soreness; they concocted drinks made from roots for diarrhea, colds, and the flu; and they chewed leaves and then applied them as poultices for bee stings and burns. Long before vitamin C was discovered, they used rose hips to treat coughs, stomachaches, and sore throats, and to make healthy teas and jellies. Some tribes used these hips to help women go into labor, while decoctions of bark were used to ease childbirth.

Wendy Goicochea
3/12/2019 1:21:43 PM

My Mom used to make rose jam and rose hip tea. Rose hip and ginger tea when we had a cold always helped alot.

3/5/2019 10:45:34 AM

Many farmers see this rose as a nuisance. I think because they've never taken or perhaps forgotten the benefits of the plant.

7/11/2018 3:25:10 PM

I wish my wild rose hips were as big as the ones shown in this article.

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