Wild Roses: History & Health Benefits
By Ben Whitacre
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.
In Asia, several wild and cultivated rose species have been used traditionally in medicine. Beach rose (R. rugosa) got the most play. Its seeds were used as a laxative, while petals induced sleep, soothed headaches, and assuaged painful menstruation. Blossoms were sniffed to improve blood flow and alleviate depression. Another Asian native, multiflora rose (R. multiflora), provided flowers to treat dysentery, malaria, and diarrhea. Its roots were used for diabetes, arthritis, and irregular menstruation. Extracts from chestnut rose (R. roxburghii) are still used today as antioxidant skin treatments, with the support of serious research that indicates any rose fruit can make effective skin care products.
But it was in Europe and the Middle East that “rose mania” was documented in herbal after herbal. The written Mediterranean tradition goes back to the Roman author Pliny’s Natural History in 79 A.D, where he documented 30 illnesses curable by roses. From Pliny, this mania progressed through Persian medical pioneers, such as Avicenna in the 10th century, and back to Europe during the early Italian Renaissance through translations of medicinal texts by Islamic authors. Just as Roman farmers tore out their sustenance crops for rose fields to supply the lust for the flowers, apothecaries recommended roses for all manner of ailments. Many species were used, but it was the aptly named ‘Apothecary’s Rose’ (R. gallica var. officinalis) that became a guild symbol for French apothecaries in the 1800s. These early medical practitioners created formulas for various waters, oils, and powders that they used to treat scurvy, colds, poor digestion, constipation, fainting, heart palpitations, anxiety, and eye irritation, among dozens of other conditions. (Learn how to make rose water at home in Making Hydrosols on the Stove.)
Modern science has confirmed some of the traditional medicinal uses of roses. Since vitamin C was discovered in 1912, the ancient use of rose hips to treat colds has received validation and a lot of publicity — the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that rose fruit contains eight times the concentration of ascorbic acid present in general orange varieties. Rose hip products are now available in the health aisles of grocery stores and in teas — even IKEA sells them. But the best way to get the unadulterated benefits is to consume rose hips fresh from the garden, because vitamin C degrades during processing.
Vitamin C isn’t the only discovery that partially validates historical apothecaries. Studies of rose oil in aromatherapy indicate that the Damask scent typical of wild roses around the world does reduce stress and depression, inducing measureable differences in breathing and blood pressure. Research also backs up rose hip powder’s effectiveness in alleviating arthritic pain when taken as an herbal supplement. Other studies have experimented with new medicinal uses for roses. Extracts from R. rugosa, R. acicularis, and R. davuricahave been found to possess strong anti-free-radical properties and are being investigated as preventative treatments for cancer.
For the home apothecary, there are a few caveats to experimenting with rose petals or fruits. The first and most important point is that plants intended for consumption shouldn’t be treated with anything you wouldn’t treat other edible crops with. The second is that rose hips are not simple to consume like the similar-looking cranberries or currants. The seeds are surrounded by tiny, nontoxic yet irritating hairs. In fact, these fibers are a common ingredient used by gag manufacturers in itching powder. So, just as pits must be removed from cherries, seeds must be removed from rose hips.
Using Roses at Home
The most common rose species grown in the United States for hips and petals are the Japanese rugosa rose (R. rugosa) and the European dog rose (R. canina). Several native species also have large hips and well-scented flowers perfect for harvesting, such as the female climbing prairie rose (R. setigera) or the swamp rose (R. palustris).
There are myriad options if you want to experiment with roses at home, but start by using perennial favorites. Create homemade potpourri, rose jam, and teas. Put fresh rose petals on salad, in risotto, or in wine like the ancient Romans. Infuse liqueur with petals. Research Sweden or Turkey’s rich history of cooking with roses. You can also try making this Rose Hip, Raisin, and Apple Muffins Recipe.
Harvest rose petals early in the morning, ideally before dawn, when the fragrance is most intense. To harvest rose buds, wait until the flower is about halfway open. If you harvest too early, the taste and fragrance will not be fully developed. You should be able to smell the fragrance before you pick them.
Rose hips should be harvested after a couple of cold frosts have softened them. Some species, like the Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) require a longer ripening time to reduce their bitter flavor. If you do not plan to use petals or hips fresh, decide how to preserve them before picking them. Rose petals should be dried on a screen in a dark, cool room to prevent excessive loss of the essential oils. Hips may be dried or frozen (remove the seeds first), though they’ll become very leathery.
The most important thing is to have fun. North American roses may have a weighty role in the future of the genus, thanks to their potential resistance to rose rosette disease; they may likewise hold keys to human health. But perhaps what sets native roses apart for gardeners is that they’re like great friends: They’re there when you need them, but unlike most other roses, they ask for nothing in return.
A Selection of Native Rose Species
Carolina rose or pasture rose (Rosa carolina) is native from Quebec to Florida, and westward to Texas. One of the first roses to flower each spring, R. carolina has a striking dwarf habit with upright stems that often remain unbranched, forming a dense spreading mound over time. (Available at Prairie Moon Nursery.)
Climbing prairie rose (R. setigera) has a natural range that spans the East Coast from Quebec to Florida, extending west to at least Missouri and Texas. It’s hardy to Zone 4 and is the only native climbing rose. (Available at Prairie Moon Nursery.)
Nootka rose (R. nutkana) is a West Coast native that grows wild from Alaska to California, and eastward into the Rocky Mountains. It produces the largest flowers of any native North American rose. (Available at High Country Roses.)
Swamp rose (R. palustris) is native from Quebec to Florida, and westward to Missouri. Despite its name, this rose is adapted to almost any soil type, from slightly submerged areas on the edge of water features to dry sandy soils. (Available at Prairie Moon Nursery.)
Woods’ rose (R. woodsii) is native from British Columbia to Mexico, and eastward to Iowa. A dense spreading shrub of up to 6 feet tall, this is a superb choice for woodland plantings. (Available at High Country Roses.)
Caring for Native Roses
While native roses don’t require any care, they will respond to it. Typical rose garden conditions such as irrigation, full sun, regular application of manure or compost, and heavily altered loam may encourage them to grow larger, produce more fragrant flowers, and repeat bloom better (the few that have the ability). If you plan to harvest flowers or fruits in fall or winter after they’ve been softened by a couple of hard frosts, make sure you don’t spray with toxic chemicals or apply systemic pesticides or fungicides at any time.
Learn how to use rose hips in this delicious Rose Hip, Raisin, and Apple Muffins Recipe.
Ben Whitacre has researched roses at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Mount Auburn Cemetery, the American Horticultural Society, and Monticello.
Herb to Know: Valerian
Try this soothing herb for sweeter sleep.
Elderberry vs Poke Berry Identification
Learn to distinguish elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, s.nigra) from poisonous pokeberry.
Salsify, Vegetable Oyster, Goatsbeard
The salsifies are spring weeds.Three species are found all over North America, introduced from Europe. Salsify, also called vegetable oyster and oyster plant, Tragopogon porrifolius, is a purple-flowered plant with a flower shaped like a dandelion, narrow leaves, and a seed head like a large dandelion (about the size of a tennis ball). Meadow salsify, […]