Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Please, eat the roses

Rose hips are edible. Treat them like plums.
Rose hips are edible. Treat them like plums. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

My rose bushes look like they’re covered with kumquats. Pink and red petals have been replaced with fat little fruit, ripening to brilliant orange.

It’s an excellent year for rose hips, and all the treats that can be made with them.

This could be another drought side effect, the once-pampered rose bushes compensating for their recent water diet. Some fruit trees react to drought by putting on a heavy harvest; my pomegranate and persimmon trees bore their biggest crops ever, with only limited irrigation. Likewise, drought-stressed roses may be bearing more rose hips this winter.

More likely, my rose hip bonanza materialized because I stopped deadheading the blooms around Labor Day. Usually, I keep taking off the spent blooms as long as the weather is sunny – which it has been well into December.

Instead, I let many more flowers mature into fruit. That process slows down the bushes’ demand for water and nutrients. During summer, the bush will usually push out new blooms while the rose hips ripen. In the fall, that last round of rose hips signals to the bush it can now go to sleep.

Dormancy rejuvenates roses (as well as many fruit trees) and lets them survive harsh winter weather. That slowdown also makes winter the best time to prune.

Rose hips look lovely in holiday flower arrangements, but they’re not just for show – they’re edible. This fruit is super-rich in vitamin C; one tablespoon of chopped rose hips contains 60 milligrams, more than the recommended daily allowance. They can be chopped up and eaten fresh or dried for later use.

That’s not surprising considering the rose family tree includes apples, pears, quinces, apricots, peaches, plums and almonds. (Roses also rank among deer’s favorite foods.)

Denise Schreiber loves the flavor of her roses – both petals and hips. She’s the author of “Eat Your Roses … Pansies, Lavender and 49 Other Delicious Edible Flowers” (St. Lynn’s Press, 91 pages, $17.95). Part cookbook, part garden guide, this nifty little book puts a new perspective on the edible ornamental garden.

Schreiber, who gardens in Pennsylvania, became inspired during a vacation in England. At a castle garden surrounded by old roses, she enjoyed a cool serving of delicate rose petal ice cream.

“It’s so good,” Schreiber recalled in a phone interview. “It smells so good, but you can eat it. And that’s exactly how it tasted, like the fragrance of rose on my tongue.”

Known on Pittsburgh radio as “Mrs. Know-It-All,” Schreiber decided she’d try to duplicate this rosy confection at home. Then, one flower led to another, and she had a whole book of edible blooms and recipes plus a website, too:

Eat only flowers that have not been sprayed with pesticides, she cautioned. Also, check out which flowers may contain potentially harmful toxins (such as from systemic fertilizer with insecticide) before munching their petals.

Although she tasted many blooms, Schreiber’s favorite foodie flower remained roses.

“I love the roses,” said Schreiber. “I’ve found the more fragrant the rose, the better the flavor. Red roses tend to have the most fragrance. Those petals can be used fresh or dried. White roses also have a lot of scent, but only use those petals fresh, never dried – the color looks yucky.”

For the ice cream, Schreiber makes a rose petal syrup that can add a sweet scented note to drinks as well as foods.

For the syrup, Schreiber simmers petals for a few minutes in a simple syrup of equal parts sugar and water, brought to a boil in a saucepan. She varies the amount of petals (from a few tablespoons to one cup, per cup of syrup), depending on their potency. If the syrup needs a little more pink, she adds a strawberry or two during the simmer. She then strains out the petals, leaving a delicately colored and slightly spicy sweet syrup. (Hint: It makes a nice gift.)

Transferred to a jar or bottle, rose syrup can be stored for weeks in the refrigerator.

Treat rose hips like similar fruit such as plums. Chop the rose hips (food processor works fine) and put them in a large heavy saucepan with one to two cups water. Bring the water to a boil, cover and reduce the heat to low. Let the fruit simmer for 15 minutes or until very soft. Then, strain the juice (do it twice to remove any fine hairs that some rose varieties seem to have in their hips). Use the juice in jelly recipes or make simple syrup with equal parts sugar and liquid. (More great gift ideas!)

Rose hip tea is easy: Pour one cup boiling water over one tablespoon crushed dried or fresh-chopped hips. Let steep two or three minutes before sipping. Like Schreiber’s ice cream, the rose hip tea’s fragrance adds to the satisfaction.

So I’m harvesting my rose hips and the last of the petals to enjoy over the cold months. They’ll remind me of sweet days of summer, and more flowers to come.