Monday 13 July 2009

Roses in summer

There is something very special about roses in summer. Their deep scent transports us to a place of warm sunshine, peace and tranquillity; memories of carefree times amid beautiful surroundings.

My childhood roses grew in my grandmother’s garden and in hedgerows. My parents had no time in their busy lives nor inclination to grow plants with thorns which needed care and attention. It wasn’t until I went away to secondary school and lived with a family opposite the school that I discovered the joys of cultivated roses. The father cherished his roses, bringing a single bud to place on the mantelpiece above the fireplace in the living room so everyone could stop and smell the perfume as they passed by. I watched yellow, pink or red buds open into flowering glory, before being replaced by a new bud when petals faded.

When we moved into our house in 1981, the garden was a weed-free rose haven, with roses climbing over every fence. It was too much for us to look after. The previous owners were retired, the wife having never worked outside the home, so they had plenty of time to lavish on both home and garden. Our priorities were different, with both of us working, then bringing up three children. The flower beds receded to give the children more room to play and now only two ancient plants remain from those we originally inherited.

My interest in roses began in 2004 when I ordered an apothecary’s rose (rosa gallica) from Poyntzfield Herb nursery. I had to wait until the following year for it to bloom, but it was worth it. I was dazzled by the glorious colour and rich scent. The poor bush had to contend with being browsed by rabbits, sheep and deer during its first few years, but I noticed last year the runners were not like those of other roses, they all flowered. It has grown into a good size bush and this year bloomed a whole month earlier than usual, June rather than July.

Working with rose petals began in 2008, when I spent a delicious hour late one Friday evening collecting dog rose petals from along my parent’s lane. I climbed over gates into our next door neighbour’s field to harvest petals from the largest bushes, noticing how the colour changed from pink to white on different briars. The best pictures were taken the following Sunday when I risked barriers of nettles to gather from other briars near our old barn. It was one of the few dry weekends of the summer and I was desperate to gather elderflowers and rose petals while I could.

We used the dog rose petals during the Saturday workshop to make tincture, vinegar and to dry for future teas. When I returned home, I made my first rose infused honey, which still retains its subtle fragrance even now.

Later on in the summer I begged red rose petals from my friend’s garden in Sheffield. These yielded an amazing ruby cider vinegar with a truly awesome flavour which we played with during a vinegar workshop in November. Mixed with a light, sunflower oil and soaked up on crusty French sticks, it made a unique starter to lunch.

Nearly all my dogrose briars were decimated at the end of last year by the new tenant of my father’s fields. His brief to tidy all the farm hedgerows lead to total obliteration of many tree tops and bramble hedges. It needed doing and looks much better in many ways, but I shall have to wait several years before I can gather dogroses in such profusion from the same place again.

Luckily, work took me to Northumberland towards the end of June this year. I hoped the northern latitude would mean dogroses would be flowering later than in the Midlands. As we drew into our first caravan site on the Whitehouse Farm Centre in Stannington just outside Morpeth, I was delighted to see a wealth of bushes showing pale and bright pink flowers. While Chris recovered from the six hour drive, I took my gathering basket and explored the grounds of the first children’s sanatorium in the UK.

Nothing is left of the original buildings except the electricity substation, although a sign on a tree still reads “Dangerous buildings”. What really annoyed me and local inhabitants was that the top soil from the land was dragged off into mounds many years ago in readiness for building houses. This has never happened, so the field lies sterile and unusable, only a few hardy weeds growing in barren soil.

It seemed ironic that the most prolific plants were coltsfoot and dog roses – both with ancient associations with treating deep seated lung conditions – yet ignored by the medical enthusiasts who set up their fresh air wards with an open-air school where children were expected to learn in icy temperatures during the winter and snow drifted onto verandas which housed the beds of young patients during daylight hours. Despite the sometimes harsh physical conditions, the sanatorium boasted an 80% success rate. This may have been due in part to the good food and fresh air given to poverty stricken children from the slums of Newcastle.

Food was grown by the neighbouring farm colony, also established by the Poor Children’s Holiday Association, where local poor children, mainly boys, were taught farming and horticultural skills. Many of the children were dispersed to “the colonies” in Australia and Canada.

I was surprised to find another briar rose (rosa rubiginosa) in the Northumbrian hedgerows. The petals were smaller and deeper pink, but I knew the properties were similar to rosa canina, so I picked as much as I could from bushes in Stannington and those lining the car park to Walkworth beach. It was incredibly soothing to walk across the sand dunes to look at the calm North Sea, then pick as many petals as I could before the heavens opened! I put all the petals to dry on kitchen towel in one of the shelves in the caravan. Now they are safely put them away in a glass jar in the larder waiting to be added to elderberry elixir in the autumn..

Since our return from Northumberland, I feel as if I have been knee-deep in rose petals. This time from the apothecary’s rose and my new William Shakespeare rose which is blooming in a pot on the patio.

I scoured the garden to find young nettles hiding amidst the broad beans and soft fruit bushes to make the 1935 Famers Weekly recipe, Nettle Syrup.

“Gather the tops of young nettles, wash well. To every 1lb nettles add 1pt of cold water until all juice is extracted, then strain. To this liquid add ¾ lb white sugar and petals of seven red roses. Simmer gently for 15 minutes. Strain free of petals and boil until syrup thickens, when it will be a rich red colour. Pour into clean, dry, warmed jars and seal very securely. To make a good drink, put a teaspoonful into a milk beaker and dissolve it in a tablespoonful of boiling water. When cold, fill up with milk. This is an excellent cure for sore throats and is also a splendid pick me up.”

The means to make this syrup has eluded me for several years as it seemed impossible to gather young nettle tops from the first spring growth at the same time as roses, since they are at least 4 months apart, unless the writer is talking about a second crop of nettles.

I also couldn’t make head or tail of the sentence “To every 1lb nettles add 1pt of cold water until all juice is extracted.” It’s not like adding sugar to rhubarb and leaving overnight to extract the juice through osmosis! This time, I wanted to get as many water-based constituents from the nettles as I could, because the syrup is destined for a friend who has just finished her fourth bout of chemotherapy, so I decocted it for 20 minutes, then left it covered overnight in the saucepan aka Susun Weed. Then I strained it and left it in the fridge during the day while I was at work until I returned home and could find the time to finish it.

The resulting liquid was very dark green. I suspect what I should have done was make a cold water overnight maceration producing a pink coloured liquid, which would then have turned deep red from the rose petals as per the recipe. My syrup was very dark, but did have a deep red colour if you poured it against a bright light. There is also a subtle rose scent and none of the usual earthy nettle aroma.

I also rediscovered a recipe for Greek Rose Syrup, Tyrandafilo Glyko, posted on Susun Weed’s forum by Saint Francesca.

4 cups red Rose petals (though scented pink petals will do), with the white ends removed (I only had 3 roses available so added ten heads of flowering lavender)
3 cups sugar
1 cup water
juice of 1 lemon
Place lemon juice, sugar and water together in a suitable saucepan (preferably heat toughened glass or enamel. Not aluminium!). Bring to the boil, stirring as it heats to dissolve the sugar before it begins to boil. Simmer over a low heat for 15 minutes to make a syrup. Remove from the heat and cool. (I poured the syrup into a plastic bowl with a lid and cooled in a water bath in the sink for half an hour.) Add the petals to the syrup and leave for at least five to six hours or preferably overnight. Return to the stove and bring quickly to the boil. Simmer for five minutes. Remove from the heat and either strain the liquid through a sieve into warmed sterilized jars or bottles, or leave the petals in the syrup and bottle. Seal when completely cold and store in the refrigerator. The Greeks do not usually strain this preparation. The traditional manner of taking this restorative syrup is to dissolve 1¬ - 2 teaspoons in a glass of cold water and give it to the weary traveller.

The syrup is possibly the most beautiful preparation I have ever made. The flavour is subtle and a sheer delight to sip slowly in a glass of cold water while resting.

There is so much to learn from rose. It is a plant which can be used to cool conditions involving heat from any part of the body both internally and externally, whether the heat arises from infection e.g. tuberculosis, vaginal yeast infections, insect bites or an auto-immune inflammation such as arthritis. It is also astringent and has been used for such conditions as dysentery and excessive nose bleed.

Mathew Woods in his Earthwise Herbal says it is used for acute inflammatory conditions of the respiratory tract, including sore throat, free secretion or obstruction of the nose and bronchi. It is also a remedy for chronic inflammation and is indicated in “the weakness of convalescence, old age and delicate children”. He says rose also acts on heat in the digestive tract, including diarrhoea and stubborn inflammatory conditions. He recommends rose petal waters, lotions and baths be used to cure arthritis associated heat.

Maurice Messegue, the French herbalist, recommends rose to counteract the damage done by antibiotics on the intestinal flora.

Kiva Rose Hardin has written several fascinating articles on rose. She uses it to “ease the itch of mosquito bites and other hot, itchy things”. She also uses it for lung congestion irritability, tension, respiratory heat and general feeling of overheatedness and anxiety. Her favourite rose medicine is an elixir, where petals and leaves are steeped in a mixture of honey and brandy, then macerated for 4-6 weeks before straining or sometimes leaving the plant material in the menstrum. Doseage is one dropperful every half hour or so.

She also uses rose infused honey and vinegar to treat burns – the honey being especially useful where the burn appears to be infected. Last year I made up her recipe for burn honey using apothecary’s rose petals, flowers from evening primrose and bergamot flowers. The scent is amazing. The honey is less sweet than when pure and has a more runny consistency which would be ideal for smearing over open skin.

Possibly the most helpful thing about roses, like plantain, is that you can use any species to achieve the same effect. It doesn’t matter if you only have access to dog roses in hedgerow or copse, apothecary’s rose in the garden or rosa rugosa in a boundary hedge, their properties remain the same. They are the ideal plant for summer and I look forward to working with them even more closely in the years to come.


Marqueta (Mar-kee-ta) G. said...

This post was so lovely! If ever I go to England, I hope it is in summer when the roses are blooming.
I'm sorry to hear about the roses that were destroyed; if only we could make others understand.



linda said...

Hi Sarah
Wonderful article. Do you think that dried organic rose petals would be just as effective? I don't have access to fresh unsprayed petals this year. I would like to try the recipe for burns on my daughters road rash which is very much like a first degree burn. This article helped me to determine what kind of roses to plant in my garden. Thanks so much!

Sarah Head said...

Hi Linda. I would make a rose water with the dried rose petals to act as a wash first to cool the area and then treat with honey. You can find the recipe for rose water at If you have access to fresh aloe vera leaves, I would cut those in half and place on the "burned" area as well. Once the heat has completely gone from the area, use a St John's wort and calendula salve maybe with a violet or marshmallow leaf oil added for increased moisture.

linda said...

Hi Sarah
Thanks so much! I have rose water on hand, didn't think to use it for this and of course lots of honey. Happen to have aloe too! I can't thank you enough!

Alyss said...

What a great post! I love wild roses so much, and Portland Oregon has a profusion of cultivated roses. Really great post.. I may try that rose vinegar since I just declared my homemade cider vinegar "done" :)

Sarah Head said...

Hi Alyss
Glad you liked my post. Let us know how you get on with the rose vinegar. I remember discovering camelias when I was in Portland one March. I asked my friend what all the "roses" were. I love your city and state. We were over there last September to launch my Arthurian novel, The Strongest Magick. Not sure when we'll be back, but I live in hopes!