Monday 12 November 2012

2012 Herbal Ally Roundup: Rose

Rose has been with me all through the year, from the sun-kissed days of winter to the rain and gales of summer and beyond. She has brought great happiness, not just to me but to everyone who has stooped to smell her perfume or breathed in the scent of her many products before tasting. Everyone she has touched has stopped, smiled and complimented her. She has been a wonderful ally.

I have two major rose varieties in my gardens. The apothecary’s rose, rosa gallica and the David Austin old English rose, WilliamShakespeare. While the former has been used medicinally since the dawn of time, to use the latter is probably a surprise to most rose growers who don’t automatically gather their roses for culinary, cosmetic and medicinal purposes. 

Roses have always been a harvested garden crop. In medieval times, three major roses would have been grown – apothecary’s rose, also known as the Red Rose of Lancaster, the white rose (rosa alba semi-plena -the white rose of York) and the damask rose (rosa damascena).  Their ruling planets were Jupiter (red rose), the moon (white rose) and Venus (damask rose).

Rose petals were used historically to treat diarrhoea, bronchial infections, coughs, colds, chest complaints, nervous tension and lethargy. The distilled water was prescribed for eye inflammations, to refresh the spirits and to strengthen the heart. Rose oil was applied to chapped skins and Gerard said that roses would “staunch bleeding in any part of the body”.

The scent of rose has been used to perfume everywhere from churches (using scented oil in incense burners before the altar) to rooms (in pot pourris) to individual bodies as part of a floral water, a lotion, cream or massage oil. The petals can also be eaten in salads, crystallised or made into syrups, jams, jellies or vinegars. Rose water (a distilled essence of rose) has been used to flavour confectionary (notably Turkish delight), jellies, sauces and both sweet and savoury dishes.

The Catholic rosary was originally named because the beads were made from rose petals. It is a long and somewhat tedious process according to Henriette Kress, who told me that she wouldn’t consider making another set after her original one, unless she really wanted to make one for a friend. Her method can be found here. She recommends taking out your rose beads when you need love, gentleness, courage or some prickliness.

Henriette believes rose petals to be calming and mood-lifting, helping with anger and frustration and giving you courage to defend your opinions and boundaries so that you can like yourself and others more. She recommends rose petals for menstrual irritability either in the form of a tea or a bath. The tea can also be used for menstrual cramps or irregular menses. This comes from rose’s decongestant action in the female reproductive system.  Rose has also been used to treat impotence in men and can ease heart palpitations.

Avicenna was the first person to make rose water in the 10th century. He used rose jelly to cure anyone who spat blood (usually a sign of TB or other serious illnesses).  Anne MacIntyre gives a account of the many different myths about roses in her wonderful book, The Complete Floral Healer. She very kindly stepped in at the last minute to provide a herb walk during my festival in September and had everyone spellbound as she talked about the plants she encountered in the Sanctuary.

My favourite part of her talk was about the rose. I had not heard before that according to Eastern traditions, when a soul knocked at the door of the next world and all material things had to be left behind, only the red rose was allowed to accompany that soul over the threshold because it was considered to be part of the spiritual realms.

Annie fell in love with the scent of the William Shakespeare rose, telling us she often prescribed her patients to smell a rose three times a day to help improve their overall health.  This is such a simple and effective idea I have started using it with other heavily scented plants such as rosemary in an attempt to support others in helping themselves.

Annie also writes about the energetic properties of rose. She says, “The red rose increases confidence in those feeling insecure about their sexuality and who suffer from feelings of shame or timidity about their bodies. It help you to open up to love and bring your desires into action.

“The white rose is quietly inspiring and strengthening, renewing energy and joy in oyur life. The white rosebud can be given to infants and children to help them grow up, keeping a sense of heaven on earth.

“The wild rose is the remedy of independence. It is traditionally said to mean ‘pleasure and pain’ as it brings pleasure to the eyes and heart when found blooming in the wild, but pain from its sharp prickles if you try to pluck it. Wild rose warms the heart and softens the emotions, engendering an easy-going feeling to enhance sensuality.”

I really understand what she means about the wild rose. In my part of the world, this is the dog rose (rosa canina), although I have come across both the briar rose (rosa rubiginosa) and rosa rugosa growing wild in Northumberland; briar rose around a former children’s TB sanatorium near Morpeth and rosa rugosa on the coal-filled cliffs and sand dunes opposite St Mary’s lighthouse, Whitley Bay.

Gathering dog rose petals means time to be by myself, to study how the flower buds open, how the petals fall or are blown away by strong breezes and how the buds grow in clusters of up to eight or more. This is revealed more fully when bright red hips form in autumn, when I found some bushes by Olton canal only producing single berries, whereas those in my Sanctuary and surrounding fields had groups of between four and eight.

Rosehips also reveal the different species of bush. Apothecary’s rosehips are so small as to be almost non-existant, leaving wild rosehips to be the one of choice for collecting, but even those are different shapes and sizes. The largest I have ever found were in the Friary field last winter and I’m looking forward to seeing if they grow to such size again. Cotswold rosehips seem the usual shape and size, but the canalside ones are small and round, leading me to wonder if they were rosehips at all if I hadn’t been sure of their identification through their leaves.

I throw rosehips into most syrups and cordials and quite a few other concoctions because of their high vitamin C content. Looking at some of their other properties – strengthens the lungs in fighting infections, wards against colds and coughs,  helps to fight infection in the digestive tract and helps re-establish normal bacterial population of the intestine when it has been disrupted by antibiotics or faulty diet – they seem the ideal support food or drink for winter.

My daughter has been suffering from recurring infections in her wisdom tooth which the dentist has suggested might come from a lack of fruit and vegetables in her diet, so I gave her one of the rosehip syrups to take home with her and take a spoonful every day.

My stocks of dried rosehips have all been used up so this autumn I have been gathering large basketfuls to replenish my empty larder jars and make some rosehip syrup for the first time. The bags of hips are still drying in my hot cupboard and although the syrup was made, it seemed to produce very little juice from a large number of hips, so I may try again later in the winter when the hips are softer and sweeter.

I have made many potions from rose this year as well as drying several bags of petals despite appalling weather conditions when harvesting. Tinctures, vinegars, tonics, syrups and elixirs have all graced my shelves along with a newcomer - the rose double infused oil.  I was also really pleased to be able to put up another batch of Kiva Rose Hardin’s, “Burns Honey” as my bergomot flowered again this year after restocking the plant last spring.

With the rose oil I made a simple rose cream with rose tincture and beeswax. The inspiration came from Leslie Postin’s blog and she, in turn, used Lucinda Warner’s recipe from her blog. We made it as part of last Saturday’s “Oils and Salves” workshop. I’d never had any success with creams before so I was somewhat anxious about the outcome, especially as I could not obtain either a rose hydrosol or any glycerine and when I went to look for my last piece of cocoa butter in the larder, it hid! 

Simple Rose Cream
8 fl ozs Apothecary’s rose petal double infused oil
1 fl oz Aloe vera gel scraped from the inside of three large leaves
5 fl ozs Apothecary’s rose petal tincture
1oz grated beeswax from the beekeeper who lives in the next road.
We measured out the oil and heated it in the top of a double boiler with the grated beeswax, stirring gently with a wooden spoon until it melted. This liquid was then poured into a large plastic bowl which was suspended inside another bowl of cold water and the oil was again stirred until it was almost cool. I used a stick blender to emulsify the cooling salve as the tincture and aloe vera gel were slowly poured into the mixture. The blending continued until the cream was thoroughly emulsified. It looked pale and fluffy and was very slightly pink in colour.

The scent was very subtle but I was very impressed with the result. If you wanted a stronger smelling cream you could add drops of rose essential oil or a fragrance which pleases you. We put the cream into some recycled jars my sister had gifted me the previous weekend.

What really delighted me was the fact that I had made and grown all the ingredients myself except the beeswax, which I had collected on foot.

The other great success this year has been rose elixir. When my daughter shut her finger in a door earlier this year and called for “Mother’s Emergency Service”, I dosed her with rose elixir while I bandaged her damaged digit. She was soon calm and sufficiently restored to go off to give her piano lesson followed by a shift in the hotel where she then worked.

At the beginning of September I was asked to provide a medicinal herb demonstration in the kitchen garden at Calke Abbey. Many of the volunteers on duty that day came to see me and waxed so poetical about the stress relieving effects of the rose elixir that the organiser came and sat down with me for a good twenty minutes.  She asked if she could take the elixir away with her as it made her feel so much better!

Rose has been a wonderful ally this year. She is a perfect companion teaching me close observation whilst providing a calm and unhurried world in which to inhabit. Although I shall choose another ally in the coming months, I know rose will always be at my side.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Recording your herbal ally

We always think we know what something looks like but it’s not until you actually stop and study something you realise how much you have been missing. If you want to know more about a herb, you need to look at them closely.

What colour are they? What are their first leaf shapes? How many leaves are there? Are they opposite or parallel? Simple? Complex? Does the colour of the stem change over time? Do they have flowers? What colour are they? Are they simple? Complex?  In whorls around the stem or on a stem by themselves? What colour are the bracts? The questions are endless and the more you try to answer them, the better you understand and appreciate the herb.

Of course you can’t just look at a plant, you need to touch, taste, smell and listen to experience both its world and its entirety but you can gain great insight by close observation. (NB: Please don’t touch taste and smell unless you know the plant is non-toxic!)

One way to record a herb is to photograph it during the various stages of its life. This can be done once a month or every time you do something with the plant. Building a photographic collection can act as both a diary and a reminder of what you have done and how you did it. I keep all my photographs in a digital folder depending on subject matter so each one is clearly labelled with the date and clues to what is in the picture and where it was taken.  They provide a useful resource and means of illustration when I’m writing.

The best way to really appreciate a herb is to draw it. It doesn't matter if you've never drawn anything before or were told by your art teacher at school that the brush had more talent on its own than you did. Take a pencil (HB if that's what you have handy, but 2-4H gives a clearer drawing) and look closely at one portion of the plant.

Choose a section of the plant which is really simple like a large stem or a leaf bud or something which calls to you. Put the pencil on your piece of paper and try to reproduce what you see. As you try to match your strokes with the shape of the plant part I bet you will surprise yourself. It doesn't have to be a Rembrandt or a Picasso, just something really simple.

I can't draw for toffee and have no artistic skills, but the simple sketches I've attempted of my herbal ally, rose, this year, please me. They don't have to please anyone else. I've only sketched the same William Shakespeare plant four times this year and I can't get my pencil around the complexity of the flower as well as I would like, but it's a unique record I would not otherwise have.

Each sketch takes me around half an hour sitting on the patio with my small sketchbook on my knee. We’re fortunate in having a specialist art shop next to our local station about a mile away, but most art supplies can be obtained cheaply from remainder shops such as The Works or stationary outlets such as Staples. You don’t actually need anything artistic in the first instance, a pencil, rubber and sheet of plain, unlined paper is all that’s necessary.

Even if you find perspective difficult, it doesn’t matter. The whole experience of transferring what you see in front of you onto a sheet of paper will help you remember exactly what each part of the plant looks like. It means you can identify it elsewhere and notice when things are different or damaged.

I know if I hadn't attempted sketching, I would never have appreciated the amazing reds on the emerging rose leaves which are still present on the leaf bases now or learned the shapes and arrangement of the rose leaves. I didn’t know rose leaves were serrated nor that their usual number was five on one plant and six or seven on another

This new knowledge enabled me to correctly identify a wild rose by the canal when I was foraging last month, something I would not have been sure about twelve months ago.

Taking a chance to develop a new skill is always scary, especially if you have little or no confidence in your own ability but there can be many rewards. Making sketching part of your herbal education can provide many joys if you are wishing to expand your herbal horizons.