There are roses in the woods, in river bottoms and other wild places where there’s enough moisture to support them. Some are native species roses so well adapted that they are as hardy as any other wild thing. Others are civilized varieties that escaped early on from colonial dooryards and pioneer gardens. These naturalized exotic roses proliferate everywhere conditions are right. They are among the greatest producers of free rose hips for those who take the time to walk the byways in autumn.
All pollinated rose flowers, both wild and exotic, mature into fruits that contain seed. Each type of rose produces a slightly different fruit called a hip or hep. They are composed of an outer skin, inner flesh and a central seed cavity. Rose hips turn orange, then red as they mature-growing gradually softer and sweeter over weeks and months. The flavor at peak is sweet and astringent simultaneously, and good enough to eat right off the bush.
Rose hips were big in the folk medicine world until World War II. The Germans had blockaded Britain and Scandinavian countries, closing off access to much needed imports, particularly in winter when little local food was available. This prevented a most vital import: citrus fruit. Valued for its high vitamin C content, the fruit was crucial to avoiding scurvy, a disease caused by an absence of fresh fruits and vegetables. Locals started to worry during the war that their children lacked enough C and set out to find another source.
They scoured the countryside for plants and the results surprised everyone, Small red hips from hedgerow roses proved more C-rich than citrus! Everyone immediately went to work gathering and processing their hips into concentrated syrup easily administered to kids.
It’s likely the British villagers have drunk rose hip tea to treat sore throat and other common maladies for centuries before the war. The astringent nature of rose hip tea made a useful antibiotic for mouth and throat.
Rose hips ripen in the late summer and fall months when they can be easily gathered from garden or wayside places. Use pointed clippers to snip each hip with some stem attached so it falls into bag or basket whole and unscathed. Strive for ripe hips, but not yet softened if you want to preserve them. For use today in the kitchen or for fresh eating, choose those as soft and brightly colored as you can.
The best way to store rose hips is to clean them and freeze the flesh. To do this you must process the hips by removing seeds and fibers from the center. It’s hard to do with tiny hips, so the conventional wisdom is the larger the hip, the easier it is to process and the more flesh yielded. Once prepared and rinsed, scatter the pieces on a plate and freeze. Once frozen, put the pieces in small freezer bags to retrieve as needed all winter long.
For those imperfect hips left over that aren’t suitable for eating, use a big carpet needle and dental floss to create holiday garlands for home or tree. The hips dry over the holidays and may be dehydrated enough to store for the new year.
To create fresh-baked goods with your softer fully ripened hips, before using as you would raisins or cranberries in the recipe, clean and chop hips to pure flesh before measuring. The result won’t be as sweet, but the flavor difference lends new character to your favorite creations.
You can grow rose hips, but it’s easier to gather them from mature plants in your yard or those of friends, neighbors and relatives. If you know a landowner out in the country, make a day of rose hip hunting with the whole family.
Above all, come to know where the best hip producing roses grow to return again and again for this age-old seasonal ritual.