Roses have been immortalized in song and poetry for their beauty and fragrance. Until relatively recently, however, they were also considered an important medicinal herb. The flower was candied and eaten as a treat, tea was made from the rose hips (the dried fruit), and the rose was eaten in various other ways. The stem and thorns, however, are not eaten.
Roses are the 2012 herb of the year. Every year since 1994, the International Herb Association (IHA) has designated an herb that fulfills at least two of these three categories: 1) medicinally, 2)for culinary purposes, or 3)in crafting or industry. The rose meets all three criteria.
First, the obligatory cautions. Never eat any rose or rose hip that has been sprayed with pesticides. Do not eat roses that have been sold as cut flowers, as most have been sprayed heavily during their lifetime. Second, when using roses, the first day or so the rose bloom is optimal in terms of fragrance, essential oils, and nutrients. Older flowers are still edible, but will not taste as good. Finally, the more fragrant a rose, the higher the essential oil content and the better the taste. Modern roses often have little fragrance or taste, so going with an heirloom variety works best.
Roses, like other eatable things, are best picked early in the morning, just after the dew has dried. Pull off the petals, leaving the center part on the rose. Do not wash the petals, but gently brush off any insects or dirt. If the bottom of the petal is a bit bitter, snip it off. Otherwise, cook with the whole petal or refrigerate in a plastic bag with a paper towel inside. Petals keep three or four days this way, although they taste better immediately after picking.
Rose hips form after the flower dies. If you immediately deadhead your roses, you will never have rose hips. Leave the flowers on, though, and the rose hips will form. Pick when bright orange or red, before they turn brown. They are best used in jams and jellies, or in tea. Rose hips are very high in vitamin C, and were sometimes used to ward off scurvy. Drying the rose hips requires splitting them in half and removing most of the seeds, then spreading them on a baking sheet indoors. When crisp, they can be stored in plastic containers for tea.
The International Herb Association has a number of rose recipes on their website. Rose petals can be prepared by simply using them as garnish in salad or in complicated recipes. There is something available for every skill level when cooking with roses. Rose sugar is made by mixing a flower’s worth of rose petals with a cup of sugar. Mix well in a glass jar and keep for three or four days. This can then be used in tea or cakes to add the flavor of roses to your meal.
Roses have been grown for beauty, fragrance, and food. Enjoy your roses all three ways.