Living in the city – surrounded by non-native plants and foods from around the world – it’s easy to lose a sense of our local seasons. That’s unfortunate, because the cycle of seasons connects us to the place where we live. Seasonal changes give us a sense of history and literally serve to ground us to our place on earth. Sometimes it takes a visit to nature to re-focus our attention on the joys – and the activities - of the current season. Wandering the Willows the other day, I encountered a reminder of Autumn’s abundance. What better example of the foods of Fall than a native rose bush laden with ripening fruit!
Our local native rose, California Wild Rose (Rosa californica) is a plant with several distinct seasons. In early spring, it sports a set of new leaves and delicate new sprouts. The fresh foliage is bright green and not yet hard and bitter. Native Californians harvested the tender sprouts in early spring and boiled or steamed them for a fresh vegetable.
In summer, California Wild Rose is in full glory. The leaves are green and mature. This is the perfect time to pick leaves for rose leaf tea. This delicate tea – made from fresh or dried leaves – has a flavor all its own. You can make rose leaf tea from any rose, including roses from your garden. Just be sure that the leaves haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. When you dry the leaves – and drink the tea – you’ll be participating in summer activities that have been part of many cultures for hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of years.
Summer is also when the pink rose flowers attract native bees, European Honey Bees and a variety of other pollinator insects. On a warm day, the smell of wild roses takes us back to pleasant summer days in a grandmother’s rose garden or hiking in our local wild lands. It is the essence of summer; and that fragrance and the sweet nectar is what attracts the pollinators. Wild roses are an important source of food (nectar and pollen) for summer’s insects.
Rose flowers are used and treasured in many cultures throughout the world. Like our ancestors, you can gather rose petals and dry them to preserve the fragrance of summer. The dried petals can be used in potpourri, sachets and even be used to brew a delightful pink tea. There’s nothing nicer than a cup of hot rose petal tea on a cold winter’s day. It brings back memories of summers past – and dreams of future summers.
The fruits of the Wild Rose (the ‘hips’) ripen in fall and winter. Rose hips are at their best when fully ripe. In colder climates, this happens after the first hard frost in the fall. In our mild climate, rose hips take a bit longer to mature. The best hint that rose hips are ripe is when the birds start to eat them - trust me, birds know when fruits are ripe!! Another hint is when the hips turn from orange-red to a dark red, become slightly soft and sweetly scented. The rose hips in the picture above are not yet fully ripe.
Rose hips are beautiful in their own right. They brighten a fall/winter landscape or garden with their dark red color in late fall. All roses produce rose hips, including garden roses. Most gardeners cut off aging rose flowers before the hips fully develop, so we don’t fully appreciate the fall season of the rose.
Roses develop hips for one purpose: to attract birds and animals which will eat the fruits and spread the seed. The rose hip is well suited this purpose. It’s red color says ‘here I am’ to passing birds and animals. The sweet taste of ripe rose hips provides a tasty treat. And the seeds are hidden inside the fruit, guaranteeing that at least some seeds will be eaten and spread, after a trip through a bird or animal’s intestinal tract (gut). Among the birds that eat rose hips are Mockingbirds and migratory Cedar Waxwings. Rabbits and small mammals also enjoy rose hips in fall/winter.
Rose hips are a treat for humans as well. Native Californians ate them fresh, cooked them for deserts and dried them whole or as ‘fruit leather’ for future use. Dried, ground rose hips make a tasty, healthy tea that’s loaded with vitamin C. Rose hip jelly is indescribably good and many old cookbooks include a recipe for this tasty treat. You can easily find recipes for making rose hip jelly on the internet. Rose hip syrup is easy to make and a tasty alternative on pancakes and desserts. All of these uses preserve autumn’s abundance for later enjoyment.
Using plants in old ways connects us to the land and its bounty. And observing the seasonal changes reminds us that we are just a part of nature’s great cycles. Come out to the Preserve soon and experience the joys of Fall.