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Here's why old garden roses are still hip

“Unlike people, roses probably do not consider themselves as having a purpose in life. But if a rosebush did have a mission, I expect its greatest sense of achievement would come from creating not just a whole lot of beautiful flowers, but the grand array of round, red rosehips which come after them.”

— Marian Van Eyk McCain, “Elderwoman: A Handbook for the Later-life Journey,” 2002

On the contrary, I think rosebushes do have a mission.

Over time, rose bushes have evolved multiple strategies — flowers with color and fragrance, pollen as food for pollinators, thorns for protection against predators — all in order to accomplish their life goal of reproduction.

As fruit that develops in late summer and fall, rosehips are, indeed, the greatest achievement of the rose plant. All that is left to produce offspring is for the fruit to be eaten by wildlife or drop to the ground in order for the seeds inside to be dispersed and given the chance to germinate.

Gardeners don’t often see rosehips on their rose bushes because the faded flowers (and the flower’s ovary, which develops into the fruit) have been pruned off to encourage repeat blooming. Also, roses with multiple petals, such as hybrid teas, confuse pollinators. This prevents the eggs inside the ovary from being fertilized and developing into seeds, so the flower’s ovary doesn’t need to enlarge into fruit to enclose the seeds.

Even if modern cultivated roses are fertilized, they usually produce insignificant rosehips. Today’s roses are not propagated by seeds but from rooted cuttings, so roses are bred to focus more energy on producing lots of flowers, instead. Their sex life has been decommissioned.

Old garden roses, or species roses, with single or semi-double petals produce the largest, showiest rosehips. The hips can be round, oval or bottle-shaped, and develop from green into bright red, orange or even dark purple. Depending on the species, rosehips grow individually or in clusters on flower stems.

As the flowers fade and the foliage dies back in the fall, rosehips become more prominent, adding color and visual interest to the garden. They also provide food for foraging wildlife, or they can be harvested for fall décor or for tea, jelly, syrup and soup (but don’t eat rosehips that have been sprayed with pesticides).

Rosehips have the highest concentration of Vitamin C among all food crops (at least 10 times more Vitamin C than an orange), particularly the hips of the dog rose (Rosa canina), so named because it was once believed to cure the bite of rabid dogs. Another species rose that is commercially grown for its large, fleshy rosehips is Rosa rugosa, commonly called the beach tomato rose.

Dog roses and rugosa roses are non-native species that have become naturalized in parts of Oregon. They are hardy, sprawling shrubs that can grow into dense hedges about 8 feet tall. For an extensive list of roses that produce significant rosehips, visit the Heirloom Roses website at www.heirloomroses.com.

Oregon has native roses that produce rosehips from clusters of single-petal, pink flowers that are about 2 inches in diameter. They grow up to 8 feet tall and spread quickly by underground suckers. The flowers of the Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana) have a sweet, cinnamon fragrance, and the flowers are followed by large, bright-orange hips.

Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii) bears bright red hips, and the bald-hip rose (R. gymnocarpa) has smaller red hips that continue to feed wildlife throughout winter. Bald-hip roses are so named because the flower sepals, or calyx, do not remain attached to the fruit as other rose sepals do (seen as the pointy parts of the fruit when dry).

The best time to harvest rosehips for eating is after the first few frosts, but be sure to leave some for overwintering wildlife. Snip rosehips from the stem, remove the remaining stem and calyx, wash, and dry on newspaper in the sun. To make dried rosehips, cut them lengthwise, place in a food dehydrator for about 5 hours (or until fully dried), then grind them in a food processor.

Shake the processed rosehips in a wire sieve to remove all the hairs that enclose the seeds (the seeds do not need to be removed). Store dried rosehips in an airtight container and keep in the cupboard. To make tea, use 1-2 teaspoons of dried rosehips, steep in boiling water for 15 minutes, and strain.

Rosehip tea is a traditional remedy for all sorts of ailments, as well as for symptoms related to menopause. Rosehips are featured on the cover of Marian Van Eyk McCain’s book to represent the beauty and value of the post-menopausal “elderwoman.” I haven’t read “Elderwoman” yet, but it’s on my winter reading list, because I whole-heartedly agree with the author’s view about aging:

“What I have realized is that if a woman approaches old age with fear and trepidation, with denial, dread or even just with resignation, she will simply become an old woman. On the other hand, if she approaches it with curiosity, expectancy, joyful acceptance, a passion to be of service and the willingness to explore new territory, she will find herself becoming an elderwoman.”

Now, that’s a mission I’d like to cultivate!

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.