Rose hips are the edible and nutritious fruit of the beautiful deciduous rose, a perennial member of the most extensive genus of classified plants. Botanists disagree on the number of species of rose, claiming 30–5,000, or more. There are more than 10,000 cultivated varieties of this fragrant native of Europe and the Middle East. Roses have been a garden favorite as far back as 2,600 B.C. during the time of the ancient Sumerians. This beneficial beauty was named the "Queen of Flowers" by the Greek poet Sappho writing in 600 B.C. Since that time legend and history have intertwined and volumes have been written about the cultivation and virtues of the much-loved rose. Garlands of roses decorated the statues of gods and goddesses in Greece and Rome. Early Christians considered rose hips to be sacred, and crafted the first rosary beads from rose hips. The rose is considered a symbol of love everywhere, despite, or perhaps because of, the thorny stems which can render a sharp prick to the unwary who are attracted to the fragrant and lovely blossoms.
Most species of rose grow as an upright shrub or a climbing vine. Wild roses often grow in thorny thickets or briers. The usually pinnate leaves are arranged alternately along the stems with two to four pairs of finely toothed, dark-green, oval leaflets and one terminal leaflet. The large blossoms of wild roses have five petals. They grow singly on the stem or in clusters of two or three. Cultivated varieties may have many more petals with colors as varied as white, yellow, pink, and many shades of red. A rose's true fruits are the numerous tiny achenes, each enclosing a single seed, contained within the hip. Rose hips develop from the stem tip that swells to enclose the hairy achenes. The smooth skin of the hip is first green, then turns shades of orange and, when fully ripe, a deep red.
Among the species of rose particularly valued for the hips are Rosa rugosa, known as Japanese rose; R.
canina, known variously as wild briar, witches briar, dog rose, hip fruit, or hip tree; R. acicularis; and R. cinnamomea. The dog rose, so-named because of the belief that this wild briar could cure the bite of a rabid dog, thrives in stony ground, along embankments, in hedgerows, and on the edge of woods. The long and fibrous root and herbaceous trunk of this hardy species produces numerous shoots that divide into many thorny branches. The dagger-like thorns may also have inspired the common name, taken from the Old French word dague meaning dagger. The branches may reach 10 feet in length. They arch out and curve downward bearing an abundance of sweet-smelling, stalked flowers. The dog rose hips are said to contain the highest amounts of vitamin C of all the varieties, with 10 to 50 times that of an orange. In England, during the Second World War, the scarcity of citrus products led to a nationwide effort to harvest and process the nutritional hips of the dog rose. The dog rose hips, abundant in the countryside, provided the populace with adequate vitamin C to prevent the onset of the deficiency disease known as scurvy.
R. rugosa, also known as large-hip rose or wrinkled rose, is found growing wild in the northern United States and Canada, along coastal areas, and around seaside sand dunes. The dwarf shrub is valued for the size of the fleshy rose hips. This species is also distinguished by its very wrinkled leaves. This species is used in Chinese medicine. An infusion of the flowers, known as mei gui hua, is said to promote blood circulation, stimulate the flow of energy, and provide relief for stomach distress, liver stagnation, dysentery, mastitis, and leukorrhea.
Rose petals and hips, and the seeds contained within the achenes, are medicinally valuable. The leaves are also sometimes used. Rose hips and seeds contain vitamins C, E, B, and K, tannin, pectin, carotene, malic and citric acid, flavonoids, fatty and volatile oils, and proteins. The vitamin content of the hips varies depending on the species, the growing conditions, the time and manner of harvest, and the care taken in drying and storage. The hips of roses grown in cooler climates have been found to have a higher content of vitamin C.
Rose hips are an abundant natural source of vitamin C, regarded as an important antioxidant. Used regularly as a tonic or food supplement, these compact, nutritious hips will help build the body's defense against colds and flu, catarrh, sore throats, and chest infections. Six to eight fresh raw rose hips, taken daily, will help prevent illness. Rose hip tea, taken following a course of antibiotic therapy, will help re-establish the beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. The natural balance of intestinal flora may have been disrupted or destroyed by the action of antibiotic drugs. Rose hip tea can also soothe the nervous system and relieve exhaustion. An infusion of the leaves and petals is said to help bring down fevers. A decoction of the seed is diuretic and is used for kidney ailments and problems with the lower urinary tract. The pectin and fruit acid content of the seeds have a laxative and mildly diuretic effect. Rose hip preparations can also ease the pelvic congestion and pain of menstruation.
The essential oil of rose, used in aromatherapy, has an uplifting effect, helpful in dispelling depression, stress, and nervous tension. The species generally used for oil distillation is a hybrid of R.centifolia and R. gallica. The oil is extracted from the fresh petals by water or steam distillation. Rose hip seed oil is vitamin rich and contains as much as 35% linoleic acid and 44% gamma-linolenic acid, or GLA. There are as many as 300 chemical constituents in rose oil, though only about one-third of these have been identified. This essential oil promotes tissue regeneration and is helpful in the treatment of eczema, psoriasis, and dry, sun-damaged, and aging skin. Newer methods of extracting the medicinal oil from rose hip seeds have yielded a purer product, without the need to evaporate the solvents used in older methods.
Herbalists in centuries past, such as the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, recorded numerous ways to prepare roses to extract their medicinal virtues. A variety of products using rose petals, hips, and seeds are commercially available, including perfumes and lotions, essential oil, rosewater, and tablets and tinctures.
The bright-red rose hips should be harvested in the fall after the first frost. The hips are cut lengthwise to facilitate drying and placed on a paper-lined tray in a warm and airy room out of direct sunlight. The irritant hairs on the dry hips can be winnowed by shaking the hips vigorously in a wire sieve. The hips should be stored in clearly labeled, dark glass containers in a cool location. The dried hips will retain medicinal potency for up to one year.
Decoction: Use about 2.5 tsp of thinly sliced, fresh or dried rose hips per 8 oz of cold water. Bring to a boil in a glass or ceramic pot. Reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Drink cold in small doses throughout the day.
Tincture: Combine 4 oz of finely cut fresh rose petals and hips, or 2 oz dry powdered herb with one pint of brandy, gin, or vodka, in a glass container. The alcohol should be enough to cover the plant parts. Cover and store the mixture away from light for about two weeks, shaking several times each day. Strain and store in a tightly capped, dark-glass bottle. A standard dose is 10–15 drops of the tincture in water, up to three times a day.
Rose hip syrup: Clean the freshly gathered hips by removing the seed-bearing achenes and any fine hairs. Prepare a strong decoction and mix with honey and/or sugar in a double boiler. Stir and simmer until the sugar is dissolved. Pour into small glass containers. Cool and seal with a tight-fitting lid. Refrigerate.
It would be wise to use heavy gloves when harvesting the thorny rose. Pregnant women should not use essential oil of rose during the first four weeks of pregnancy.
Some people may experience diarrhea or such allergic reactions as hives or throat swelling from large doses of rose hips. Patients who experience an allergic reaction should stop taking rose hips and contact their physician at once.
No interactions with conventional prescription medications have been reported as of 2002.
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McIntyre, Anne. The Medicinal Garden. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1997.
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"Rose Hips." In: Organic Gardening Collection, No. 4 Rodale, Inc., 1999.
Daels-Rakotoarison, D. A., B. Gressier, F. Trotin, et al. "Effects of Rosa canina Fruit Extract on Neutrophil Respiratory Burst." Phytotherapy Research 16 (March 2002): 157-161.
Szentmihalyi, K., P. Vinkler, B. Lakatos, et al. "Rose Hip (Rosa canina L.) Oil Obtained from Waste Hip Seeds by Different Extraction Methods." Bioresource Technology 82 (April 2002): 195-201.
American Herbalists Guild. 1931 Gaddis Road, Canton, GA 30115. (770) 751-6021. <www.americanherbalistsguild.com>.
American Rose Society. P. O. Box 30000, Shreveport, LA 71130. (318) 938-5402. <www.ars.org>.
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD