By Beth Schreibman Gehring
From as early as I can remember, I have been completely smitten by the beauty and versatility of roses. As I have mentioned before, my father was a passionate gardener who loved heirloom roses. Being a trained biologist, he knew the value of gardening organically, and he promoted the benefits of mycorrhizal fungi in the late 70s to strengthen the roots of his garden plants. Instead of using fungicides and pesticides, he planted fragrant herbs among the roses, knowing that many common rose pests would be deterred by the essential oils that they released. He would always tell me, “Remember Beth Ann, feed the roots first and forget about the flowers, because if you feed the roots, the flowers will always be healthy and beautiful.” This is a piece of advice I have followed to this day with real success.
Like many artists for centuries before him, my father used his roses as inspiration for his paintings, and my mother always arranged beautiful vases full of them all around the house. Because my father grew them organically, she used their petals liberally to decorate her serving platters, trifles, and cakes. She taught me that beyond their stunning beauty, roses have a vast array of uses that make them a valuable addition to any stillroom, and I am continually amazed by their versatility. From their use in cookery and perfumery, to their health benefits and sheer beauty, roses are a versatile and beloved plant that has left an indelible mark on our history and culture. In so many of our homes, they are a beloved decorative element in our gardens and floral arrangements.
With their wide range of colors, shapes, and sizes, roses are a flower that can be used in any setting, from a romantic wedding to a simple bouquet on a kitchen table. My mother always said, “If you have a rose blooming in your garden and a bottle of good wine, have a party!” and over the years, I’ve found that she was right. A mature ‘Zepherine Drouhin’ rose in full bloom is the ultimate icebreaker, with a beckoning fragrance that is noticed long before you ever see the bush. She’s an ageless beauty with huge Barbie-pink blooms. Then, there’s the classic ‘Rosamundi’, a bicolored beauty that is another true love of mine. With huge fuchsia and white blooms and a fruit forward fragrance, I’ve discovered that my guests fall madly in love with her, because most have never seen a two-toned rose. A bouquet of ‘Rosamundi’ mixed with bleeding hearts, sage, and two-toned ivy is utterly heart stopping in its beauty.
Heirloom roses are not only renowned for their beauty but also for their flavor and fragrance. Roses are a versatile ingredient that can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. The best roses for culinary use are those that are highly fragrant and have a sweet flavor, and no category fits that better than the Historic or Heirloom roses. These are the tried and true, many of them centuries old. I’ve always found these easy to grow, they’re hardy, and in my experience, thrive with a bit of benign neglect. They don’t need to be fussed over to produce beautiful and blowsy blooms—just fed well and occasionally pruned. I’ve even grown them in containers on balconies of apartments I’ve lived in and been very successful at it.
There are many classes of roses, each with its unique taste and scent. One of the most popular roses for flavor and fragrance are the beautiful Damask roses. They possess a strong aroma and a sweet, spicy taste, making them ideal for use in cooking, perfumery, and body care products. Damask roses have been used for centuries in the production of rose water, rose oil, and various other rose-based products. Damask roses are also used in the preparation of Turkish delight, rosewater, and pistachio nougat, and other sweet treats. My Aunt Pat used to flavor the Marzipan that she made us every Christmas with the rosewater that she would bring back from her travels. It made that already delicious treat even more magical.
Another class of rose that is renowned for its flavor and fragrance is the Bourbon roses. This rose was supposedly first grown on the island of Bourbon (now Reunion) in the Indian Ocean in the early 19th century. They are a popular choice for gardeners due to their hardiness and resistance to disease. Bourbon roses are also known for their velvety petals, rich colors, and large blooms, making them a popular choice in floral arrangements. They have a strong, sweet scent that is often used in the production of perfumes, rose water, and other rose-based products.
Every rose lover has their ultimate favorite, and mine is undoubtedly the Apothecary’s Rose (Rosa gallica officinalis). The Apothecary’s Rose is an incredibly beautiful rose with a uniquely spicy fragrance and deep pink blooms, making it a popular ornamental plant in addition to its many uses.
The Apothecary’s Rose is a historic rose cultivar with a rich history and numerous medicinal properties. This rose variety has been grown for centuries, with its origins dating back to ancient Persia. It was brought to Europe during the Crusades and quickly became popular among apothecaries and herbalists for its medicinal properties. In the 14th and 15th centuries, it was widely grown in monastery gardens and used for various medicinal purposes, including treating digestive issues, skin irritations, and fever. I have found the Apothecary’s Rose to be easy to grow, and every year my two bushes reward me with an abundance of fragrant petals that I use specifically to make delicious jams and syrups.
I’m often asked for what I believe to be the best way to capture a rose scent and flavor for cooking. For me, the easiest way to do this is by infusing them into granulated sugar. It is important to use unsprayed and organic roses. Simply mix several handfuls of fresh and fragrant rose petals into a jar of sugar, and let them sit in a cool, dark place for a few days. When you next open the jar, you will be amazed by the scent. The sugar will have taken on the flavor and fragrance of the roses, making it perfect for use in baking or as a sweetener in drinks. You can also make candied rose petals by painting each petal on both sides with an egg white wash or simple syrup and then sprinkling each petal liberally with finely granulated sugar. Lay each petal on a piece of parchment paper and allow them to dry. These can be stored in an airtight jar and used to decorate all kinds of wonderful recipes.
For a more elaborate recipe, try making a simple rose syrup. To do this, simmer two cups of honey and three cups of water in a pot until the honey dissolves. Add several cups of fresh rose petals, several cinnamon sticks, and a vanilla bean, and simmer for a few more minutes. Take it from the heat, and let it cool for several hours. Strain the mixture, and store the syrup in a jar in the refrigerator. You can use rose syrup to make rose lemonade or add it to cocktails or plain seltzer for a floral twist. This syrup is also delicious stirred into a custard or rice pudding!
Another way to use rose petals in cooking is by drying and storing them. Spread the petals out on a baking sheet, and let them air dry for a few days. Once dry, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Dried rose petals can be used to make rose tea or as a garnish for cakes and other desserts.
You can also use roses to make your own potpourri at home. Mix dried rose petals, and if you have them, whole dried roses/buds with other fragrant herbs like lavender, mint, or chamomile. I often add cracked cinnamon, star anise, and cloves, as well as some hemlock cones for interest. The last thing that I add is my favorite blend of essential oils. Use rose essential oil mixed with a bit of lemon, orange, oak moss, and pine. Stir it all together and let it age for a couple of weeks in a cool, dark place. When you’re ready, place the mixture in some decorative bowls, and enjoy the lovely scent.
In addition to their delicious flavor and fragrance, roses also have many health benefits. Rose hip tea is a popular herbal tea that is made from the fruit of the rose plant. It has a light, floral flavor and can be enjoyed hot or cold and is believed to have a calming effect on the body and mind, making it a popular choice for reducing stress and promoting relaxation. I generally harvest my rose hips in the fall after the first frost. They’ll be ugly and wrinkled at that time, but that’s when they are ready to use! Rose hips are packed with vitamin C and antioxidants, making them a great immune-boosting drink. Steep cracked, dried rose hips in hot water for 10-15 minutes. You can also add whole cloves, dried ginger, and orange slices. I personally love to blend my own rose petal teas using tulsi (holy basil), cinnamon, clove, spearmint, and lemon balm as a base.
Finally, rose baths and other soaks are a great way to relax and relieve stress. Add fresh or dried rose petals, several drops of rose essential oil, and powdered milk to a warm bath for a luxurious soak. You can also make a rose foot soak by adding rose petals and Epsom salt to a basin of warm water. Rose essential oil is extracted from the petals of the rose through steam distillation and is widely used in aromatherapy for its relaxing and calming properties. It is believed to promote emotional well-being, reduce stress, and improve mood. I add rose essential oil to carrier oils like jojoba or sweet almond oil to create a luxurious massage oil or you can add it to a diffuser to create a relaxing atmosphere in your home or office. Additionally, rose water, a by-product of the steam distillation process, is a popular facial toner and can be used to hydrate and refresh the skin.
Any of these uses are a great way to unwind after a long day and enjoy the lovely scent of your beautiful roses. Or, like my father, you can save your watering and garden work for the twilight hours, bringing a cocktail into your garden along with your hose and trowel!
Whether you’re a gardener, herbalist, cook, or simply a lover of beautiful flowers, there’s no denying the allure of a glorious rose garden, and if you have one, I hope that you’ll let me know in the comments which are your favorite roses to grow and why.
Wishing all of you the most wonderfully fragrant spring!
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. The information in this presentation is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Photo Credits: 1) Harvest Day of Roses at the Western Reserve Herb Society Gardens; 2) Rosa ‘Zepherine Drouhin’; 3) Rosa ‘Rosamundi’; 4) Rosa ‘Leda (Damask rose); 5) Rosa gallica officinalis (Apothecary’s Rose); 6) Drying rose flowers; 7) Dried rose flowers; 8) Rose hip; 9) Dried rose petals. All photos courtesy of the author.
Beth Schreibman Gehring is a lover of all things green, delicious, growing, beautiful, magical, and fragrant. She’s also a lifestyle blogger, storyteller, and occasional wedding and party planner who uses an ever-changing seasonal palette of love, life, and food to help her readers and clients fall madly in love with their lives! Beth lives and works with Jim, her husband of 40 years, and is owned by 17 full sets of vintage dishes, hundreds of books, two cats, one dog, a horse, a swarm of wild honeybees, a garden full of herbs, fruit, vegetables, and old rambling roses, too many bottles of vintage perfume and very soon, a flock of heirloom chickens! She is the author of Stirring the Senses: How to Fall Madly in Love with Your Life and Make Everyday a Day for Candles & Wine (available on Amazon) and is currently working on a new book, Roses for Beauty, Flavor, and Fragrance. Join her in her gardens at https://bethschreibmangehring.substack.com/, or contact her at email@example.com.