It's that time of year again and the hedgerows are heaving with fruit. But with most people intent on collecting juicy blackberries, the vibrantly coloured and perhaps mystifying rose-hip is often overlooked. Maybe it's because they are a suspicious red colour or maybe it's because they're a fruit that's never seen in supermarkets. Whatever the reason, the conclusion is the same: there's more to collect for yourself!
Rose-hips are the fruit of the rose bush and in the summer are found as a swollen green part of the stem just underneath the flower. Every rose left uncut will eventually produce a hip but some will appear in the summer and others later in the autumn depending on species. To my knowledge all rose hips are edible, though some varieties have better flavour than others.
Blessed with a delicate fruity taste and rich in vitamins A, B and C, Rose-hips can be used to make an assortment of products including jellies, syrups, teas, wine and even cosmetics. Both the fruit and the seeds are edible but you should not eat rose-hips whole due to irritating hairs which are found inside the berries. These hairs must be removed either by filtering during the cooking process.
The best variety for making edible products is the hip of the common wild rose, also known as the Dog Rose, Latin name Rosa Canina. It produces small, firm, deep-red hips that are rich in flavour and easy to find and harvest. They are available in the autumn but it's said the best time to harvest them is directly after a frost. Being that birds favour other foods over these hard seed-laden hips, you can often find them hanging onto bare branches in the darkest days of winter. If you choose to use them to make edible products please know that it's not necessary to separate the seeds from the red fruit as both have their own nutritious values. But of course beware the hairs mentioned previously and make sure they are excluded from your end product.
However, my main purpose for gathering rose-hips this week is to use them in making cold-process soaps. Dried and ground finely, both the seeds and the outer red hips are great for naturally colouring soaps and their anti-oxidants help extend the shelf-life. Another bonus is that their gritty texture creates a medium exfoliation which can be used both in soap as well as other cleansing products. The interesting thing about using rose-hips to colour your soap is that while the outer red berry will produce an earthy red colour, using the seeds will result in shades of brown. Therefore the fruit and the seeds must be separated if you wish to get a nice red colour. Though the hips of the dog rose can be used in soap-making, it's so small and fiddly to cut and clean that the investment in time is not really worth the end result. However, there is another rose-hip which is perfect for the job: the Japanese Rose-hip.
An introduced species in Britain, the Japanese rose-hip (Rosa Rugosa) can be found growing along hedgerows and even on vacant land and roadsides. They also seem a popular plant for municipal planting and here on the Isle of Man you can find them all over the place - they skirt the edges of many a public footpath and our small airport carpark is absolutely teeming with them. The scent of the flowers in summer is absolutely intoxicating and the hips they produce can grow to the size of a small plum. This makes them ideal for turning into rose-hip powder by a small producer.
After separating the seeds and most of the pith from the flesh, I put the flesh in the oven at a low heat for about three and a half hours until it's bone dry. Repeated pulsing and sifting, especially of all the itchy little hairs, results in a fairly fine powder that can be used sparingly in soap recipes and any larger pieces left over will make you a nice pot of tea.
I'm planning to forage for more rose-hips over the next couple of months and by the time I'm through I'll have enough rose-hip powder and tea to last me until this time next year. For the little effort expended in tracking the hips down and processing them I'm able to not only have a supply of quality local product on hand but the satisfaction of making it myself. Whether it's rose-hips or crab-apples, blackberries or mushrooms, there's nothing more fun and rewarding than foraging for wild foods and materials.