Like many kids in the early 80s I was given Delrosa Rosehip Syrup whenever a cold threatened me. I remember my grandmother being offered a spoonful, wrinkling her nose up in distaste and saying: “I had enough of that in the war thank you very much.”
I’ve always remembered this partly because as a self-confessed sugar addict I could not conceive how anyone could say no to such a delicious spoonful of sweet goodness. I think this also stuck in my memory because my grandmother, who was a foodie and a fabulous cook, often spoke about rationing and the lack of food during the war. I always wondered how she managed during those difficult years.
In Spring 2014 Life on Pig Row, a blog I write foraging articles for, asked if I would be interested in writing a short book on the use of wild herbs during the Second World War. At first the idea didn’t exactly get my creative juices flowing but, as I began my research, I unearthed a tale which was nothing short of amazing.
I discovered an untold story which had completely passed me by, despite studying this period of British history at university. I’d watched the BBC’s Wartime Farm a few years ago, which briefly covered the collection of wild plants during the Second World War. But it did not even begin to explain the true extent of the huge volunteer effort. As my book recounts, thousands of tonnes of wild plants were collected over the war years by volunteers and used for a vast array of purposes. The drugs they subsequently made mended our troops, while other wild foods played a vital role on the Home Front saving us from mass malnutrition.
Rosehips in particular turned out to be Britain’s saving grace, as they were found to be extremely high in vitamin C. Because of this they were collected in vast quantities and manufactured into syrup. This was sold to the nation to supplement a meagre diet and was given free to children thereby avoiding widespread vitamin deficiency. Rosehips from the wild rose were once a far more common sight in hedgerows up and down the country and contain 20 times more vitamin C than oranges, along with healthy doses of vitamins A, B, D, E plus iron and calcium.
My grandmother, who already had a small child, gave birth to her second child alone in the parlour during an air raid. With two little ones she must have seen more than her fair share of syrup. Consequently her obvious repulsion all those years ago suddenly made perfect sense. She did live to be 92 however, so Rosehip syrup doesn’t seem to have done her too much harm.
In memory of my grandmother and all the other women who kept the home fires burning, here is a recipe from a 1943 Hedgerow Harvest leaflet for Rosehip syrup.
For 2 lbs of hips
Have ready 3 pints of boiling water, mince the rosehips in a coarse mincer, drop immediately into boiling water or if possible mince the hips directly into the boiling water and again bring to the boil. Stop heating and place aside for 15 minutes. Pour into a flannel or linen crash jelly bag and allow to drip until the bulk of the liquid has come through.
Return the residue to the saucepan, add one and a half pints of boiling water, stir and allow to stand for 10 minutes. Pour back in to the jelly bag and allow to drip. To make sure all the sharp hairs are removed put back the first half cupful of liquid and allow to drip through again.
Put the mixed juice into a clean saucepan and boil down until the juice measures about 1 ½ pints, then add l lb 4ozs of sugar and boil for a further 5 minutes. Pour into hot sterile bottles and seal at once.
The Herbs and Hedgerows of Wartime Britain is available to download from Amazon here
DISCLAIMER: These are some of my personal experiences combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate. In the treatment of specific conditions it is best to consult a herbalist or your GP. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the plants mentioned above then please stop using them immediately. Always take care when identifying plants.