Roses are an enduring icon of the North: red for Lancashire and white for Yorkshire. For many centuries these images have emblazoned our county flags. Originally the symbols of the houses of Lancaster and York, these roses have come to signify the place rather than a dynasty.
Although the War of the Roses was more than 500 years ago it would be fair to say that the rivalry between Lancastrians and Yorkshire folk has never really ended. Largely due to my own family’s proud Lancashire roots, I was aware of roses and their significance from an early age. Just between you and me, I remember being slightly disappointed that our allegiance was with the red rose as my preference has always been for white roses…but don’t tell anyone.
Loyalties aside, I adore roses, not just for of their beauty but because of their wonderful fragrance. There are so many varieties, from albas, centifolias and damasks to gallicas, bourbons, teas and musks. It is a vast collection but I much prefer the older members of the rose family. I have chosen ancient roses for my own garden, such as the useful little wild rose and the highly fragrant 15th century Great Maidens Blush. Our ancestors held roses in high regard for their culinary uses and medicinal value. Consequently, damask, cabbage and wild roses were believed to be essential additions to any apothecary or sensible housewife’s garden.
The flavour of roses was once hugely popular and a wide array of recipes for syrups, cakes and conserves can still be found in old herbal books. Here is a recipe from A Treatise of Cleanness in Meates by T. Tryon dated 1692, for rose syrup.
Damask Rose Syrup
Pour boiling water on a quantity of damask roses just enough to cover them. Let them stand four-and-twenty hours. Then press of the liquor and add to it twice the quantity of sugar. Melt this, and the syrup is completed.
These days rose flavouring is having a revival; I’ve recently bought rose cordial and I know Beeches (a Lancashire company) still make dark chocolate rose creams to die for. Although it’s possibly an acquired taste, it’s worth pointing out that roses can be healthy too, especially the hip.
Just before the Second World War, rose hips from the wild rose were discovered to contain more than 20 times more vitamin C than oranges. Rose hip syrup became a main stay of the nation’s diet and saved the country from vitamin deficiency. The syrup is enormously beneficial for the immune system with a spoonful a day warding off coughs and colds. Rose hip syrup is known to be equally successful at restoring the nerves after shock or trauma and it has long been used to treat insomnia and depression.
The syrup of both the hips and petals is known to fight infection and to replenish good intestinal bacteria to the gut after a course of antibiotics. Recent research has confirmed their use in cases of dysentery and gastric inflammations, while roses in any form have also been known to relieve the symptoms of PMT and the menopause.
Roses were equally esteemed as a vital ingredient in beauty treatments. I have made several cosmetic recipes with fresh roses which always feel and smell luxurious, and add a glow to your skin. You can buy distilled rose water, a cooling astringent, but you can also make it yourself. I realise there are fancy distillation apparatus on the market but I’ve replicated the same process with a slow cooker. I filled the pot with several handfuls of freshly picked petals and three pints of water then boiled them for a few hours. All the condensation on the inside of the lid is distilled rose water. I collected it, bottled it, and voila! Homemade rose water.
I also love to use rose oil, both as a room scent in an oil burner and as an ingredient in homemade ointments and creams. Pure rose essential oil is incredibly expensive so a few years ago I decided to make my own. The resulting oil was a great success and retained its powerful scent for two years. Here’s how I made it.
Take two to three handfuls of fresh rose petals, preferably damask or other heavily scented variety – rinse them thoroughly then pat dry with a tea towel
Cheap light olive oil (or sweet almond oil if you can afford it)
Pre-sterilise a jar and lid, fill the jar with the washed and dried fresh petals, push them into the jar (bruising the petals speeds the process so don’t be too delicate with them). Take a mug full of oil and gently heat; pour the warm oil over the contents of the jar filling to the top. Squish the contents down with a spoon, replace the lid and leave on a sunny windowsill.
After a few days, and once you have collected a fresh supply of petals, empty the contents of the jar through a muslin cloth over a sieve into a pan. Leave for 20 minutes for the oil to drip through then collect the contents up inside the cloth and squeeze the last of the rose oil out of it. You will notice that the oil coming out of the squeezed cloth is pink – this is pure rose oil.
Fill a sterilised jar with the new petals and pour the warmed oil (hopefully now containing some pure rose oil) over them. Replace lid and leave on a sunny window sill. I repeated this process around eight times and a sediment of pure rose oil settled to the bottom. However, the entire oil is saturated with the fragrance and I tend to shake the bottle before I pour some out to mix the separated halves.
The final petal free product smells divine, keeps well and is well worth all the faffing. Oil of roses is also known to restore hormonal balance and can be used to alleviate feelings of depression and anxiety.
Roses are everywhere and it is easy to dismiss them as a pretty bedding plant or splash of colour climbing up a wall, but roses are so much more and are a constantly evolving species. New varieties come on the market every year in a bewildering array of colours, shapes and sizes. However, it is the persevering nature of roses which make them so special, surviving throughout the centuries as ingredients in delicate perfumes, herbal remedies and even doing their bit to save Britain from malnutrition during the war.
But most importantly the rose has endured as a symbol of the North, with its resilience, strength and unaffected beauty.
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.