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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Rose hips have plenty to offer gardeners

The end of summer has come, but autumn isn’t yet in full swing. These dog days are devoted to the fruit of the rose, which is visible now that the woodlands are still green and the trees aren’t yet showing their colorful finale.

Called rose hips, these small, round fruits contain seeds wrapped in a fleshy outer coat that’s sweetly astringent and packed with vitamins. At this time of year, they turn from green to bright red or orange, making the plants and fruits stand out in gardens, fields and forests.

The weather is drier, temperatures are more comfortable and the children are back in school; it’s the season for gathering these bright red fruits.

Rose hips are ubiquitous in some regions, while in others, they’re only a garden plant. Keep a sharp eye out when walking or driving to spot them in full fruit, then note the location and return later to harvest.

You can group rose hips into three categories.

First are the many native wild roses such as the prairie or swamp rose, which were used by American Indians both for food and medicine. These tend to bear small single flowers and similarly sized hips. If you plant a ripe hip in your yard, you may be surprised by a volunteer rose come spring. Do that, and you’ll enjoy a hip harvest every year.

Another group of roses are the wild runaways from gardens such as the rugged rugosa rose with its corrugated leaves. Rugosa is an invasive plant in many states, and picking the hips helps to limit its ability to reproduce in the wild. Rugosas produce huge, flat-top hips that are good to eat when fully ripe.

Many other types of roses have escaped into the wild and now stand out for easy picking.

Still more roses exist in gardens, many of them from old homes with antique-rose varieties long forgotten. Most old roses bloom for just a few weeks in spring or early summer and then cease flowering to begin producing fruit. With these, all the hips come ripe at the same time, which makes them far easier to gather all at once.

For future harvests, plant some of these old once-bloomers in the garden, selecting those that offer large, smooth, brightly colored hips. The rose hip forms after a rose flower is pollinated. As the flower ovary swells with maturing seed, green flesh gradually turns red.

You’ll feel the ripeness because the hard hip turns soft and may exhibit a slightly wrinkled appearance. The flesh should slide easily away from the central core of seeds and their attached fibers. When the sugar levels of the flesh become high enough, you can eat them. At full ripeness, it’s far easier to slip the flesh away and clean a large batch of them for use in jams, jellies or to freeze for winter cooking.

Crafters prefer to harvest their hips at full color while the flesh is still rock-hard. At this stage, they make beautiful Christmas tree garlands. Using a large, very sharp needle and strong twine or dental floss, you can string them up like a giant ruby bead necklace. Hang the strings in a dark closet so they’ll gradually dry to a rock-hard substance by the holidays.

There are so many ways to use rose hips, from growing your own new plants from the seeds to making medicinal syrup for children. Even if you don’t have a garden, there are wild and runaway roses all over America that are bearing huge crops of fruit.

During hard times, this valuable resource can become the raw materials for beautiful gifts and decorations that won’t cost a cent. All that’s required is a sharp eye, a pair of clippers and lots of long, leisurely walks.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Her blog, the MoZone, offers ideas for cash-strapped families. Read the blog at E-mail her at Also, join her online for the Garden Party social networking at