Words by forager Sarah Watson
Photography by Sarah Watson
Roses are said to be one of the world’s best-loved flowers. All rose flowers are edible and there’s a long history of their consumption going back several thousand years.
Their aromatic, vividly floral, earthy notes with a hint of sweetness, spice and bitterness introduce elegant, exotic flavour to cocktails and drinks. Summer is the peak time to collect rose petals, although flowering can start in late spring.
Common name: Rose
Latin name: Rosa species
Plant family: Rose (Rosaceae)
Edible part: Petals (and later the fruit: hips)
Our diets are enhanced by many rose family fruits, such as strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, apples, cherries, plums, damsons and sloes. The fragrant petals of roses themselves have been used for jam, jelly, syrup and rosewater, and to flavour sweets and desserts, vinegars, and tea and spice blends. Rose petals contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and rose extract is said to soothe headaches, help digestion, reduce stress and improve mood.
There are over 100 species of rose - they are shrubs or climbing, woody plants. Single roses have five petals held in a cup-shape (ornamental semi-double and double blooms have more) and numerous yellow stamens in the centre of the flower. The leaves consist of five, seven or nine leaflets arranged in pairs with a terminal leaflet, usually on a thorny or prickly stem. They are oval and pointed with sharply toothed edges.
In Britain, the dog rose (Rosa canina – pictured above) is the most common of the delicate pink or white, native wild roses which scramble through the hedgerows and woodland edges of much of Europe. The flowers are not strongly fragrant, so they’re best left for insects, however later in the year, their ripe hips can be put to good use. Better for the scent and flavour of their petals, are highly fragrant, ornamental roses. Roses are widely cultivated over much of the world and there are thousands of varieties.
Or look out for the attractive, usually bright pink, highly-scented flowers and large tomato-like hips of the Japanese rose (Rosa rugosa – pictured below), also known as the beach rose. It is native to East Asia, but has naturalised over most of Europe, as well as parts of the US, having been widely planted in gardens, parks, retail centres and car parks. Japanese rose is often seen as an invasive species as it can form dense thickets, particularly in coastal areas, potentially out-competing native plants.
Rose pairs especially well with citrus, elderflower, strawberry, raspberry, pomegranate, cucumber, cardamom, pink pepper, mint, fizz, honey, almonds, cream, chocolate and vanilla. Use rose carefully though – if you overdo it, it can be like drinking perfume! And be aware that some people are allergic to roses, or the pollen.
It is said that the Romans made wine with rose petals, and rose is still used in country wines. Hendrick’s gin has long been infused with the strongly fragrant Damask rose, and with the recent rise of floral botanicals in gin and spirits, others are following suit. Among them are the Scottish Apothecary Rose Gin and Tinkture Rose Gin an organic Cornish gin, as well as versatile botanical spirit, Ketel One’s Grapefruit and Rose.
When collecting rose petals for syrup, infusions or rosewater, choose a fragrant rose variety that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals. Pick flowers that have recently opened and look fresh and clean. Take only the petals – leaving the rest of the flower means rosehips may still be produced later in the year. Laying the petals on a tray outdoors for around half an hour should allow any lingering insects to escape.
Use cultivated or wild rose petals as a pretty garnish, either fresh, dried, crystallised or frozen in ice cubes. I use rose petals, particularly Japanese rose, to infuse and flavour spirits for cocktails, such as vodka, gin and white rum. Simply infuse a good handful of fresh rose petals in a bottle of your chosen spirit for up to two days. Then fine strain, squeezing the petals gently to get most of the liquid out, and decant into a clean bottle. Add sugar to taste and shake to dissolve, or add rose petal syrup.
To make rose petal syrup, layer several handfuls of fresh rose petals with 500g of white, granulated sugar. Massage the rose petals gently with the sugar until they start to soften and bruise. Cover and leave for two to four days. Add the sugar and petals to a pan with 400ml water and the zest of a lemon. Gently heat the liquid, stirring gently until the sugar dissolves, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes until the syrup thickens a little.
Strain (you could use the leftover sugary petals in a spirit infusion), and bring back to the boil for a couple of minutes. Then just before taking the pan off the heat, add the strained juice of half a lemon and stir. Decant into a sterilised bottle and seal. Once opened, store in the fridge and consume within 2 months.
When foraging, keep to public footpaths if you're on private land. Always use good field guides to identify your finds to 100% certainty before eating them - if in doubt, leave it out.
For more information on foraging see Sarah’s website: wildfeast.co.uk
By Sarah Watson, Wild Feast, adapted from the original Mexican Paloma cocktail recipe.
Half a fresh pink grapefruit, juiced
25ml Patrón Silver tequila
25ml Rose vodka
20ml Rose petal syrup
15ml Freshly squeezed lime juice
Soda water to top up.
Shake citrus juice, spirits and syrup with ice, strain into an ice-filled glass. Top with soda and stir. Garnish with a salt and crushed pink peppercorn rim (optional), or a slice of grapefruit.