Science of the Seasons: Finicky fruits — Defeat defenses to harvest tasty, nutritious rose hips

Photos courtesy Dr. David Wartinbee. Harvesting rose hips can be worth the effort, but watch the thorns, seeds and spines.

Photos courtesy Dr. David Wartinbee. Harvesting rose hips can be worth the effort, but watch the thorns, seeds and spines.

By Dr. David Wartinbee, for the Redoubt Reporter

This fall I was describing to a friend the heavy fencing I had constructed around mountain ash trees to protect them from our local moose herd. She commented that it stands to reason that moose like mountain ash trees since they are members of the rose family. For some reason I had not really considered this aspect of the moose attraction.  No wonder moose are daily visitors to our yard.

Everywhere you look around our home we have methodically planted members of the rose family because of their flowers and fruits. We have dozens of different rose bushes providing beautiful flowers all summer long. Nearby we also have several varieties of raspberries with red or golden berries. Then there are the raised-bed strawberry patches.   In another area of our property is the orchard with dozens of different apples, several plum trees and even a couple cherry trees. All of these, and even the common serviceberry bushes that line the driveway, are members of the rose family. I guess we have planted a lot of “moose bait,” because every one of these rose family relatives are great dinner fare for moose.

A favorite of the moose are the rose bushes we nurture in our yard because of the showy flowers and attractive scents. When the flowers are gone the bushes produce colorful, rounded rose hips where each flower used to be.

The rose hip, or haw, is the swollen portion of the stem that surrounds the ovaries and the seeds inside. They are often bright orange or red but several roses, like the well-known Sitka rose, produce crab apple-sized hips that are very dark maroon or even black in color. It shouldn’t be too surprising, because of the family similarities, that rose hips are like miniature apples.

Rose hips this time of year are shriveled due to dehydration, but still retain their vitamins in the outer, red layer.

Rose hips this time of year are shriveled due to dehydration, but still retain their vitamins in the outer, red layer.

The pulpy outer skin of the rose hip is sweet and colorful, but the majority of the inside is full of seeds. Rose hips are well known as a source of teas, as well as a concentrated source of vitamin C. Just about any place that sells tea products will have something with rose hips as an ingredient.

The claimed benefits of rose hip products seem to cover anything that might ail you.  Supposedly. Rose hip teas and powders can help cure digestive issues, breathing problems, skin rashes, vision issues, etc. Most of these claims are largely unsubstantiated, but it is well known that there are a variety of different vitamins found in the rose hips.

During World War II, England encouraged increased usage of rose hip products to augment intake of vitamin C. This came about because they were effectively cut off by German submarines from their more normal sources of vitamin C in citrus fruits from the Mediterranean. In Alaska, early settlers made candied products as well as jams, jellies and syrups from the skins of rose hips. The candies were made by boiling the hips, removing the internal seeds and adding sugar to the solution. The candied outer portion could be kept on the shelf for long periods of time and would provide a source of vitamins during the winter months.

The seeds within the rose hips are also of interest. When examined under a microscope, the mass of rose seeds are accompanied with numerous, spinelike hairs. Initially they are soft and flexible, but when they dry these hairs become more like miniature cactus spines. These slender spines are only about 3/16 of an inch long and have a very sharp point. There are a variety of reports that these fine hairs, when dried, make a sadistically powerful itching powder. Other sources indicate that these same dried seed hairs can cause considerable digestive tract irritation. Considering these possible problems, with good reason, the recipes for homemade rose hip products often caution that handling the seeds without glove protection is to be avoided.

The fine hairs of rose hips can be irritants and should be avoided.

The fine hairs of rose hips can be irritants and should be avoided.

The large and diverse rose family includes many of the scrubs and trees that we cultivate for beautifying our yards. Other family members are favored because of the various fruits they produce for our table. Some members of the rose family have historically been used for medicinal values and apparently even for mischief. The large, brown ungulate population of Alaska — moose — are pleased with our choice of cultivated plants, since they enjoy feeding on these rose family plants as much as humans enjoy them.

David Wartinbee, Ph.D, J.D., is a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus. He is writing a series of columns on the biology of the Kenai River watershed.

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