By Jim Long
Is a rose an herb? Most people would say no, believing herbs to be merely parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and a few others. However, if you visit India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey or neighboring countries in the region, you’ll find the rose firmly planted in the list of important culinary seasoning plants. In fact, the rose is so important that the International Herb Association (IHA) has designated it the official herb of the year for 2012, and the Herb Society of America will be promoting the rose throughout 2012 as well.
Since I grew up eating roses, pea blossoms and redbud and tulip flowers, it wasn’t a big surprise to find roses used as flavoring during a trip to India. The traditional Indian dish gulab jamun—a pastry rolled into little balls and fried, then soaked in rose water and honey—is very popular. Just about any ice cream parlor throughout the country offers the typical chocolate and vanilla flavors, but rose outsells them both. Rose milkshakes, sherbets, sauces, cakes and cookies are all common, as well.
All roses are edible, but some taste better than others, and some should be avoided. Here are some tips for eating your roses:
• Eat only roses that have not been sprayed with insecticide, or grown using systemic insecticides and fungicides. Many systemic commercial rose fertilizers include chemicals meant to prevent insect and fungal problems, such as black spot. The rosebush absorbs the fertilizer, and the chemicals tag along. You don’t want to eat those.
• Choose roses that have a pleasing fragrance. If a rose smells good, then it’s going to taste good. You’ll find that many tea roses, as well as some of the endless-blooming roses, have virtually no fragrance, and thus no flavor. Red roses, generally speaking, have little fragrance or flavor, but the pinks, yellows and occasionally the white bloomers often have both.
• Never eat roses from a florist shop. Growing those fabulous long-stemmed beauties takes a lot of chemicals and fertilizers—and none of them are safe to eat.
The best roses to eat are those you grow yourself. Try the old-fashioned heirloom roses that are generally low maintenance and don’t require spraying or special chemicals to encourage blooms.
When choosing roses to grow in your garden, select plants that are blooming. Give them the smell and taste tests. Chances are if you like the fragrance, you’ll enjoy the flavor. Pull a petal from the rose and enjoy, but avoid the white area at the base of the petal as it is generally slightly bitter. The best time to harvest roses is midmorning, after the dew has left but before the heat of the day. As you harvest, place the petals in a barely dampened tea towel. If stored in the refrigerator, the petals will keep for up to a week without wilting.
SOURCES FOR ANTIQUE ROSES
Look for fragrant old rose varieties from sources below, as well as Jim’s book, How to Eat a Rose. Find out more at longcreekherbs.com. Additional sources for antique and heritage roses online at edibleaustin.com.
Antique Rose Emporium
10000 FM 50, Brenham
7561 E. Evans Rd., San Antonio
Austin Rose Society
Barton Springs Nursery
It’s A Jungle
907 Kramer Lane
It’s About Thyme