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Good Hips: Roses in the Autumn Garden

Roses are like people – some just have nicer hips than others. Some have pretty faces, some have great legs, great shoulders. Some have good hips – especially in October. And I like good hips. To me, they speak of strength, fertility and beauty.

Autumn is the best time for the widest variety of voluptuous and vibrantly-colored rose hips in the garden, in arrangements, in recipes and in photographs. Roses will set fruit throughout the growing season, as evidenced by wild roses, if given the chance. However, we rose growers can be so vigilant about picking flowers or deadheading to encourage repeat bloom, that it’s often not till the end of the season when we’re advised to stop picking in order to harden our plants off for winter that we give our plants a chance to form their lovely hips. Autumn’s cooler nights, cooling soil, and shorter daylight hours likewise signal to all of our plants that it’s close to the end of their seasonal chance to get the job (reproduction) done and set seed if at all possible.

Rose hips are, after all, the fruit and seed of the rose and two things are required in order for a rose to produce hips. The first requirement is that your rose is not a sterile cultivar, which would preclude it being able to produce seed. The second requirement is that your fertile rose is successfully pollinated, which is what will trigger fruit/seed formation.

As seed structures, much like their relatives the apples, rose hips are a mass of small flatish individual seeds, called ‘achenes’, all bound together in the soft, sweet flesh of the colorful hip. The flesh of the hip serves multiple purposes, both protecting and even nourishing the seeds inside while they are developing. Furthermore, brightly-colored-when-ripe hips stand out, providing an attractive offering to birds and mammals (such as bears and people). The colorful fruit entices animals to pick and eat or process the flesh. Because the seeds inside are fibrous and hard, they pass through the intestines of most birds and mammals, and are by- and -large discarded by people.

When a seed passes through a bird or mammal’s digestive tract, the highly acidic conditions help to process the durable protective layer surrounding the inner seed. This ‘stratification’ or ‘scarification’ allows the seed to germinate more easily once it finds itself in welcoming ground. Finally, if not picked and processed by hungry, predatory creatures, the ripening and then breaking down of the hip’s nutrient-rich flesh over the course of the seasons will also serve to stratify the inner seeds. Whether the seeds have been passed through the gut of a bear, through the crop of a bird, spat out by a person, or been allowed to age on its stem or on the ground nearby, all of these pathways lead to the hip’s whole intended purpose: the safe dispersal of the seed.

While all seed-bearing plants, which roses are, are genetically designed to set seed and attempt to reproduce, some roses do in fact set hips more easily and abundantly than others. Species roses – including the rugosa roses, which are famed for their fat, fleshy, apple-like hips – produce perhaps the best hips. Single, and more open-flowering doubles and semi-doubles are also likely to produce good hips because they are pollinated with relative ease.

According to some sources, very tightly and profusely-petaled rose forms can be difficult for insects to pollinate well, can have that dense-petal formation at the expense of stamen and other reproductive parts, are more likely to be sterile hybrids, so therefore might not produce hips consistently. However, according to Karl Bapst, American Rose Society Master Rosarian, some of the rugosa hybrids are the most densely -petaled and produce the best hips, so dense-petals-equaling-poor-hips is not a hard and fast rule.

Successful pollination triggers good fruit set. If you want good hips, then you need good bugs. So your best bet is to avoid pesticides – particularly broad-spectrum pesticides. Although you might want to only harm insects you worry are damaging your roses, any pesticides are also likely to be killing or impairing your pollinators.

Cut stalks of hips can make wonderful displays – combined with more complex floral arrangements, or on their own. Placed in water, stalks of fresh hips will generally remain plump for about a week. Dried hips are also very attractive and will hold on the stem for a very long time.

Rose hips have a rich history of culinary and ritual use. Noted by nutritionist as being a “good source of Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), Vitamin K, Calcium and Magnesium, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Manganese”, many cultures have used rose hips to make tea, jelly, wine and even to eat as a dried fruit.

The term rose hip linguistically comes to us from the Old English “heope” or “hiope” and alternative forms are rose hep and rose haw. It is said that early Catholic monks used dried hips of wild rose to create the first rosaries – using each hip to keep track of their required number of prayers said.

I like the idea of marking spiritual significance and prayer through the nurturing beauty of rose hips in the autumn garden – a spot full of grace indeed.

Arrangement and photos include hips from the following roses:

R. rugosa sp. – (first photo) fat, squat-round, reddish orange
R. ‘John Cabot’ – climber – noticeably oblong deep orange
R. ‘La Belle Sultane’ – large, round burgundy, dull-rough sheen
R. ‘The Endeavor’ – round, shiny, apple-like orange to red on single hip
R. ‘Shropshire Lad’ – round, mid-sized, dull orange
R. californica – multi-clustered, oblong, bright orange to red
R. ‘Crown Princess Margareta’ – slightly oblong, pale orange to red
R. ? white spray shrub rose – name unknown – small, squat round, greenish to brown

For more information:

Butte Rose Society: www.butte-rosesociety.org
Shasta Rose Society: www.shastarosesociety.org/Shasta_Rose_Society/Home.html
Bidwell Heritage Roses: http://bidwellheritagerosesgroup.com/
Sacramento Historic Rose Garden, Sacramento Old City Cemetery: http://www.oldcitycemetery.com/roses.htm
American Rose Society: http://www.ars.org/

This article originally appeared in the Butte Rose Society’s October 2011 Newsletter. Love roses? The Butte Rose Society’s annual rose show – A Festival of Roses – is Oct. 22, 2011 from 1 – 4 pm at Our Divine Savior Social Hall, 566 East Lassen Avenue in Chico. Admission is free. For more information contact: www.butte-rosesociety.org.

More of my environmental writing can be found in the Chico News & Review, and Pacific Horticulture. Follow Jewellgarden.com/In a North State Garden on Facebook.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. Made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico, In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.