Over a thousand years ago, in the forests of Germany, a wandering king stumbled across a rose bush. He believed this rose symbolized hope and health and built a cathedral around it, a city soon sprang up around the cathedral and the wildflower grew, undeterred by the passing centuries, until the cathedral was bombed during World War II. The ancient rose, too, was thought to have been destroyed, but the next spring saw it valiantly blooming once again among the ruins. This Hildesheim Rose still flowers every spring and is believed to be the oldest living rose bush in the world, yet throughout its history it has been celebrated for more than just its legendary age, for it, like most roses, also possesses many medicinal benefits. As spring is upon us and wild roses are bursting into bloom in our own back yards, the perfect time has arrived to learn about the medicinal uses for this fragrant herb, and to preserve its healthful properties to be enjoyed throughout the year.
Roses have always held a prized place in the herbalist’s materia medica. Rose petals have strong anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and astringent properties and are very high in antioxidants and vitamin C. They are a valuable first aid herb and can be used topically to soothe and ease inflammation caused poison ivy or similar skin irritations, and the petals have been used for centuries to aid in wound healing, as they relieve pain, prevent infection, and reduce inflammation. An infusion of the petals has been shown to relieve headaches, help lower a fever, and support the immune system, and, of course, the marvelous scent of roses has also gained this herb lasting fame. The essential oil has long been valued for its ability to lift the spirits, and both historical herbalism and recent studies agree that the fragrance of roses can aid in relieving anxiety and stress.
Wild roses, a general phrase for a multitude of unique species, grow throughout most of the United States. Commonly found varieties that are excellent for medicinal use include Rosa mulitflora, Rosa palustris, and Rosa carolina, all of which are thorny shrubs that produce strongly scented, five petaled flowers in the spring, and bright red hips in the late autumn. Many cultivated roses also contain medicinal benefits, particularly older varieties with a strong fragrance, however, roses that do not have a scent or have been sprayed with pesticides should be avoided.
Once you have selected a rose bush, the petals can be harvested by holding the flower over a basket and gently tapping the base of the flower head so that the petals fall. With this method, just the petals are removed, leaving the rose hips on the plant to ripen and be harvested in the autumn. It is best to gather rose petals just after the dew has dried but before mid-day to capture the maximum essential oil content. The harvested petals can be spread out on a rack to allow any insects that might have been hiding in the flowers to make their way out.
There are many ways to preserve medicinal herbs, and one of the simplest methods of preserving rose petals is to simply air dry them on a mesh rack, or in a low dehydrator. They can then be stored in a glass jar with a tightly fitting lid and used for blending teas or making infused oils and vinegars. However, my personal favorite way to preserve fresh rose petals is to steep them in honey. Honey preservation has a long and fascinating history, and as honey is recognized as one of the few foods that has an indefinite shelf life, it is the perfect method to both preserve and enhance the medicinal properties of fresh, low-moisture herbs. It is always best to use raw honey, preferably from a local source, when making herbal preparations.
To make rose petal infused honey, fill a jar with the freshly harvested rose petals and cover them with raw honey. Stir gently to remove any air pockets, cover the jar and allow the honey to steep for at least several days before using. The rose petals will break down slightly and the honey will become infused with their flavor. The resulting herbal preparation has a very long shelf life, and can be used in a variety of ways. Rose honey can be stirred into tea or spread on toast to support the immune system and as a daily dose of vitamin C; the combination of roses and raw local honey has also been shown to be a very effective remedy for seasonal allergy symptoms, especially when taken preventatively; and, as both honey and rose petals possess legendary beautifying qualities, rose-infused honey can be used as a moisturizing face mask, either on its own or combined with white or red clay.
These beautiful flowers have delighted gardeners, poets, and herbalists alike for centuries, and the healthful benefits of this herb can be easily infused into daily life. So next time you pass a rambling bramble bush, stop, and smell the roses, and then gather their petals and enjoy the beautiful medicinal properties of this wildflower.
Rose Petal Honey
In recent years as herbalism has gained popularity, one remedy in particular has become very familiar, Elderberry Syrup. But this wonderful remedy is far from new. The elder tree has a long and beautiful herbal history, every part of the plant has been used medicinally, and the flowers and berries have wonderful flavors and healthful benefits to match. But the history of this herb is not only medicinal, the tree’s wood was once prized for making harps and flutes, and the juice of the berries was commonly used as ink and as a dye for fabric, or even hair.
Medicinally speaking, elderberries are very high in vitamin C, and also contain high amounts of antioxidants and minerals. The berries are perhaps most famous as a cold and flu remedy, due to their high vitamin C content and support of healthy immune function. They are known to work especially well in preventing or shortening the duration of upper respiratory infections. Modern medical studies continue to support this traditional use and elderberries have definitely earned their fame as an excellent immune boosting herb. Historical uses and some recent research suggests that elderberries can strengthen eyesight, and the berries are also known to have strong anti-inflammatory properties, which is reflected in their common historical use as a remedy to relive arthritic pain and inflammation.
Elderflowers contain slightly different medicinal properties than the berries, and are chiefly known for two benefits: lowering fevers, and promoting healthy skin. Warm elderflower tea is an excellent remedy for lowering fevers and helping cool the body, especially when combined with similarly cooling herbs such as peppermint and yarrow. Taking elderflower tea regularly while sick has also been reported to shorten the duration of feverish cold or flu, much like elderberries. But the delicate lace flowers also promote beautiful skin. An elderflower tea wash or an elderflower-infused oil or lotion gently detoxifies the skin and soothes any skin inflammation, such as acne or sunburn. Some studies also show that elderflowers can help protect the skin against damage from UV light, making it the perfect herb to add to a summer lotion.
An old English rhyme says that summer begins with elder flowers, and ends with elder berries. The season of elderberries is upon us, so it’s the perfect time of year to preserve the healthful benefits of this herb for the winter season. And when summer begins again with elderflower, remember that legend claims if one waits patiently under an elder bush on midsummer’s eve, one might see fairies dancing at their midsummer’s feast.
Basic Elderberry Syrup Recipe
In my herb garden a beautiful garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is spreading prolifically and is just about ready to bloom. This herb is familiar to most of us as a culinary herb, and its pungent scent is always reminiscent of the Thanksgiving dinner table, but a host of healthful benefits and traditional medicinal uses make sage an herb that deserves to be enjoyed throughout the year, not just in November.
The name “sage” is an Old French derivation of the plant’s latin name, salvia, which literally means healing plant, a name that aptly reflects both the modern medicinal uses of sage and the historical belief that sage could heal just about anything. Traditionally it was used as a natural bandage and considered an essential herb for wound healing, it was believed to enhance memory and knowledge, and even to lengthen life, a theory which inspired the old English rhyme, “He that would live for aye, must eat sage in May.” Sage has been found to be very high in nutrients such as vitamin K, iron, calcium, and antioxidants, and to aid in lowering blood sugar and cholesterol. It has long been used to support healthy digestion and is the perfect herb to include in cooking rich and heavy meals, which is most likely where the association with Thanksgiving dinner began. Drinking sage in teas can also soothe a sore throat, relieve stress, and settle an upset stomach, and when consumed regularly in either tea or tincture form, sage has been shown to improve memory and enhance focus and concentration.
Sage is also beneficial externally, it has strong anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, and is a gentle astringent, making it a wonderful herb to infuse in salves or oils and use topically for skin irritations such as acne, sunburn, and insect bites. The traditional use of sage leaves as a natural bandage is also beneficial, and a simple sage poultice can help prevent infection, reduce swelling, and promote healing of cuts and scrapes.
This silver-green summer herb can be enjoyed throughout the year in a variety of ways, both as a culinary staple and in medicinal remedies. For an unusual, summery sage treat, steep 1 TBS lapsang souchong and 3 fresh sage leaves in 8 oz of boiling water for 5 minutes. Strain, stir in 2 TBS sweetened condensed milk, and chill. Enjoy the unique flavor and healthful benefits of this sage tea over ice!
First published in The Tea Lifestyle, July - August 2020
One of the oldest recorded medicinal herbs with a fascinating history, Aloe vera has been long prized for its topical healing benefits. Legend claims that Alexander the Great once attacked an island kingdom to acquire the wound-healing aloe plants, Cleopatra was reported to use aloe daily to preserve her fabled beauty, and now this powerful little succulent grows on many a kitchen windowsill. It is best known for the cooling gel inside the leaves that quickly soothes minor burns. But aloe’s healing abilities extend well beyond just burns.
The fresh gel is cooling and reduces swelling and inflammation, eases pain, soothes itching, speeds the healing of wounds, and helps prevent scarring. As it dries, the gel forms a natural bandage that protects broken skin while its antibacterial properties prevent infection. Aloe is also an astringent and demulcent herb that nourishes, moisturizes, and strengthens the skin, making it the perfect herb to add to lotions, shampoos, face masks, or any homemade skin care products.
While aloe is considered a tropical plant, and is not winter hardy in zones 7 and colder, it does survive very happily indoors through the winter months, and thrives in partial sun outside in the summer. Try to find an aloe plant that is a shoot from a plant already acclimated to your climate, these shoots will be much hardier and grow more quickly than plants that have been transplanted from a different zone. Aloe likes to be planted in pots of slightly sandy soil and needs moderate watering. When temperatures begin to regularly drop below 50oF in the Autumn, bring your plan indoors and place it by a sunny window through the winter. It is best to set the plant outside in the sun for only a few hours at a time on early spring days to gradually re-acclimate it to the sun, otherwise the leaves have a tendency to sunburn. An aloe plant can be safely returned to its outdoor home when temperatures are consistently above 50oF in the Spring.
So next time you run into poison ivy in the woods, or end up with a few cuts and scrapes after hunting for blackberries, or sunburn on a warm summer day, reach for the aloe plant that is growing on your window sill, and enjoy its healing properties.
In the late winter months each year, the grey days are brightened by a tiny, purple promise of spring. The moment when the year’s first wild violet (Viola papilionacea), or heart’s ease, is spotted, the curling stem just barely raising that hint of vibrant color from beneath the heart shaped leaves, is always a magical moment, as that little flower is full of hope, joy, and a host of medicinal benefits.
Unlike most flowering plants, the violet flower that is such a familiar and welcome sight in springtime does not produce a seed. Instead, a green, unassuming, seed-producing flower forms beneath the violet leaves in late summer. Thus it is often said that the violet blooms in springtime for pure exuberance and joy that spring is near. And we get to share in that joy, as the early blooms bring healing benefits and the hope of warmer, sunnier days ahead.
Violets have a long history of being used for sore throats and dry coughs, they are very high in vitamin C, and an infusion of the flowers is considered very beneficial for easing congestion and lingering colds, making it a perfect herb to be blooming the cold and flu season is lingering into early spring. Heart’s-ease, a common name for the violet, and the shape of its bright green leaves give us a clue into another of its medicinal properties. Traditionally violet flowers have been used for heart health, and studies show that it strengthens capillaries and is anti-inflammatory. The name heart’s ease has also been attributed to this bright little flower’s ability to gladden the heart and bring a sparkle of joy to dreary February days.
Beyond their health benefits and springtime beauty, violets possess another, magically exciting property. Like the popular blue pea flower, violet flowers are a pH indicator, and a violet infusion, normally a deep indigo color, turns brilliant pink when something acidic is added. For an extra-special, immune boosting, and simply beautiful springtime treat, cover one cup of freshly picked violet flowers with 1/2 cup boiling water and allow to seep to half an hour, then strain and add the dark blue infusion to a pitcher of freshly made lemonade. The resulting magenta beverage will bring a smile to your face, health to your body, and joy to your heart as you remember the humble violet, and its promise of spring.
- Jane Taylor,The Violet
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