Friday, November 20, 2009

Hips and Haws

Rose hips in Bonnefont Cloister Detail of Rose Hips

Above, from left: The ripe fruits of the white rose tree in Bonnefont garden are held on their stems late into the fall, and provide food for birds and wildlife; the fleshy red fruits of the rose are known as “hips” and contain seeds that were used medicinally in the Middle Ages.

Apples, roses, and hawthorns are all members of a single botanical family, the Rosaceae. The fruits of the hawthorn are known as haws. The fruits of the rose are known as hips, a word of Germanic origin that appears in the glossary compiled by the Anglo-Saxon grammarian Aelfric in the ninth century.?? (The Romans had designated the rose hip as malum roseum, or “rose apple”.)

While all roses bear hips, it was the fruit of wild roses such as the briar rose or eglantine (R. rubiginosa) and the dog rose (R. canina) that seem to have been used for food and medicine. The cookbook of Apicius, compiled in the fourth or early fifth century A.D., includes rose hips in several recipes, but in both ancient and medieval cuisine rose petals are used more often than the fruits. Wild roses seem to have been a famine food gathered in case of need rather than a delicacy. In the fourteenth-century Middle English translation of the Romance of William of Palerne, two lovers, William and Melior, flee to the woods disguised in bearskins, where William is given advice by his cousin???who has been transformed into a werewolf???as to what foods they may sustain themselves on, in addition to their love. It is suggested that they forage for wild plums, blackberries, hips, haws, acorns, and hazelnuts (”haws, hepus, & hakernes & hasel-notes”):

(For acorns as famine food, see last week’s post, “Pigs and Pannage“.)

William Turner, in his New Herbal of 1565, warns that those who make tarts out of hips should take heed to remove all the “down” from the fruit. These little hairs inside the hips are quite irritating to the skin. (I once made hedgerow jelly from hips, haws, and sloes, while in England, and found the process of removing the fibers from all those little hips pretty unpleasant, as well as tedious.) Dioscorides also recommended that this wooly matter be removed before the fruits were dried as a medicament to “stop the belly.”?? Albertus Magnus specified the seeds contained in the hips as a remedy for diarrhea in infants.

Rose petals and oil of roses are more frequently recommended in medieval herbals than the fruits. Although garden roses were characterized as cold in the humoral theory of the Middle Ages, wild roses were classified as hot. Hildegard of Bingen says that the hips are very hot. As such, they would be considered efficacious in a complaint of?? “a cold cause,” such as catarrh.) Hildegard recommends rose hips as a cure in Book LII of the Physica:

One who has pain in his lungs should crush rose hips with their leaves. Then he should add raw honey and cook these together. He should frequently remove the froth, then strain it through a cloth and make spiced wine. He should drink this often, and it will carry off the rotten matter from his lungs, purging and healing him.

Despite the flower???s ubiquity in medieval art, rose hips are rarely depicted in paintings or illuminations. However, a leafy stem of rose hips does appear in an early sixteenth-century book of hours commissioned by Anne of Brittany and painted by Jean Bourdichon. The painter shows a single “robin???s pincushion” or rose gall, formed by a parasitic wasp. (For the illumination, see the British Library Images Online.)

The gall, which is especially common on the wild field rose (R. arvensis) and the dog rose, is created when the wasp deposits its eggs in autumn. The larvae overwinter in the plant tissue, which provides both food and shelter until they hatch out in spring. This rose gall, known as a “bedeguar,” was powdered and used to treat internal ailments.

???Deirdre Larkin


Fisher, Celia. The Medieval Flower Book. London: The British Library, 2007.

Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.

Touw, Mia. ???Roses in the Middle Ages,??? Economic Botany, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan.???Mar., 1982).

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Comments (9)

  1. ann cannon Says:

    Over the years I’ve planted some roses mostly for their hips–especially the gray-leaved rosa glauca. So beautiful this time of year.

    Thanks for the information.

  2. thea mcginnis Says:

    since i’m in the DC area, i still have some roses blooming as their last hurrahs! we haven’t had a frost yet. (I also still have dalhias blooming, too). but one of my roses has some hips on it. they are so beautiful, gathered and displayed in a small silver bowl. This post was fascinating. Thank you, Deidre! t

  3. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Ann—The contrast of the red hips of Rosa glauca with its gray-green foliage is certainly very beautiful. Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix include the hips of some forty different species in their photographic guide Roses (New York: Random House, 1998). It is certainly worth considering the hips when choosing roses for your garden.

  4. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hi, Thea—Even here in New York there are some roses still blooming in this extraordinarily mild weather, although not the medieval species in the gardens of The Cloisters, which only bloom in May and June.

  5. rosemary perkins Says:

    In countries where orange juice was a rare (and usually unpalatable because canned) import until the late 1950s, dilute rose hip syrup was usually given to infants as a source of vitamin C. (Fresh oranges also had to be imported and were available only seasonally.) The syrup was sold commercially for this purpose in New Zealand and other outposts of the British Commonwealth; resourceful mothers who couldn’t afford the commercial brands made their own rose hip syrup.

  6. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Rosemary—

    Sigrid Goldiner, a lecturer here at The Cloisters, has told me that she picked rose hips as a child in Scotland during World War II as part of a government-sponsored program to increase stores of a much-needed anti-scorbutic. (I’ve spent many hours picking hips for The Cloisters in the past, and know how much work it is, and I didn’t have to make mine into syrup!)

  7. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    P.S.—Sigrid has just told me that she was paid a penny a pound for her rose hips.

  8. vera green Says:

    I am an expat Scot .After the war all the rural kids were asked to go picking hips and haws and bring them to school .We had enormous fun walking the country side every weekend ,sometimes filling large paper bags or old pillowslips (no plastic bags back then)We had six kids in our family and next door had twelve. It was a great way to keep all us kids occupied and contributed so much to the health system as lots of stuff was still rationed. The powers that be processed it and it was a wonderful way to make sure everyone got enough Vitamin C ,as the local health clinics passed it out free along with concentrated orange juice and cod-liver oil malt (loved that stuff).Those jaunts in the country side are among my most endearing childhood memories

  9. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Vera—

    I wish jaunts in the Scottish countryside had been part of my childhood. I have visited only once, many years ago, and would dearly like to go.


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