Oh, Roses: Medicine, Magic & Honey
On the craggy side of our driveway, arching over a rusty fence, there is a rose bush that has grown wild. Once upon a time, I imagine, it was planted by a quiet, well-mannered couple. Decent, hardworking folks who placed that bush, square and manageable, at the far end of their placid yard and expected it to behave. Fortunately for us, it never has.
The first year we moved in, the roses took to bloom in a flurry of surprise. Like the vivid adventure dreams of a midsummer’s nap. Pop! Suddenly, they were exhilarating and everywhere, speaking to us of something grand. The next year, we had only a few blossoms. I almost forgot about the scraggly vines. But this season…this season has been something closer to resplendence. The blooms are opulent, bellied, swollen with perfume and that ineffable scent of ahh, a bewitchment that never fails to make my knees go slack and my eyes close…
Their petals cover the ground, like small mouths softly consuming the soil. Every day a new bloom pushes outward, begins its slow and sensuous unpeeling. I stand with both arms stretched out like wings beneath the tall canopy of pink. I carry them into the house, watch the chambers unfold by candlelight. They are like perpetual poets. Sometimes I get so close to them, my hands, my face, I feel as if I am drinking.
Roses. They hold a power over me.
Maybe it’s in my blood. According to family lore, my great great grandfather died for the sake of a single rose. An English gardener and flower breeder by trade, in the late 19th century this passionate predecessor entered a maddening race: to be the first man to breed a black rose. He tried for months. Time and time again, there was simply too much purple, a discouraging dash of pink, a ruining run of crimson. Finally, one fateful day, a new bloom opened and there it was, dark, rich, fulfilled– the black rose (or at least as close as anyone had yet come). At this point, the race had become so vicious, so contested, my great uncle refused to leave the rose. As my grandmother tells it, he decided to sleep out in the greenhouse rather than leave his beloved black bloom to the threat of poachers, known to be keeping close tabs on the race. The way I see it, the glory of the black rose drove him into a steeply dedicated madness. In a plot twist worthy of the romantics, my great great grandfather, who slept dutifully besides his single rose, caught pneumonia in that green house and fell deathly ill. Within months, he passed away, out of the history books and forever disqualified from the race. All for the sake of a single rose.
Crushed, coddled, beloved– Roses have surpassed that solid, statuesque position of symbolism. In the rich tableau of our cultural history, story, and song roses have come to hold a meaning that belongs to them alone. Like catching a heady embankment of your lover’s old perfume, Roses have simply become that which we have always ascribed to them. Love, longing. The double-edged sword of opened beauty and hidden thorns. Protection. Delicacy. The bravery to open fully to the delights of existence. I once read that there is a term for an object or creature that has come into being–exists– simply because so many people, for so long, have believed in its reality. Perhaps, this is the case for our roses.
I like to think that the roses always knew we would adore them. Perhaps it has been planned from the beginning. Maybe they visited the Ancient Persians, the first to cultivate the wild rose, in their dreams, swept them under the velvet robes of their bewitchment, and bid them to begin their devotion. And I’m sure it was the inner ebb of those blooms, the voice that belongs to them alone, that first told us of their medicine. In traditional Western Herbalism, rose petals and buds are prized for their nervine properties. They are powerful medicine for healing grief, loss, sadness, fatigue and heartache. Cooling and uplifting, roses are also used as a general anti-infective and anti-inflammatory. They are a sumptuously effective remedy for wounds, burns, traumatic injuries and sore muscles. Rose medicine is as diverse as the incredible multitudinous of their species (Dive into southwest Herbalists Kiva Rose’s Monograph for a rich introduction to the healing powers of Rose).
Rose Honey & Liqueur
One of my favorite ways to preserve the medicine of rose season is to craft a fresh batch of rose honey. Sensuous, evocative, and downright delicious, capturing this sweet stretch of profuse blooms is wonderfully fun. Visit your roses in the evening. Wait until the light has grown honey-warm and the scent of the blooms has spread like wine through the air. Or perhaps you’d like to venture out first thing in morning to shake off the dew. What matters is this: take time. Learn how to make the moment delicious, and all else you do (including your honey) will spin out from there. Get as close as the rose will allow. Slide your nose into the velvet folds and deeply inhale. Close your eyes. Feel their scent stir something inside you, humming some deep part of your body. Run the tips of your fingers across the arc of the petals. Watch how the unopened buds bounce in the wind. Observe, reflect, share your breath with this wild plant. When the time is ripe, gather. Wait until you have drunk your fill, and have been acknowledged by the rose…(and what an extraordinarily enthralling idea, to be recognized and accepted by such a specimen of perfection). Bring a basket or a woven bag of cloth. Collect the blooms, open and budding. Be gentle, touching the thorns on occasion. Once you have collected a few good handfuls, you are ready to make your honey.
Recipe & Directions
1. Destem the blooms.
2. Roughly chop the petals and pack lightly into a mason jar. (Add one intact bud for extra invocation of fullness and enchantment, the beginning of something new)
3. Pour honey over the mixture until the petals are just covered.
4. Add a good dash of brandy or your favorite alcohol to make a seriously seductive liqueur (you can choose to do half honey, half liquor for a stronger brew)
5. Cover and let the honey sit in a dark place for at least 6 weeks. (If the mixture is close to the rim of your jar, line the underside of your lid with parchment paper)
6. Sneak off spoonfuls as needed (eating the petals as you go) or simply strain by pouring your mixture through fine cheesecloth. If your honey mixture is stubbornly thick, pour the contents of the jar into a double boiler and gently heat until the honey is warm enough to run. (If you don’t have a double boiler you can easily create one by placing the metal rim of a mason jar in a large pan and covering with water. Balance your smaller pot onto the metal rim with its bottom just submerged in the water of the larger pot. Et voila).
Rose honey is a fabulous remedy for wounds and burns, you can apply directly to the skin. In my life however, this nectar almost always ends up dedicated to the realm of the edible.
Unveil your honey at a late summer garden party and serve with warm scones and sweet basil cocktails. If you made honey liqueur, try bringing your homemade elixir to the riverside with a lover and a picnic basket full of pillows. See what unfurls. Savor the special medicine of rose season in any slow corner of the year.