Incredible, Edible Old Garden Roses

Beth Schreibman-Gehring is infatuated with old garden roses. A longtime member of the Herb Society of America and an Education Chair for Western Reserve Herb Society, the Cleveland Heights resident has been an organic rose grower for more than four decades. She favors these heirloom beauties because they have the most storied qualities, including the strongest aroma of any rose category.

A rose is not always a rose, especially in the kitchen, where aroma translates into flavor for jellies, jams, infusions, syrups, tea blends, and other rose petal products, Beth says. Quite simply, the hardy fragrances of old variety roses elevate many a dish. “If you can’t smell it, there’s nothing to taste,” she says. “Those senses are so bound together. And, until you experience this category of roses, you don’t really know what a rose really tastes like.”

Old garden roses are plants that existed before 1867. These include classes such as bourbons, albas, and damasks. Rosarians choose 1867 as the line of demarcation because the first tea rose was hybridized that year. It is generally accepted that La France is the first hybridized rose. Other cultivars followed soon after.

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“That was a game changer,” says Deyampert Giles, horticulture specialist at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. “You had only naturally occurring roses until then, no cultivated roses.”

Most old garden roses originated from China. Culinary uses of roses and rose water have been tracked to 1200 BC and are especially popular in Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine.

While usually propagated from cuttings, roses can be grown from the seeds that form in a rose hip—the fruit of the rose that grows after pollination. Growing roses from seed is a time-consuming process that requires sterilizing and cold-treating the seeds. Once planted, seedlings may first flower in one to two years. It will require at least three years before they reach maturity and develop into a bush.

Alas, most have a limited bloom time, from late May to late June, with potential for a second bloom later in the summer. The roses can be harvested early in the growing season, like strawberries. The fragrant, flavorful petals are ready to pluck when they’re near the blooming end. “You really have to keep an eye on them. They should feel velvety and moist, not squishy, dry, or hard,” Deyampert says.

Beth demonstrates the delicate way of plucking the petals. “I hold the bloom between two fingers, where it attaches to the stem. Then I give it a gentle tug. If the petals come away easily, it’s ready for harvest. If not, the honeybees enjoy them for another day or two.”

Once picked, rose petals can be used fresh or dried for future culinary use. “Think of roses as a seasonal food,” Beth says. “They’re best in season.”

The best-known collection of old garden roses in Northeast Ohio is located in the Western Reserve Herb Society’s rose garden at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. In 2012, this garden received Certification of the Historic Rose Collection from the Herb Society of America. It was the first rose collection in the United States to be recognized. The sprawling plot includes a colorful palette of more than 65 roses, including Rosa Mundi, Apothecary’s Rose, and Zephirine Drouhin.

Next season, those who don’t grow vintage roses can experience the beauty and fragrance in the Western Reserve Herb Society’s garden. Just don’t pick the flowers.

The Western Reserve Herb Societys Herb Fair will feature plenty of products made with edible rose petals. The herb fair is 10am 3pm Saturday, October 12, at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, 11030 East Boulevard in Cleveland. Products will include tea blends, jellies and jams, and a coffee blend. For more information, visit WesternReserveHerbSociety.org.