It was a few years ago, while ambling along the back roads of Mount Desert Island, that I stumbled upon an estate sale of a florist that had closed it's doors decades earlier. The shop was housed in a tiny one-room building beside a residence and appeared like it was relegated to the status of a junk drawer for the past half-century. Lucky for me, the owners of the property were liquidating the scientific beakers, cataloging shelves, and other botanical knick-knacks that had once been the property of the business. Amongst the treasures that I found in that visit was a box of books on plant cultivation dating back to the late 1800's, sold to me for only a few dollars. Unsurprisingly, one plant held dominance over the content represented in that box.
Here is a quote taken from one of those books, written in 1893, titled 'The Rose: a Treatise':
"...The coming rose, The very fairest flower, they say, that blows, Such scent she hath."
It's true. No flower's scent has an affect quite like rose. Why else would it be the plant most associated with love and longing? Though rose's visual and olfactory allure is renowned, there are many cultures around the world that equally value its culinary and medicinal properties.
Though the many species in the rose family (Rosaceae) found in florist shops the world over are wonderful, we in Maine have a wild species that is equally divine. Along coastal Maine in June and Early July you'll find plenty of Rosa rugosa, commonly known as Beach Rose and one of my favorite edible flowers. This is the same species that produces rose hips later in the summer. It has a brief flowering period that perfumes the air this time of year and is commonly found growing along shore paths and beaches all along the Maine coast, though it is common adorning gardens inland too. Beach Rose is actually an invasive, brought to New England in the late 1800's by way of Europe, though the rose is actually native to Eastern Asia. That said, it naturalized in this region over a century ago and is now part of the charm of coastal New England.
The ideal way to collect rose is to pinch the petals with all five fingers and gently tug. If the flowers are mature they will easily release. They are incredibly delicate and as such need to be treated gently once harvested. I prefer harvesting into a wide shallow basket, though a paper bag will work as long as you quickly put them in a dehydrator or on a screen for drying upon returning home. As with any foraging, make sure to leave most of the flowers alone. Beach rose is usually abundant enough that you can harvest and move on without changing how the bush appears. Sustainable harvesting leaves plenty of flowers for the pollinators and ensures the health of the plant and abundant rose hips later in the season.
I dry most the rose petals I collect each season using an Excalibur dehydrator set to its lowest heat setting, this helps maintain the color and delicate flavor of the petals. Though with the low heat setting it may take up to a day and a half to fully dry them. The dried petals make a great addition to tea blends and are used in a range of Middle Eastern and Indian dishes, pairing particularly well with fresh mint in yogurt sauces for flavoring grilled meat. I store my rose petals in loosely packed mason jars and keep them out of the sun.
I always save a few handfuls of fresh petals for a delicious yogurt-based drink called a lassi. Lassis are an Indian beverage that are traditionally made sweet or salty and incorporate different fruits, nuts, and spices depending on the particular sub-region of India that they being made in. I make mine using all Maine-grown or produced ingredients and prefer the tang of small batch whole milk yogurt.
The following recipe makes a refreshing summer treat that's healthier than a milkshake.
The Maine Beach Rose Lassi
makes 2-4 servings
3.5 cups Fresh Rose Petals (loosely packed)
10 ice cubes
1 - 2 Tbs honey, diluted into 1/4 C of warm water (I like a lassi that is a little less sweet and use only 1Tbs of honey, people with a sweet tooth may prefer more!)
2 cups Unsweetened Whole Milk Yogurt
Optional- A few fresh strawberries may also be added.
Blend all ingredients until smooth, adjust for sweetness, and drink immediately or keep chilled in the fridge for up to a day.