Weymouth, Mass. — Back during World War II when citrus imports were almost nonexistent, the Boy Scouts of Britain would scour the countryside and home gardens alike for rose hips. Reputedly, they gathered several hundred tons of the then-precious fruits. Among other things these hips were made into marmalade as a substitute for the bitter-orange marmalade that did such wonderful things to an otherwise ordinary piece of toast.
The British were not alone in this endeavor. Many other nationalities hunted the rose hip in that period of limited international fruit exchange, notably the Russians and the Scandinavians.
The New Zealanders, more remote from the scenes of conflict, nevertheless were major processors of the rose hip -- or hep as it is sometimes called.
In Sweden rose-hip soup and rose-hip tea are still common; while in the Soviet Union hips are so valuable that roses are cultivated specifically for the hips and a mechanical hip picker has even been designed.
After the war rose-hip collection declined dramatically in most areas. While the hip's value as a food source, principally vitamin C, may be dramatically higher, pound for pound, than citrus fruit, it couldn't match the convenience of squeezing juice from either an orange or a grapefruit.
More recently the hip has begun returning to favor, largely because of the growing interest in natural foods. In an era when forecasts of future shortages of farm land -- and the accompanying strain on food production -- are commonplace, the rose is again being looked on in a different light: as a source of food as well as beauty.
In other words, enjoy the flowers and then harvest the hips.
Factors that improve the quality of rose hips are degree of latitude and altitude, degree of ripeness, and finally, cultivation and fertilization.
Rose-hip values increase with the degree of latitude away from the equator (north in the Northern Hemisphere; south in the Southern Hemisphere). Put another way, nature placed the better-quality hips in those areas where citrus does not grow. Similarly, Soviet experiments suggest that the higher the latitude, the better the rose hips.
Hip quality reaches its peak at the point of ripeness -- when hips are brightly colored and firm. Quality falls off rapidly as the fruits become overripe and turn soft. Generally, rose hips are yellow before they ripen, scarlet when ripe, and dark red when past their peak.
According to the Soviets, who have done more than most people about rose-hip production, pruning can do a lot to improve both quality and quantity of hips by allowing light and air into otherwise dense growth patterns. They also have found that an annual application of aged manure, placed as a mulch around the plants, has improved hip quality.
Fortunately, the best hip-producing roses are the more rugged varieties which are less prone to the common rose problems. But not all hips are great-tasting. Anything descended from the Scotch brier produces a bitter hip; and some of the newer hybrids are infertile and so produce no hips at all.
On the other hand, there is the Rosa rugosa species, of which there are more than 100 varieties. It is the king of them all. While the Rugosa hip may not be the top- rated among all rose hips, its quality can compete with the best. And sometimes it produces hips as large as crab apples while most other hips are pea sized.
The rugosas, native to Japan, China, and Korea, have proven their winter hardiness in northern Europe and, on this side of the Atlantic, in such frigid states as North Dakota and Minnesota.
As shrubs they grow tall, up to 6 feet. For this reason they make good privacy screens and hedges. Some folks protect their vegetable gardens by erecting a fence and then planting a hedge right alongside it. The rugosas soon hide the fence and the two, in combination, prevent all burrowing, climbing, or jumping critters from getting into the garden. In this situation the rugosas also provide a useful windbreak. Then there is the harvest of hips.
In processing hips be sure to use stainless-steel knives, wooden spoons, earthenware or china bowls, and glass or enamel saucepans. Do not use copper or aluminum utensils as they have a detrimental effect on the quality of the final product.
Here's how to process the hips:
* Trim both ends of the hip with kitchen scissors.
* Cook rapidly with a cover over the pan until tender and then cool quickly.
* Rub the cooked pulp through a sieve to strain out the spines and seeds.
The resulting puree can be used ina variety of recipes. For rose-hip marmalade, add one pound of sugar (heated to melting point) and three teaspoons of lemon juice to each pound of puree. Simmer until thick and spoon into sterilized jars. Store in the dark.
According to Organic Gardening magazine, good sources for rugosa roses are:
Farmers Seed and Nursery, Faribault, Minn. 55021; Kelly Brothers Nurseries, Dansville, N.Y. 14437; Rice Nurseries, Geneva, N.Y. 14456; Roses of Yesterday and Tomorrow, Brown Valley Road, Watsonville, Calif. 95076; Gurney Seed and Nursery, Yankton, S.D. 57078; Mellingers, 2310 West South Range, North Lima, Ohio 44452; and L. L. Olds Seed Company, PO Box 1069, Madison, Wis. 53701.