A wise person once said, “You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses.”
You can also rejoice because sweet-smelling, beautifully colored roses are just the beginning of the joys of the rose family. This botanical family (rosaceae) is vast, useful, familiar, beautiful — and delicious.
Consider the typical single rose. It will have five sepals, five petals, and a clutch of stamens all fused together at their bases to form a cup, in the center of which the pistil stands, waiting for a pollinator to come.
Now took at an individual flower among a cluster on an apple tree. Same arrangement. And, like the rose, a lovely scent. The fruits of the rose are called hips, and look like miniature apples from the size of a nickel on Rosa rugosa bushes to tiny little fruits on thorny old roses like polyanthas and gallicas. During World War II, when Nazis overran much of southern Europe and the English couldn’t get oranges to provide vitamin C to their children, the Brits harvested rose hips and made rose hip tea for the children, which worked just fine, as rose hips are rich in this vitamin. Like apple seeds, however, the seeds of rose hips, which can produce cyanide in the digestive tract if damaged, should not be eaten.
Not only do some apples smell like roses, but some rose tissue smells like apples. The eglantine roses mentioned by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream have a distinct apple scent. And in Southeast Asia there’s a fruit called a rose apple that eats like an apple but tastes like roses smell.
It’s easy to see how pears are in the rose family, and likewise quinces — both the edible kind of quince from which we make membrillo to go with our manchego cheese, and the ornamental red-flowered quince shrubs that are among the first plants to greet us with blossoms in late winter.
Less well known rose family members are the loquats that we are lucky enough to be able to grow here in Sonoma County, with their intense sweetness and a heavenly flavor that tastes like a combination of peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries, all wrapped in floral overtones. There isn’t much flesh on an individual fruit because there’s a large seed inside, but the flesh is so tasty that it’s worth the effort.
We encounter the medlar even less often, but medlars, too, are close relatives of our roses. This small tree was widely planted in ancient Greece and Rome, so it would be suited to our Mediterranean climate. It’s a native of Turkey and Iran. Its fruits, one to two inches across, are harvested in fall and must be bletted; that is, allowed to ripen off the tree, much like hachiya persimmons. When the fruits soften and seem ready for the compost pile, they’re ready to eat. They taste like really good apple butter, with notes of cinnamon, vanilla, cider, and wine.
Interestingly, almonds are also in the rose family and they, along with the quinces, flower in late winter. Unlike the other fruits of the rose family, with almonds we go for the nuts. A trip to the Paso Robles area in February or early March is astoundingly beautiful as miles of almond trees are in bloom.