Current Nature: Smell The Roses

Seth Engelbourg, Naturalist Educator and Program Manager at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation •

2 Rugosa Rose
Rugosa Rose growing alongside Madaket Harbor

It is now noticeably summer on Nantucket and warmer weather has arrived. With it comes many flower blooms and in June, none more ubiquitous than roses. Whether it is the iconic rose-covered cottages in Sconset, your own backyard, the pathway to the beach, or an open grassland, you are bound to see a rose flowering somewhere on Nantucket at this time of year.

Roses are often known in a horticultural context and likely have been cultivated by humans for at least 5000 years. But did you know that we have two species of native roses here on-island? These are Virginia Rose and Carolina Rose, and although they have some differences botanically, they both produce beautiful pink flowers and can grow in the dry, sandy soils typical of Nantucket. Their blooms attract many native pollinators and later in the season, the small red rosehips act as food for local animals such as birds and deer. Rosehips tend to persist longer into the fall than many fleshy berries and therefore provide an important source of nutrition when others are waning.

Additionally, we have a thriving population of Rugosa Rose, sometimes called Beach Rose. As the name suggests it can be found growing in coastal banks and other locations close to the ocean. One place on Nantucket where it is especially robust is along the pathways and stairs down to Steps Beach. Despite popular beliefs, Rugosa Rose is not native to Nantucket but originates in coastal areas of northern China, southeastern Siberia, Japan, and Korea. There are many theories about how it got here with some saying it was purposefully introduced and others suggesting accidental release, but the consensus is that it likely arrived in the 1800’s. Beyond Nantucket, it also exists on Cape Cod and other New England states. The flowers of this rose sometimes are pink and other times white, and the rosehip tends to be much larger than the native roses. Some sources may point to Rugosa Rose as being invasive but it is not officially recognized as so by the Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory Group.

1 Native Rose
Native roses flowering in the grasslands at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation property.

We do; however, have one rose species on-island that is definitely invasive; Multiflora Rose. It is listed on the Massachusetts Prohibited Plant List making the transport, sale, or propagation of it illegal in the Commonwealth. Contrary to other roses, it produces many more flowers (hence the name) than other species. If you drive around the island right now and see large expanses of white flowers growing along hedges or road edges, it is most likely Multiflora Rose. Along with its many flowers, it produces a shocking number of seeds; one plant may make up to a half million seeds each year, a large percentage of which are viable. Multiflora Rose also has a longer active period than many other plants, leafing out in the early spring and not going dormant until late fall. These traits help it outcompete native species causing ecological harm. If you notice it growing around your house, one way to help our native species prosper is to remove it.

Beyond the natural beauty of rose flowers and the habitat benefits that our native species provide, roses also have exciting culinary uses. All roses are actually edible, but I constrain my foraging to the wild ones, in case cultivated varieties were treated with fertilizer or chemicals. Rose petals can be eaten raw, steeped for tea, dried and mixed with salt, added to salads, or my favorite; made into syrup. For a recipe and some safety and ethics advice on foraging, see this article. Rosehips can also be eaten and are often turned into jelly or tea. Both petals and hips are a great source of Vitamin C and antioxidants if you need a local wellness pick me up. Always make sure you can positively identify any species of wild plant that you plan to eat.

Summer can be hot and stressful on Nantucket, but all you need to do to improve your mood is stop and smell the roses.

3 Multiflora Rose
Multiflora Rose with its distinct clusters of many white flowers. Photo by Jenn Kafas

Stay tuned for more editions of Current Nature, a bi-weekly column featuring seasonal topics, natural history information, and advice on the outdoors from the staff at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation.

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