Sandy’s Garden ... Rosa Canina

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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“In the Philippines they have lovely screens to protect you from the glare.”

“In the Malay States, there are hats like plates which the Britishers won’t wear/At twelve noon the natives swoon and no further work is done/But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

These words come from Noel Coward’s song ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, which was first performed on 1 June 1931 in New York and was later adopted by the composer as the signature tune for his cabaret act.

And the following words, written by the English poet Robert Herrick in a poem entitled, ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’ were first published in 1648. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying; / And this same flower that smiles today / Tomorrow will be dying.” They are based on a poetic theme … carpe diem … attributed to the Roman poet Horace (65 BC – 8 BC), the Latin words meaning ‘seize the day.’

The very tenuous link between Herrick and Horace … apart from the same initial letter … is Rosa canina. You have guessed, gentle reader, that Rosa canina is the proper botanical name for a species of rose, described by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) as, “a vigorous arching deciduous shrub with mid-green foliage and pale pink or white flowers 5cm across, either solitary or in small clusters, in early summer, followed by ovoid red fruits.” And you have very probably worked out the we know Rosa canina better as the dog rose, although older local names which have passed into desuetude include dogberry and witches’ briar. Interestingly, the formal name … Rosa canina … is simply a copy of the name given to the plant by the Romans, a name which was, in turn, the Latin translation of the Greek name for it.

The usual explanation of how a plant has been known for millennia to the citizens of different countries by exactly the same name is that the dog rose came by its name because the flowers were used to treat the bite of a mad dog to prevent the victim developing rabies. And, since the dog rose comes into bloom in the early Summer, you may now understand my link between the dog rose and mad dogs. It is only fair to add that there are other explanations for the name, ranging from the dog-tooth shape of its thorns to the absence of any scent, reducing it to a lower level of regard in the plant kingdom, hence ‘dog’.

However, it was not the flowers that prompted British governments of the 1940s and 1950s to offer 3d. … three old pennies equate to a little over 1p today … for every pound weight of dog rose hips … seed pods … collected by children and taken to their schools to be bagged and collected for processing. The hips have a very high vitamin C level and were used to make vitamin-rich syrup, tea and marmalade, very valuable dietary supplements in times of shortage such as wars. (I well remember homemade rose hip syrup.) In fact, Rosa canina was imported into the United States during the Second World War to be cultivated for that very purpose; and dog roses are now found growing wild in all of the temperate states.

One can still find rose hip syrup on the shelves of retailers of vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements, including supermarkets, with claims that it is useful in the treatment of afflictions ranging from arthritis, bladder stones, colds and flu to premature ageing – and, as ever, I merely report these claims and do not endorse them. It is not, however, favoured as a children’s medicine on account of its high natural sugar content and its effect on young teeth.