Fall and winter are Uŋžíŋžiŋtka harvesting season! Starting in early fall, uŋžíŋžiŋtka kiŋ (rose hips) turn dark red, and start standing out from the green foliage all over the prairies. Uŋžíŋžiŋtka got its name, in part, from its habit of standing straight up on the prairies, so the red hips really pop out when they ripen.
The longer you wait to harvest them, the more the fruit will mature, and the sweeter they will become. Some people gather them in the fall, when the fruits are firm and plump. Others wait till after the first frost to pick them, when they are a little more squishy and wrinkly, because they will sweeten after the exposure to the cold. I’m not sure how (if?) freezing impacts their medicinal content, but I would like to find out, because the main reason I harvest them is for medicinal use. In some places, there are whole fields of them. But there aren’t a ton of them near where I live, so I just harvest a few whenever I get the chance, either before or after the frost.
Here is what they look like after a frost:
Rose hips have some of the highest Vitamin C content of any native North American plant. I have heard (though I haven’t yet verified) that the Vitamin C in citrus fruits is not actually very bio-available to humans — in other words, most of it just passes through our systems without our bodies being able to take it on or make use of it. I’ve heard (but still need to verify) that rose hips have a much more bio-available form of Vitamin C in abundance.
Rose hips are excellent for stopping and preventing infection. This is most likely related to the Vitamin C content — though I believe it’s important, when working with plants, that we remember that it’s never a just single chemical that’s responsible for all of the plant’s medicinal properties. Every plant has countless chemical properties, some of which western science has not yet investigated, and all of which work together to create these complex medicines.
The way that I was taught to use rose hips against infection is to boil them into a tea. This is a decoction, rather than an infusion (requiring a longer boiling time). The patient then drinks the tea (ie, it is taken internally).
On Standing Rock, a common use for rose hip tea is to take it prior to surgery in order to prevent infection. My mentor, Linda Black Elk, recommends it to her patients to drink for a few days before an operation. Many patients struggle with postsurgical infections, rather than having complications from the procedure itself, so this tea is a simple way to increase the likelihood of a successful recovery.
I recently delivered a jar of this tea to my neighbor on the rez, the mother of a little girl who was about to go in for heart surgery. I boiled a big handful of uŋžíŋžiŋtka in a half gallon of water, for about 15 minutes, turning it off after the water turned a dark pink. (Normally I wouldn’t add any sweetener, because rose hip tea has a pleasantly tart flavor but isn’t sour or bitter — and also because many sweeteners like sugar have immune-suppressing qualities, which are the exact opposite of what we’re hoping to achieve here. But because this was for a young kid, and I wanted to make sure it was palatable for her, I added a bit of honey this time.) Once it cooled down, I strained out the rose hips and put it in a jar for her to drink. She has since come through the surgery just fine — and while I’m sure this is mostly due to factors other than this tea, it never hurts to take every precaution to stay healthy!
Other uses for rose hips (with which I have no personal experience and therefore cannot describe in depth) include food and cosmetics. They are supposed to be really good for the skin, which makes sense to me, given the high Vitamin C content. Many people use them for making jams, jellies, and sauces. I’ve heard that the flowers can be used to give flavor to cooking, too.
Another interesting note about this plant: uŋžíŋžiŋtka is the word for both “tomato” and “rose hip” in Lakota. This was a source of confusion for me when I first learned this plant’s name. Linda Black Elk has lectured about 2 possible origin stories for this name:
1. Both are round, red fruits with seeds in the middle and bracts on one end — so perhaps this resemblance led the first L/Dakota people to encounter tomatoes after the already-familiar uŋžíŋžiŋtka.
2. Tomatoes first came to this area in cans, as commods. The cans had a wild rose (uŋžíŋžiŋtka) on them, so the contents were named accordingly.
I’m not going to speculate on this myself, but I do love a good word-origin story!