Wild Harvest: Why fruit is the hippest in town


Hip, hip, hooray! It’s rosehip time again and the golden season of autumn.

Hips and haws are gleaming in the hedgerows and although many folk fail to recognise the difference, haws are possibly the most abundant berry of all in autumn.

Almost every hawthorn bush is festooned with little bunches of round, dark red or crimson berries resembling tiny spherical beads.

Being a dry fruit, they really need simmering with a few crab apples to release the juices, and even then produce only moderate jelly.

Rosehips on the other hand is the fruit of the wild dog rose, and has proved to be a great success story!

The fruit is small and oval, almost egg-shaped. Sometimes it may be almost an inch in length (2cm-2.5cm), and is orange-red or scarlet in colour. You can find them any time between August and November as they ripen. It’s the only completely wild fruit which has supported a national commercial enterprise - the production of rosehip syrup.

I’m sure most of us will recall school days when we were allowed to adorn our milk pudding with a teaspoonful of rich, pink syrup. Even more memorable for some perhaps was the extraction of seeds inside the hips. These are covered with stiff, sharply-pointed haws. Should any of them come into contact with sensitive areas of skin, they can prove most irritating, as some of our school mates discovered!

It wasn’t until World War One that British wives were encouraged to make a jam from rosehips, but their patience failed to endure the demanding processes involved.

Then in 1934, it was discovered that the fruits of English wild roses contained more vitamin C than any other fruit or vegetable. In fact four times as much as blackcurrants, and 20 times as much as oranges! When World War Two began to disrupt our usual sources of this essential vitamin, the government began to seriously consider the value of rosehips.

In 1941 the Ministry of Health suggested schemes for collection. In that year, 120 tons were gathered by voluntary collectors. From 1943, the harvest averaged 450 tons for several years. By 1948 or thereabouts, school pupils were encouraged to help pick the berries and Michael and I well recall such occasions.

During the war years, all this fruit was converted into rosehip syrup by commercial manufacturers. Rather surprisingly, under-ripe berries we preferred. This was a safe-guard against any transport hold-ups. They were dispatched from local centres direct to factories.

An elaborate process was designed to produce syrup with the minimum destruction of vitamin C. The hips were leached with boiling water immediately after grinding. This was to destroy an enzyme which inactivates the vitamin C very rapidly.

During the 1940s, a retired neighbour of ours was chief analyst of the International Chemical Company, and when we met him, he related information regarding his work. They had a factory in the Stamford Hill area of north London.

Bob was responsible for the surveillance of the process and the standardisation of the vitamin content of this syrup. The chairman and managing director was John Gormley. His son Antony is the sculptor and architect of the Angel of the North on the outskirts of Gateshead!

The government instigated rosehip collection so that their vitamin C content could be exploited. The vitamin-rich syrup was distributed free of charge to babies and young children, together with bottles of cod liver oil.

After collection, the sacks of rosehips were sent by passenger train to London to minimise deterioration. They were transferred as swiftly as possible to a cold store situated on the south bank of the Thames, which later became the site of the Festival Hall.

There they were frozen to prevent deterioration of the vitamin content, and stored until they could be processed. It was one of Bob’s duties to examine them regularly to keep them in good condition. He went on to say at that time, they resembled marbles, and if dropped, fractured into many small pieces.

From time to time quantities of hips were transferred to an associated manufacturer in Stratford. Here they were boiled with water, sugar added, and the vitamin content adjusted to a standard level.

The syrup was then transferred to the International Chemical Company factory where it was pasteurised, filtered, filled into screw-capped bottles and labelled. It was then called off from the firm’s store for distribution.

As an aside, Bob mused, with some of the bottles the pasteurisation, which was intended to kill the yeast associated with the hips, was ineffective! The bottles burst and made a mess of others.

Bob, and those in the laboratory, had an arrangement with the “goods inwards”, that any such packs of bottles should be routed to the laboratory, ostensibly for them to be examined. Actually they were to be salvaged for other purposes!

The syrup was emptied into 20-gallon glass carboys, diluted and the yeast killed. The resulting fluid was then seeded with a wine yeast culture, and the ‘must’ allowed to ferment.

Around Christmas the wine, which he says resembled a Bordeaux Nouveaux, was shared out and a good time was had by all!

NB one enterprising village school simply boiled the topped and tailed hips all day in the school canteen. The local public analyst reported that it contained 65mg of vitamin C per fluid ounce. As commercial syrup aims at 70mg per fluid ounce, one questions whether the elaborate wartime process was maybe over-cautious!?