by Roger Klinger
Autumn’s glory will be on the horizon soon enough, but summer is still alive and well in the mountains and with all the rain in the last 2 months, everything from wild mushrooms to flowers in the meadows and forests are abundant, happy and lush.
Some plants take us right back to childhood; one old-time favorite in cottage gardens around the world is the glorious shrub Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syrica. Rose of Sharon comes in a multitude of colors, and we are particularly fond of a beautiful periwinkle blue and soft pink double that we grow on our farm in Fairview.
Rose of Sharon is a perennial shrub and a member of the Malvaceae family, which also includes the giant and stunning hibiscus and a number of native wildflowers. Some species can be a bit invasive, and there are many places where they have escaped into the wild and grow like hedgerows along fences and in open fields.
My mother and grandmother loved these flowering shrubs, which seem to bloom forever and so prolifically; they always seem loaded with hundreds of flowers that continue to open every day, sometimes blooming into early autumn.
One of the things I love about exploring the infinite universe of wild edible plants and mushrooms is that so often, one can be familiar with a flower or plant for a lifetime and one day discover that all along it is not only beautiful but also a delicious edible or medicinal plant. That happened this spring with forsythia flowers and recently with Rose of Sharon. We have about a half dozen shrubs on our property and we love them all, but I had no idea how edible and useful they were.
The unopened flower buds are delicious sautéed in stir-fries and the opened flowers make wonderful garnishes that are beautiful, nutritious and delicious. The flavor is mild and a little bit like okra in texture, which means somewhat slimy or mucilaginous, but I like it. As I am a Northerner, okra was never used in our kitchen, and I thought I didn’t like it until a friend from North Carolina who was a marvelous potter and chef explained that I simply had not had it prepared properly. Once I tasted it fried or pickled I was hooked, and even though I haven’t found recipes yet, I wonder whether Rose of Sharon’s buds could turn into tasty pickles. The young emerging leaves can also be used as salad greens and the roots are edible as well but I have no interest in digging them up, as they are too beautiful in the landscape and on my table!
Native to Asia, Rose of Sharon is wildly popular in Korea. The flower is called “mugunghwa” in Korean — which translates into “flower of eternity.” The leaves are made into tea. These shrubs arrived in Europe in the 1500s and, like many plants, were brought to North America where they are now well established nationwide.
All parts of the shrub are either edible or medicinal. I mentioned the slimy, mucilaginous properties of the flowers; these substances are wonderful medicine, as the mucilage protects, soothes, and heals mucous membranes within our bodies.
When we ingest plants like this and they reach the large intestine, they are partially broken down by our bowel flora and become “pre-biotic,” which means the substances feed the good flora within our guts. Rose of Sharon is beneficial for heartburn, ulcers, colitis and IBS, which have become more prevalent in western culture due to diets high in processed foods and chemical cuisine, along with excessive usage of antibiotics, all of which destroys many of these beneficial flora within our bodily systems. Rose of Sharon is also helpful for urinary tract infections, as it reduces swelling and has a soothing impact upon the inflamed membranes.
The leaves and flowers can be used as a demulcent: drying the flowers or leaves, then adding a tiny amount of water creates a slippery lotion that can be used on burns, insect bites and rashes. Several herbalists recommend adding the powder to body butters, tooth powders and herbal oils.
Who would have thought that this supremely useful flowering shrub has grown in my gardens for my entire life and only now am I discovering how useful and delicious it is! I think it’s time to plant a few more varieties on our land, as there are so many gorgeous colors to choose from, and these shrubs are tough, hardy and basically carefree. Recently, I was in Wilkes County and I saw what I thought was a cluster of unusual crepe myrtle trees, each about 15 feet tall with thick, trimmed woody trunks. I was amazed to discover that they were giant Rose of Sharon shrubs that had been pruned over many years, and the effect was stunning.
So enjoy these beautiful flowers and common shrubs, and savor the splendid gifts of summertime in the mountains.
Contact Roger at email@example.com.