What I’m proposing to do here is for us to examine the rose from as many perspectives as we can. We’ll notice how folk use has or has not proven accurate as well as how the tea, tincture and essential oil forms are similar or different, or, better yet, complimentary. As we look at the rose historically and as a symbol, I hope to share with you my excitement about synthesis: that examining and honoring a particular herb in all its diverse forms will not only increase our enjoyment of that herb but will also assist us in broadening and deepening our skills as herbal practitioners, retailers and consumers.
In this talk I will start with a short description and history of the Damask Rose plant, or Rosa damascena, as it is the species of rose to which I’ll be referring. After examining religious symbolism and historical medicinal usage, we will briefly go over a few basic herbal principles, including some chemistry and herbal energetics, to create a context for the comparison of rose in its various forms.
Old roses, which refer to any species of rose before the year 1867 when the first hybrid tea was introduced, belong to either of two classes: old European roses or East Asian roses. The Damask Rose is an old European rose which reaches 6’ or more, typically having long, arching and very thorny canes, and light, greyish green leaves. The summer damasks flower only in the late spring, and it is from cultivars of this type that we get rose oil. They are very hardy plants, even in the USDA Zone 3.
The origin of the damascena species is still a mystery. One theory claims that it is a hybrid of Rosa canina, or Dog Rose, a wild rose that was wide spread throughout ancient Europe, and Rosa gallica, or Apothecary’s Rose, about which both Horace and Pliny wrote as it was in cultivation and general use throughout classical Greece. According to Grieve, the damask was developed in northern Persia on the Caspian Sea or in the province of Faristan on the Gulf of Persia. From there it spread across Mesopotamia to Syria, across Asia Minor to Greece, and on to southern Italy with the Greek colonists.
Another possibility is that the damascena is a hybrid of the gallica and the Rosa phoenicea. During the early days of the second century, Christians from Damascus (in present-day Syria and also the territory of the ancient Phoeniceans) took a cultivar of the damask to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), which was called the Holy Rose, or Rosa sancta. It was grown throughout the land of the Saracens, from Syria to the Arabian Peninsula, and introduced into Europe with the Crusaders.
Regardless of its ancestry, the damask is ancient; its earliest visual depiction is believed to be frescos in Knossos, Crete, dating around 1500 B.C.E.
Also mysterious is the origin of the name Rose. One author claims it has no known meaning. Another says that it comes from the Greek word rhodon, meaning red, and relates to a fable that the rose came into being through the spilled blood of Adonis, a beautiful youth loved by Aphrodite, who as killed by a wild boar.
As the flower of Venus, worn as a badge of office by her sacred prostitute-priestesses, the rose has more connotations symbolically than any other flower, with the possible exception of the lotus. The wild roses, with their five petals, formed a natural pentacle, and were seen as sacred to many Goddesses, including the Roman Great Mother of the Gods, Cybele.
Sappho, writing in about 600 B.C.E, selected the Rose as the Queen of Flowers. Roses were used extensively throughout the classical world. Persian warriors used roses to adorn their shields, and by the late Roman Empire, rose petals were everywhere: in decorations, on the floors, and in their wine. Brides and bride-grooms were crowned with roses, along with images of Cupid, Venus and Bacchus. Scattered during the feasts of Flora and in the paths of the victorious legions’ chariot wheels, roses were important to every phase of life, including funerals.
Gnostic scriptures proclaimed that the original rose sprouted from the menstrual blood of Psyche, the virgin Soul, when she became enamored of Eros, symbol of sexuality. Arab mystics spoke of a paradise called Gulistan, which means the Rose Garden, and may be derived from the ancient Babylonian Goddess named Gula. Gulistan was also a name used to refer to female genitals, as when the Sufi poet wrote: “I think of nothing but the Rose; I wish nothing but the ruby Rose.” French troubadours adopted the same symbolism, which became embodied in their love poetry.
Just as the rosary, or “rose-wreath”, was borrowed from the worship of ancient virgin goddesses, so the rose was adopted as the symbol of Mary, regardless of its classical and blatantly sexual symbolism. In fact, the Virgin Mary is sometimes called the “rose without thorn” as the Catholic Church claims that she was born unblemished by original sin. Mary’s immaculate conception was brought about when her mother Anne conceived her while smelling a rose.
Despite the abundant female symbolism of the rose, some medieval mystics, notably Albertus Magnus, identified the red rose with Christ, and many Muslims claimed the rose for Mohammed. Roses of various colors and numbers of petals became important symbols of alchemy and hermetic lore. Most significant in this regard were the red and white roses, which affirmed the conjunction of opposites: red being the symbol of passion and white of purity. Together they represented the union of fire and water, an ideal state of being.
In the language of flowers, the rose meant Beauty Ever New, perhaps because of the long flowering time and multitude of colors due to the many species. A wreath of roses meant beauty and virtue rewarded, and the faded rose became a reminder that beauty is fleeting. With its large, sharp thorns, the Dog Rose signified pleasure and pain. In most mythologies the rose was a symbol of youth, including vitality, love and joy, as well as beauty and perfection.
The early European apothecaries honored the rose as an important medicinal herb. The German herbalist Ruff, writing in 1573, describes the rose flower’s focus on the liver as the ability to transform “choleric damp and superfluous gall”. Choleric used here refers to fire, and was one of the four basic elements or humors in classical Greek medicine, and adopted by the European alchemists and herbalists.
According to John Gerard, writing in the early 1600’s, “(Roses) have a predominant or overruling cold temperature…(and) are moist (and) airy…The distilled water of roses is good for the strengthening of the heart, and a refreshing of the spirits, and likewise for all things that require a gentle cooling…The juice of the Roses, especially of the Damask, does move the stool, and makes the belly soluble. Syrup of Roses does moisten and cool, and therefore it allays the extremities of heat in hot burning fevers, mitigates the inflammations of the entrails, and quenches thirst.”
Depending upon the species, the color, and whether the rose was used fresh or dried, ancient folk use of rose petals was primarily as a laxative, astringent, and tonic, and was used to treat chronic catarrh, pharyngitis, liver stagnation, diarrhea, fevers, leucorrhea, infertility, tuberculosis, asthma, and night sweats due to depression. Up until the late 1700’s, herbalists, apothecaries, midwives, barber surgeons, ladies’ maids, and cooks all depended upon the rose – in its forms of rose water, syrup, vinegar, honey, wine, oil, and ointment – to make their daily lives more agreeable.
Before we get into the chemical constituents and current herbal uses of rose petals and the essential oil made from those petals, let’s review how herbs work in the body. Plants and animals are complicated structures composed of millions of cells, many performing specialized functions, and each contributing to the existence of the organism as a whole. Life can be described as a chemical dance: I once read a scientific author give a convincingly precise and lyrical description of emotions as the interplay of neuropeptides in the brain.
Herbs can be understood as medicinally useful because they contain chemical compounds which act in some beneficial way on fundamental cell processes, either by promoting certain restorative reactions or inhibiting other processes which may be detrimental.
Pharmacology is the study of the manner in which the various functions of living organisms can be modified by chemical substances. A relatively new science, pharmacokinetics, studies the factors affecting the metabolism of a drug or herb in the body; in other words, the absorption, distribution within cells and organ systems, and the eventual elimination of the drug or herb from the body. Herbal products, unlike the refined chemical substances we refer to as drugs, contain biological variation – in the actual plant, in its tincture or essential oil, and in the various herbal combinations we use to address not just a symptom but the whole person.
This is, of course, skimming the surface of a vast ocean of information, much of it new and growing as we speak. However it will serve to remind us that when we recite chemical constituents, regardless of how much or little modern science has studied them, we describe possible ways our bodies can be affected by the ingestion of herbal preparations.
Now we will look at the basic chemical constituents of rose petals, as well as examine the tea and tincture from the viewpoints of Ayurvedic and Chinese traditional medicines.
Rose flowers are a mild remedy with little chronic toxicity. Dosages vary with the author, but as an infusion, one would use between 250 mg up to 12 grams, and the tincture dosage is between ½ ml and 4 ml. The chemical constituents of the rose are 10-24% tannins, which are water soluble, complex phenolic substances with an astringent nature, formerly used to treat burns. There are organic acids, including gallic acid, which have been isolated and used to treat skin diseases.
Also present are two pigments, a yellow crystalline flavonol called quercetin, and a violet soluble glycoside called anthocyanin, which is responsible for the red color of the rose petal. Another chemical present is quercitrin, a bitter, pale yellow crystalline glycoside. These last three chemicals are types of flavonoids, which we will come back to shortly. Also present in the rose petal is a significant percentage of elements which contribute nutritive value such as fats, sugars and beta-carotene, as well as small amounts of gum and resin. Lastly, a small amount of essential oil is present, especially in the fresh petals.
In Ayurvedic medicine, rose petals are generally balancing to all three doshas, which are the three dynamic forces or interactions in living organisms, and are comprised of various combinations of ether, air, fire, water and earth. The taste of this herb is a complex mixture of bitter, pungent, astringent and sweet, and the energy is cooling and moistening.
Bitter, astringent and sweet are known as the three cooling tastes; so although pungent is a heating taste, the overall energy is cooling. Cooling herbs are considered refreshing, promote tissue firmness, and are both calming and cleansing to the blood. The actions of the rose which correspond to this cooling energy are antipyretic (or fever reducing), alterative (gently cleansing to the blood and lymph over time), and nervine (calming to the mind and emotions).
The bitter taste, besides being cooling, purifies and dries secretions and helps to tone and tighten tissues. This is mirrored in the Western action of the rose as a regulator of the female reproductive organs and cycle, and includes helping to tone uterine tissue and curb excess bleeding.
From the tannin in the rose comes the astringent taste, understood in much the same way by Westerners, as that which helps to firm the tissues, reduce discharge and secretions, and assist in reducing congestions. In skin care especially, the rose’s gently astringent nature has been observed and used for centuries.
The sweet taste, a product of the rose’s fats and sugars, is a property that builds up tissue in the body, and corresponds to the rose’s action as a nourishing tonic. Tonic typically help increase weight, increase vital fluids, and like the nervine, builds nerve tissue and helps to calm the nerves.
Pungent, the second taste listed above, and the last one we are describing, is both heating and drying. Pungent herbs stimulate secretions and metabolism, and relate to the rose’s properties as an expectorant (promoting discharge of phlegm from the lungs) and a mild stimulant (increases internal heat and strengthens both metabolism and circulation).
Although there is some drying aspect to the rose, the Ayurvedic system sees the rose as primarily moistening, mirrored in the rose’s action as a demulcent (or which strengthens, moistens and nourishes the tissue). Externally this action contributes to the anti-inflammatory nature of the rose, and internally to its mild, moistening laxative nature.
The Ayurvedic practitioner has found the rose to affect the tissues of plasma, blood, marrow, nerve and reproductive, and to engage the circulatory, female reproductive, and nervous systems.
When examined through the lens of Chinese energetics, the effective qualities of the rose are very similar to those of the Ayurvedic system. According to Holmes, the rose is a bit astringent and sweet, cool, and both dry and moist. This translates to an herb that is calming, astringent, stabilizing, restoring and decongesting. In Chinese herbology, the affected organ systems are the liver, heart, reproductive, stomach and intestines. Their relevant meridians are the Heart, Liver, Gall Bladder, Stomach, Chong, and Rent. The general class to which the Damask Rose belongs is clearing heat and cooling the blood.
Perhaps the main difference between the Chinese and Indian systems is that the Chinese emphasize the other two actions of the rose as understood by Westerners – that of an aromatic stomachic and a hepatic. The category of aromatic stomachic, or herbs that resolve dampness, treats digestive disturbances associated with fluid congestion in the abdomen, including bloating, nausea and thirst, all of which the rose has been used for in centuries past. Hepatic herbs tone and aid in the function of the liver, carminatives (relieves intestinal gas) which affect the liver or stuck liver-chi.
Now let’s go back to those three plant pigments that I mentioned earlier that are present in the rose petal. They are all types of flavonoids, and according to Murray and Pizzorno, flavonoids in plants “serve as protectors against environmental stress, while in humans flavonoids appear to function as ‘biological response modifiers.’” What this means is that “flavonoids appear to modify the reaction to other compounds such as allergens…as evidenced by their anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic…activity.”
Official in nearly all countries’ herbal Pharmacopeias, and routinely used by the general populace, the rose was formerly employed for its mild astringency and tonic value. Today the rose is almost solely used to impart its pleasant aroma and taste to other medicinal preparations. The more I studied the rose, the more I realized that here is an herb that was used continually and extensively, across Eurasia, for at least 3000 years, that has fallen out of favor – not as a perfume, certainly, or in skin care – but as a medicinal herb.
The current neglect of the rose as a medicinal plant is not just due to the high price of its oil or the unavailability of its tincture. Like many herbs that work through clearing heat from the body, the rose has been forgotten. The simple principles of Galen and classic Greek herbology, which have to do with herbal energetics, were still used and understood in Europe up through the 1600’s. However, as those principles fell into disrepute and disuse, several popular hers were used less often. As many modern Western herbalists take up Chinese and Indian herbs because traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines are base on energetics, those same herbalists forget to re-examine our own native and naturalized herbs in this context. Therefore, we are oblivious to the fact that the Queen of Flowers, the common and ornamental rose, is also a major cooling, astringent decongestant.
Now we’ll move from teas and tinctures into the realm of essential oils. But before we examine rose oil in particular, let’s briefly review a few basic aromatherapeutic principles.
Aromatherapy is the study and use of essential oils from aromatic plants to restore or enhance health and well-being. Poetically speaking, essential oils may be described as the soul or psyche of a plant, or more prosaically, the plant’s hormones. They are present in the plant in specialized cells and play various key roles in the bio-chemistry of the plant.
Essential oils are usually water-steam distilled from the fresh plant material or cold-pressed from citrus rinds. Depending upon the herb or tree, any part of the plant can be used – root, leaf, bud, flower, fruit, seed, bark, wood, gum or resin.
One method of therapeutic application of an essential oil is the dilution to 2% in a vegetable oil, which is then used externally on the body, usually in conjunction with massage. Being a viscous, aromatic fluid that dissolves well in oil, but not very well if at all in water, the essential oils has an affinity for skin tissue and is quickly absorbed. From the skin the essential oil travels to muscle tissue and joints, into the blood stream, thereby accessing various organs, especially those subjacent to its application. The oil is excreted through the kidneys and bladder and secondarily through the skin and lungs.
The word aroma in aromatherapy gives a clue to the second mode of application, which is inhalation of the vapor. Since essential oils volatilize or evaporate, odor molecules detected by the olfactory cells in the upper part of the nose are sent directly to the brain in the form of electrical impulses through single long nerve fibers. The odor/nerve message goes to various parts of the brain such as the limbic system (which plays a role in many emotions), the amygdala and hippocampus (which are memory centers) and the hypothalamus (a regulator and relay station). This interaction between aroma and brain chemistry helps explain why certain odors carry strong memories and feelings for us, especially smells from childhood. The aroma of essential oils may lead to the release of tiny amounts of various neurochemicals and hormones, thus affecting our mood and thought processes.
How the rose came to be used in its essential oil for is an interesting story. Historically, the essential oil or Otto or Attar of Rose was discovered by happenstance somewhere between 1582 and 1612. In what is now Iran there was a wedding feast for the new Emperor Djihanguyr and Princess Nour-Djihan. A canal was dug which encircled a whole garden and was filled with rose water. The heat of the sun caused some of the essential oil to separate from the rose water to form spots of what looked like scum on the surface. This was observed by the bridal pair while they rowed upon the fragrant water. The scum was skimmed off, discovered to be a perfumed oil, and the Persians went into the distillation business soon after. The first Otto of Rose from Bulgaria was introduced to the rest of Europe around 1690. Bulgaria was then part of the Ottoman Empire and had been since the mid-1300’s, some time after which the Damask Rose was brought to Bulgaria from Turkey. So it’s very possible the name Otto comes from Ottoman, and the name Attar comes from the Persian ‘atir, meaning perfumed.
Rose essential oil is produced by steam distillation of fresh petals. An aromatic hydrosol, or rose flower water, is a by-product of this process. Plants are cultivated primarily in Bulgaria, Turkey and France, with similar types being grown in China, India, Russia and Great Britain.
The Damask Rose essential oil is a pale olivey yellow liquid that contains natural waxes, including stearoptene, and usually solidifies between 17 and 21 degrees C, or around 65 degrees F. The flowers are gathered in May or June in the early morning just before dawn and ceasing by 10 am unless the day is overcast. The best oil of rose comes from the Kazanlik Valley of Bulgaria, from one annual flowering of semi-double red 3 ½ inch flowers.
Currently the wholesale cost of high quality Bulgarian rose oil is around $700 an ounce. Exactly where the rose is grown, what agricultural practices were used, the weather, and if the oils was distilled only once or if the rose water was redistilled to yield more oil, all influence both the quality and the cost of rose oil from year to year.
Before we examine the known constituents of rose oil, let’s briefly look at the chemistry of essential oils in general. Almost all the molecules found in essential oils are composed of either carbon and hydrogen or carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The exact chemistry of the various chemical constituents of each essential oil is determined by a combination of the steam distillation process and the biosynthesis of molecules in the plant.
During the steam distillation process, only volatile and water-insoluble molecules are removed from the plant. The main types of chemical compounds that are isolated are mono and sesquiterpenes, their oxygen- bearing functional groups called terpenoids and sesquiterpenoids, and phenylpropanes.
There are many other medicinally active and valuable chemical compounds found in plants that do not appear in essential oils, either because they are water soluble, like acids and sugars, or that are too large or too high in polarity to evaporate into the steam, such as tannins, flavonoids, carotenoids and polysaccharides.
The chemistry of rose oil, though complex, is composed primarily of terpene alcohols: from 34 to 55% of the whole oil is citronellol, between 30 and 40% is geraniol and nerol, from 1.5 to 3% is phenyl ethanol, and there is a trace amount of linalool. Terpene alcohols’ energy is fairly moist since they are hydrophilic (have an affinity for water) and slightly stimulating or warming. Their effect is generally bactericidal, diuretic, tonifying and energizing. Citronellol has been shown to possess anti-viral qualities. Alcohols lend to the whole essential oil a pleasant, uplifting fragrance, a variety of desirable properties, and low toxicity.
Farnesol, comprising between .2 and 2% of the whole oils, is a sesquiterpene alcohol that has been shown to be bacteriostatic (inhibiting to the growth of bacteria). Other properties of sesquiterpene alcohols in general can include a decongestant, hepatic and tonic effect on the body, all of which are true for the rose oil specifically.
About 16 to 22% of the rose oil is stearoptene, a waxy substance made up of a mixture of hydrocarbons, which is responsible for the solidification of rose oil below around 65 degrees F. Roses grown in colder climates produce and oil with a greater percentage of stearoptene.
Also present in rose oil are about 5% esters, which tend to be antispasmodic, uplifting, relaxing and balancing. Rose oxide, present in small amounts, is probably much like other oxides, which are mucolytic (eases the secretion of mucous) and thus a good expectorant. There are small amounts of monoterpenes, which can be analgesic, anti-viral, bactericidal, and stimulating, and trace amounts of aldehydes, which tend to be anti-inflammatory, gently sedative, and also anti-viral.
Over 300 known chemical compounds make up 86% of the whole oil; the remaining 14% comprises an unknown number of different compounds, many as yet to be identified. Of course these are present in minuscule amounts, but are vital to the aroma, energy, and efficacy of the whole oil. Because of the scarcity and expense of genuine and authentic rose oil, it is often adulterated with the terpene alcohol geraniol, or the essential oils of palmarosa or guaicwood.
The main therapeutic use of rose oil, and in preference to all other essential oils, is in treating disorders of the female reproductive system, including irregular menstruation, leucorrhea, menorrhagia (excessive or prolonged menstrual bleeding) and uterine disorders such as loss of muscle tone. It helps treat infertility in both sexes: in women it aids conception where it’s difficult to predict ovulation due to menstrual irregularity and for men it seems to increase the production of semen. Some authors refer to rose as an emmenagogue (induces or assists menstruation), but Dr. Dietrich Wabner, a professor at Munich University researching essential oils and an expert on rose oil, states that rose enable menstruation to occur in a regular and normal fashion by influencing the body’s hormones.
Rose oil has gentle but potent effects on the mind and emotions. As an anti-depressant it is especially helpful where an emotional disturbance is linked to sexuality or the reproductive cycle, including post-natal depression and grief over a failed relationship. Harkening back to the Roman practice of strewing the bed with rose petals, Damask Rose oil, though not as strongly as the centifolia species, is helpful in stress-related impotence and sexual insecurity.
Rose oil helps increase the excretion of bile from the liver and may be used in assisting to clear liver stagnation. Its antispasmodic properties act within the respiratory system to help allay coughing and in the nervous system to dispel headaches. Furthermore rose oil helps regulate one’s appetite, is a mild laxative, and a gentle sedative of the nervous system, especially in cases of nervous stomach and nausea. Its use helps increase circulation and decrease heart palpitations.
As far as safety goes, rose oil is non-toxic, non-irritant, non-sensitizing and is safe and mild enough for babies. The property which rose oil has that isn’t present in the tincture is that of a surprisingly strong antiseptic and anti-viral. In this respect it is effective in the treatment of herpes and cold sores.
When the fresh roses are distilled, there is the byproduct of the process called an aromatic hydrosol, more commonly know as rose flower water. It is believed that roses were first distilled by the Arab physician Avicenna, in 10th century Persia, during an alchemical experiment. The rose played an important symbolic part in the theoretical and metaphysical aspects of alchemy and was placed in retorts and heated with a variety of different materials during the alchemists’ quest of transmuting base materials into gold, a process which as the time contained great spiritual significance.
Although rose water might have been an accidental discovery, it soon became popular throughout the Middle East and Europe. BY the Middle Ages, Persian and European alchemists were routinely distilling various species of roses and writing voluminous texts describing this versatile remedy. The complexity of modern Ayurvedic and Chinese energetics is perhaps made more clear as we look back to the alchemists’ understanding: the white rose is cooler and more laxative; the dried red rose is warmer and more astringent; the fresh red rose is warmer and more laxative.
Rose water became not only a vehicle for other medicines but an important treatment for conjunctivitis as an eyewash. It is an excellent remedy for the skin due to its soothing, tonifying, gently cleansing and astringent properties. Both the oil and the water are food for all skin types but especially valuable for dry, sensitive and aging skin because of the rose’s anti-inflammatory nature.
To summarize, we notice that the symbolism of the rose and its use in antiquity are compatible with its place in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Before the rose fell out of favor medicinally in the West, various forms of rose compounds were being used in cases of lung hemorrhage, coughs, stomach distress, liver congestion, fever, various gynecological problems, and general stress. It was understood to be both astringent and laxative, as well as a general tonic safe for all ages.
In comparing the use of rose oil and the tea or tincture of rose petals, we find several similarities. Both stop hemorrhage, and are especially beneficial for uterine bleeding whether it’s excessive or inter-menstrual. Although it appears that the tincture is slightly more cooling than the oil, both clear heat, cool the blood and assist in relieving irritability and insomnia. Any form of rose will act to tonify reproductive energy, regulate menstruation, and help resolve stress-related sexual problems. The oil and tincture both promote the flow of bile and reduce liver congestion, thereby helping to life depression as well as easing constipation, nausea, and headaches. Although all forms of the rose help clear toxins, the flower water is best for inflammation, and the oil is the better antiseptic, and the only anti-viral. Lastly, the rose promotes tissue repair and moistens the skin, which is perhaps more effectively accomplished through the use of the oil and flower water.
The long infusion is especially astringent, cooling and decongesting, and is probably the best children’s remedy due to its palatability, as well as the better form for douches. The Tincture, more astringent than the oil is perhaps the better remedy for internal use or when a client does not care for the aroma of rose.
My favorite form of the rose has to do with the treatment of sore throats. Most of the current herbal remedies for this common affliction taste ghastly. However, in the U.S. Pharmacopeia is Honey of Roses, a clarified honey and fluid extract of rose combination that is effective in the treatment of both sore throats and mouth ulcers.
My desire in examining the rose from so many perspectives is that this will help encourage both herbalists and aromatherapists to re-examine the rose, both from their own discipline and in joint explorations. I believe that the rose has much to offer us. I hope that our benign neglect of the rose as a medicinal remedy soon passes as we personally rediscover its value to us both physically and emotionally.