ROSE (Rosa spp. – Rosaceae)

The rose is a native of the Orient, but is now cultivated more or less all over the world, mainly in temperate climates. There are 250 different, distinct species, including wild roses, but many thousands more hybrids and varieties. There are around 30 roses which are described as ‘odorata’, but only three of them – and these are old roses, the ‘parents’ of many others – are cultivated on a large scale for their exquisite perfume. The first of these is the R. gallica, which is the most prolific. It originated in the Caucasus and is often called ‘French rose’, ‘Provins rose’ or ‘Rose of Anatolia’. The second old rose is R. centifolia, which originated in Persia and is often known as ‘Provence rose’ or ‘Rose of Ispahan’: itself descended from R. gallica, it is parent to moss and cabbage roses. The third old rose is R. damascena, the damask rose, which originated in Syria, is very highly perfumed, and is the most cultivated for its perfumed oils (it is also the most valued therapeutically).

The Romans made lavish use of roses: they scattered them from ceilings during banquets; they adorned the statues of their favourite gods with roses and they wore roses to protect them from drunkenness. The gardens of Tarquin the Superb were known for their many varieties of roses, and the gardener was venerated throughout the whole city. Virgil related that Aphrodite asked for Hector’s body to be embalmed with an ointment of rose essence.
The Greeks, too, venerated the rose, Homer eulogizing it in the Iliad and Odyssey, and Sappho dubbing it the queen of flowers. The Ancient Egyptians used roses in religious ceremonies, and roses have been found next to mummies in tombs.

Roses have been prized throughout history, and al lover the world, for the sweetness and the soothing nature of their scent, and for the colour and shape of their blooms. They were introduced to Europe early on, and in the Middle Ages old roses were grown in monastery gardens for their medicinal properties. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the old rose varieties reigned supreme, but in 1816 the first hybrid perpetual – the ‘Rose du roi’ – appeared, to be followed by the numerous varieties now available.

Since prior to the French Revolution, the French have been distilling roses, mainly for their world-famous rosewater, of which rose oil was a by-product.
In 1987, it was estimated that the worldwide production of rose essential oil was in the region of 15 – 20 tonnes. Bulgaria was the largest producer, and America the principal importer. Other countries producing rose essential oil are Turkey, France, Morocco, India and China. Bulgaria grows R. damaseena, and steam distils to an otto or attar of roses; France distils R. eentifolia by volatile solvents to produce a rose absolute.


Description: Not surprisingly, it is the petals which contain the most oils, although the stamens have been found to contain some as well, and these are distilled with the petals. The steam-distilled oil is a pale yellow-green, oily with a very strong, aromatic perfume. At a low temperature, shiny, long crystals of stearoptene form in a thin layer on top of the oil.

The principal constituents: Eugenol, famesol and other acids, geraniol (or citronellol), linalool, nerol, nonylic aldehyde, rhodinol and stearoptene.

Dangers: About 5 tonnes of roses are needed to obtain 1 kg (21/4 lb) of essential oil, which is why the cost of the oil is so high, and why it is so often falsified and adulterated. Geranium, bois de rose, palmarosa and, more recently, gaiac, are used to adulterate rose. As geraniol is one of the principal constituents of rose oil, the essential oil is often adulterated with geraniol and citronellol. For use in therapy great care must always be taken to obtain the purest rose oil.


Rosa Damascena
In 1888, the damask rose was cultivated at Miltitz near Leipzig. It has been cultivated in Anatolia in Turkey since 1894, and today there are many distilleries throughout the country which can be visited. Extraction of the essence with solvents started in Bulgaria in 1904, and this method has since become widespread. There is much cultivation of the damask rose in the Balkans at an altitude of 300 – 800 m (990 – 2640 ft), and many experts claim that these ‘high-flying’ roses give a better oil than those grown on the plains. In Russia, cultivation started in 1931, especially in the Crimea and Transcaucasus. A variety called ‘Novinka’ has been developed which can resist the extremely low temperatures. In Morocco, 4 – 5,000 tonnes of damask rose petals are distilled during the short season of four to six weeks. With their modern methods of distillation, they can distil 150 tonnes per day. One part is steam distilled for the rose essential oil; the remainder is extracted by solvents.

Other roses
When the ‘rose de mai’ – a hybrid of R. gallica or R. centifolia, intro¬duced in 1895 – is not in sufficient quantity in the south of France, ‘Brenner’, a very fragrant cherry-coloured rose is used.

‘Druschky’ has been introduced to Africa.
‘Teplitz’ is cultivated in India.
R. abyssinica is grown in abundance in Ethiopia.
R. sancta is cultivated in Eritrea.
R. indica has been cultivated in China for centuries. It was discovered in the wild near Ichong in Central China, and has now spread through India and Arabia.
R. bourbonica, a rose hybrid of R. gallica and R. chinensis, is char¬acterized by the abundance of its flowers. It was introduced in 1886, and is second only to R. damascena in its importance in oil distillation. It is cultivated mostly in Uttar Pradesh, Kanauy, and Konpur in India.
R. rugosa grows in abundance in China, Korea and Japan. In Japan it is cultivated on the coast of Hokkaido and in the north of Hunshu where the flowers are also processed. In Russia many rose varieties in the R. gallica and R. rugosa groups are being studied for their fragrance.


In illness
The rose has many therapeutic properties, as has the oil so long as it is grade A, Turkish or Bulgarian. Dr Leclerc valued it as a gentle laxative, and many conditions – loss of appetite, as in young anorexic girls, problems of PMT and menopause – can be treated by rose petal tisanes. The same conditions can also be treated by a body massage oil made from 50 ml (2 fl oz) almond oil and 10 drops rose oil: rub on the tummy, solar plexus, back of the neck and temples twice a day.

I have also found rose valuable for infections of the respiratory system – coughs, hayfever, sinus congestion, etc. Infuse 30 ml (2 tbsp) rose petals in 600 ml (1 pint) boiling water for 10 minutes, and use to gargle. This is astringent, antiseptic and healing, and if you add a drop of oil and infuse for 5 minutes, it can help to cure mouth thrush and ulcers (gargle twice a day until better, and then once a day for four days until symptoms have completely disappeared). The same infusion can also be used, once cooled, as an eye wash, as a vaginal douche, a compress for skin ulcers, and as a gargle for a sore throat.

Rose infusions are actually very effective for all sorts of eye and eyelid complaints – general inflammation, swollen eyes, eyes which are irritated or which have a discharge due to hayfever or similar. Simply applying fresh cool rose petals can help tired eyes.
Rose essential oil is good for people with a very nervous disposition.

It seems to work on the nervous system, calming the patient, and is better received by women than men. Massage an oil into the solar plexus; apply a dilute oil after a bath; and drink rose petal infusions. Rose also helps insomnia.

Marguerite Maury prescribed rose for frigidity, ascribing aphro¬disiac properties to it. Mme Maury also considered rose a great tonic for women who were suffering from depression.
(See also circulatory problems, coughing, cuts and wounds, dental abscess, fever, mouth ulcers, oedema, palpitations, shingles and throat, sore.)

In beauty
Rose was used in the first perfume, Hungary water, and the oil is still one of the most important in perfumery, being a constituent of some of the most expensive perfumes together with other floral fragrances. Rose essential oil was also a constituent of the earliest cold cream, a recipe recorded by the Greek physician, Galen, in the second century.

Unadulterated rose oil is a remarkable ally in the fight against wrin¬kles, puffiness, broken capillaries, even some nervous eczemas. Mix together 10 ml (2 tsp) almond oil and 2 drops Bulgarian or Turkish rose oil. Keep in a dark bottle. This is a wonderful oil for a maturing skin, benefiting the hands too. Tone face and neck with rose water, either bought or a home-made infusion: make up the gargle as above, then cool and use two to three times a day.
(See also psoriasis.)

Rose vinegar toner
If you omit the water, the rose-imbued vinegar can be used as a very effective gargle for sore mouths and throats. (It is also good in salad dressings!)

  • 80 g (3 oz) pink or red fragrant rose petals
  • 75 ml (3 fl oz) white wine vinegar
  • 500 ml (18 fl oz) distilled water

Mix petals and vinegar together, and leave for a week, shaking it from time to time. Strain, and mix with the water

Breast toner
Massaging the oil in the breasts after childbirth encourages them to regain their firmness.

  • 10 ml (2 tsp) almond oil
  • 2 drops lemon oil
  • 4 drops rose oil

Mix together and store in a dark bottle

In cookery
Old-fashioned housewives would only grow scented roses like the damask or Provence in their gardens so that they could be used for making rosewater for flavouring cakes. Another common usage of petals was to put them into a cherry pie before putting on the crust. Rosewater is big business in France, but it is in Middle Eastern cuisine that the culinary use of rosewater predominates. Rose petal jam and honey come from the Balkans, and the Turkish locoum is flavoured with rose, as is a candy in India. In the West, rose petals are crystallized. Try making rose vinegar (page 183) to use in salads, or scatter fresh rose petals in those same salads as did the Elizabethans. Wrap butter in petals to flavour it and use petals in the syrup for crème caramel and similar dishes. Rose oil is used commercially as an additive in fruit drinks and added to jam and yoghurt recipes to give more flavour.

The Greeks steeped rose petals in wine, and a rose brandy can be made. The Chinese, Turks and Bulgarians make very sweet liqueurs from roses, and Crème de Roses is a French version.

Some roses also give rose-hips, of course, which were the source of vitamin C-rich syrup and jelly during the war years. Rose oil also contains vitamin C.

Other uses
Rose petals can be dried to use in pot-pourri or in little moth bags, and they were one of Tusser’s strewing herbs. Petals or oil can be used in rinsing water for sheets, or placed among the linen. Rose oil is used to flavour some tobaccos.

To safeguard your garden roses from the ravages of greenfly, plant garlic among them. And never plant roses and carnations together; the soothing qualities of the former will clash with the activating qualities of the latter, creating an aggressive atmosphere.


Some say that the rose was created from a drop of sweat falling from the brow of Mohammed. Others say that it was due to Bacchus. He fell in love with a beautiful nymph at a banquet, and pursued her through the garden to woo her. She caught and tore her dress on a thorny bush, revealing even more of her beauty. Bacchus, in appreciation, let the bush be covered with red perfumed flowers, as beautiful as the cheeks of his timid nymph Cupid is said to have given the god of silence a rose to bribe him not to reveal the amours of Venus. The rose thereafter became the emblem of silence and thus the central ornamentation in the ceiling is known as the rose. This comes from the old custom of hanging a rose over the dinner table to ensure that whatever was said at the table was to be held in the strictest confidence (the meaning of the phrase, sub rosa, under the rose).
Rose oil, too, has a romantic origin. Dr R M Gattefosse relates the story recorded during the time of the Great Moguls, starting with the reign of Babour in 932. For her marriage, the Princess Nour-Djiban decided to surround the gardens with a canal containing rosewater. The bridal pair rowed on this delicately scented water in the sunshine, and notice an oily, greenish substance floating on the surface. This was highly aromatic – a rose oil produced by the heat of the sun bringing together the rose water’s aromatic molecules. Thereafter, the production of rose oil began in earnest, in Persia, India, then Turkey and the rest of Europe.


In Grasse in the south of France a typical plantation of R. centifolia consists of about 1,000 rose bushes per acre, planted 90 cm (3 ft) apart in rows of the same distance. A rose plantation lasts about ten years, and each season will produce 2,000kg (4,400 lb) of flowers from which only 400 g (14 oz) of rose essential oil can be obtained by steam distillation. Extraction by solvents, however, would produce 2.5 kg (5 1/2 lb) of absolute of rose from the same quantity of flowers.

The blossoming time is in early May, when the plants are aflame with colour and the air is heady with fragrance. At the appropriate time, sometimes the middle of the night, the workers pick all the flowers into big baskets which are then taken to the distillery at the heart of the plantation. They work quickly as the flowers lose moisture, needing to be sprayed occasionally with water. Because of this necessity for speed, there are many more pickers than there are workers in the distillery.

Very strict safety regulations are observed in the distillery because of the danger of the solvents which are very volatile and inflammable. There is no electrical apparatus in the main areas: telephones are locked in special boxes; only rubber shoes are worn; and nylon is disallowed because of the static electricity. The floors, doors, walls and the large ventilating windows are all specially insulated, and would have been built under the regulations specified by the French Ministry of Health.

The distillation cylinders – like enormous pressure cookers – domi¬nate the interior of the distillery, with yards of piping twisting and turning at all angles and in all directions. The whole place smells of roses, with just a note of synthetic: one can get high on it; the nose is so completely saturated with the perfume.

The workers bring in the heavy baskets – of 25 kg (55 lb) each – and spread the flowers on five trays layered inside each ‘pressure cooker’ ¬when the lid is closed; the solvent and water are added by opening a valve. The operation is begun, and the temperature is checked – it will reach a maximum of 45 – 50°C (113 -122°F). The solvent and the water run continuously through the trays of flowers, impregnating them and taking with them the odoriferous molecules. These gather as a concrete, very stiff and waxy, at the bottom of the cylinder in a small bowl. Each set of trays is ‘cooked’ for about an hour, then the solvent-saturated flowers, now a dull grey, are discarded and replaced by fresh ones until the operation is complete and the bowls are full.

Filling the bowls normally takes about a day, and the distillery workers labour for as long as it takes, and to all hours, to utilize all the flowers and extract as much essence as possible.
Enormous costs are involved, but the quantity of rose oil produced by volatile solvents is much greater than that of theessential oil produced by steam distillation. Traces of the solvents can still remain in the oils, so they can only be used in perfumery, not in therapy, and indeed can be called an adulterated oil, not an essential oil.

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