The Benefits, Uses, and History of Rose Oil & The Rose Flower
The most precious of all essential oils comes from the “Queen of All Flowers”.
Plant name (Latin): Rosa damascena
Plant family: Lamiaceae (mint family)
Native region: Originated in Asia and now found all over the world
Growing habit: Woody shrub with medium-green leaves and large, multi-petaled blooms; most have thorns on each stem
Parts used: Rose buds and flowers for floral arrangements; rose petals for essential oil extraction; rose hips (fruit of the rose bush) for teas, jams and jellies
Essential oil extraction method: Steam distillation of petals
About Rose Oil
The beautiful, iconic roses that we know and love have a recognizable, floral aroma that has made them one of the world’s most popular flower for thousands of years. Wonderfully diverse, rose is used in everything from skincare to fragrances to desserts and luxurious baths, not to mention as a symbol of love and a regular feature in floral bouquets.
Why Use Rose Oil
One of the most precious essential oils, Rose brings balanced harmony and comforts the mind. The “Queen of All Flowers” symbolizes love and beauty and is prized for its beautiful fragrance.
How and Where Roses Grow
Roses are a woody perennial (living for many years) flowering plant. Roses are shrubs that can be free-standing, trailing, or climbing, and can range in size from miniature roses a few inches in size to climbing bushes that can reach seven meters (20 feet) in height. Rose flowers vary in shape, size, and degree of fragrance.
Gardeners have created thousands of rose cultivars that now grow around the world. In the natural environment, there are at least 150 species of roses spread around the Northern Hemisphere. Most species are native to Asia, but roses can be found in Europe, North America and Africa.
How Are Roses Used
Roses are one of the most popular, if not the most beloved, flower in the world, and the diversity of uses of the petals and fruit shows it.
Roses are a traditional symbol of love, and are often given to a loved on on Valentine’s Day, and are a regular feature in wedding bouquets. Whether your favorite color is red, white, pink, orange or a dozen other shades, there are roses to match your fancy.
Rose essential oil
The most precious of all essential oils, it takes 400 pounds of rose petals to create one pound of pure rose essential oil, often referred to as rose otto. It is thought to have a number of benefits, including elevating the mood, improving the appearance of skin and encouraging feelings of love and balance.
Rosewater, made from rose petals soaked in water, has been used for centuries in popular Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese dishes. Rosewater can be made into a delicate floral jam, added to rice pudding or drizzled on cakes.
Rose petals are also edible and can be candied, or added as is to salads and desserts. Only roses you have grown yourself (without sprays or pesticides) or ones marked specifically as edible should be eaten, since the beautiful blooms from flower shops can be treated with a lot of harmful sprays. Also, while all (organic) rose petals can technically be eaten, not all will taste good. Generally, a pleasant fragrance is a good indicator of a pleasant taste.
Rose hips are the fruit of the rose tree, and are harvested in the fall, generally after the first frost. Rose hips contain lots of vitamin C and can be steeped in hot water to make a bright, beneficial tea. They can also be stewed to create rose hip jelly.
Rose hips from wild roses native to North America have been gathered for medicine, tea, and food by First Nations people for thousands of years. During World War II, the British government encouraged citizens to forage for rose hips, to help fill the need for vitamin C, as many fruits were not reaching Britain because of German naval blockades.
Rose Oil in Ayurveda
Rose essential oil is considered to be beneficial for all three doshas (vata, pitta and kapha), benefitting the mood and emotions, as well as the heart, stomach, liver, reproductive system, blood, nerves and skin. Ayurveda treats the whole body and recognizes the importance of treating all five senses. Roses are a perfect treatment for the whole person, because of their visual beauty, lovely scent, delicate taste, and usefulness in massage (sense of touch).
The Meaning and Symbolism of the Rose
Roses have been beloved by people for thousands of years, and they appear in many myths and stories from around the world.
In Ancient Greece, roses were the symbol of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In one version of the myth, her lover, Adonis, is injured and while running to him, Aphrodite pricks her foot on a white rose bush. When her blood started to flow, it stained the roses deep red, what is now the symbol of love.
The association of roses with secrecy also stems from the Greeks. Aphrodite gave her son Eros, a rose, and he passed it along to Harpocrates, the god of silence, so that the indiscretions of the gods and goddesses would be kept a secret. This story gave rise to expression “under the rose” or “sub rosa” – meaning: whatever happens under the rose, stays under the rose. In the Middle Ages, images of roses were displayed in council chambers to remind everyone not to share what was discussed.
The Romans, echoing Greek mythology, also told myths about love and roses. They believed that one day Flora, the goddess of flowers, came on the dead body of her most beloved nymph. She begged all the gods to help her change the beautiful nymph into the most beautiful flower. The gods agreed, and help Flora change her lost loved one into the rose – the “Queen of All Flowers”.
In Rome, roses were also associated with Venus, goddess of love, who emerged from the sea covered in white foam. Wherever that foam touched the ground, white roses sprang up. A different myth suggested that red roses were born when Cupid, god of love, knocked over a bowl of wine, from which sprung the red rose bush.
In the Christian era, roses became associated with the Virgin Mary. Rosaries, used as a prayer aid, are named from the the Latin word “rosarium”, or “crown of roses”.
During the Victorian era, flowers were given symbolic meanings, and it was possible to have an elaborate conversation through exchanging flowers. Roses were generally associated with love, but the connotation changed depending on the colour. Much like today’s emojis, the exact meaning could change depending on the source you consulted, but red roses, then as now, expressed true love.
The History of the Rose
In ancient Greece, roses were important for their beauty, symbolism, fragrance and flavour. Frescos showing roses have been found in Crete, dating to 1600 BC. Roses were featured prominently in Greek mythology, and were mentioned in the Homer’s classic text, The Iliad.
The Romans used rose petals as confetti, as medicine, and for fragrance-making. During the Roman era, roses were grown extensively in the Middle East, and in 79 AD, Pliny the Elder noted that rose essential oil was the most commonly-used base for fragrance. Legend has it that the Roman Emperor Nero once filled a party with so many loads of rose petals that some guests suffocated under the scent and weight of the petals.
In ancient Egypt, roses were used in funeral rites, for creating fragrance and cosmetics, and in beauty rituals. Roses were discovered in tombs in Hawara, Egypt, dating to around 170 AD Cleopatra loved roses, using rose petals in her milk baths and rosewater as a beauty treatment. She filled her apartments with rose petals, and may have soaked the sails of her ship in rosewater in order to announce her presence to Mark Anthony, the Roman ruler she was trying (successfully) to seduce.
In Persia (what is now modern-day Iran), roses have been cultivated since 810 BC. The Caliph of Baghdad demanded 30,000 bottles of rosewater a year from producers in the province of Faristan. In the 11th century, Persian poet Omar Khayyam professed a love of roses, and a rose was planted on his grave.
In the Middle Ages, the roses were an important symbol of royalty in European countries. By the 15th century, rival noble houses in England had adopted roses as their symbols — the white rose for York, and the red rose for Lancaster — leading to the “War of the Roses”. As you may have guessed, the war ended with a marriage between the two families. Unfortunately, the story didn’t end with the Tudors, England’s new royal family, adopting the pink rose as their symbol.
In the early 1800s, Empress Josephine of France, Napoleon’s wife, started collecting roses at her estate, Chateau de Malmaison. At the time, most European roses bloomed just once a season, but the very first repeat-blooming roses had just been imported from China. Josephine, whose middle name was Rose, gathered the most talented botanists and created a collection of 250 roses, from which many of today’s thousands of varieties were developed.
Josephine commissioned botanist and painter Pierre-Joseph Redoute to document her roses. His book, Les Roses, containing 117 coloured drawings, is considered the finest ever work of botanical drawings. Roses have a long history in art, and many painters, including Jan Brugel the Elder, Henry Fantin-Latour, Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe have painted roses in detail.
During the Victorian era, roses were extremely popular in gardens and as cut flowers, and worn in women’s hair, carried in a bouquet, or displayed in flower arrangements. Victorian women also made their own cosmetics, frequently adding rose essential oil or rosewater, for both its scent and its healing properties.
Today, roses remain the world’s most popular flower, and rose essential oil continues to be used for its fragrance and healing properties.
The Science of Rose Oil
Rose essential oil contains a variety of chemical compounds, including: Rose oxide, Citronellol and Citronellyl Acetate, Geraniol and Geraniol acetate, Nerol, Phenylethyl alcohol and Phenylethylamine, Eugenol and Eugenol Methyl ester, Heneicosane, Nonadecane, Nonadecen-9, Heptadecane, 2-Undecanone, Tricosane, Eicosane, Pentacosane, Germacrane-D, β-Caryophyllene, Z, Z-Farnesol, Linalool, Terpinen-4-ol, α-Pinene, β-Pinene, cis-Citral, and trans-Citral.
Interestingly, rose oxide, which contributes to the smell of roses and rose oil, also contributes to the flavour of some fruits, including lychee, and some wines, such as gewurztraminer.
Roses have been prized for their healing properties for thousands of years. Today, scientists are working to validate many of the traditional uses for roses and rose essential oil.