Rosa Damascena

Rosa damascena, damask rose

Family: Rosaceae

Part used: flower petals, hips

Forty-seven species within the Rosa genus are found wild in Europe, including Rosa gallica L, with Rosa sempervirens L. in more southern areas and the Rosa canina L. group in more northerly areas. The species have some common characteristics: firm stems, which are usually prickly, and bear pinnate leaves with stipules, which are usually deciduous. Terminal flowers are often white or pink and single or borne in corymbs. The roots are stout and roses are generally very hardy. Innumerable hybrids are cultivated in gardens and their ancestry can be complex mixtures of European and east Asian species. The complex history of the cultivation of roses is discussed by Shepherd (1978). ‘Old roses’ is the term used for the groups of roses which existed before 1857 when the first hybrid tea rose cv. La France appeared. The following four groups are significant and examples are given of varieties.

Rosa x damascena Mill, is a pink rose that is a cultivated hybrid and is therefore correctly written as Rosa x damascena. It is argued that it developed in Iran as a cross between Rosa moschata Benth., Rosa gallica L. and Rosa feldschenkoana Regel. Rosa moschata is thought to have originated in India or southern China, Rosa gallica is found in Europe and western Asia, and Rosa feldschenkoana is from central Asia. The development of this rose is discussed below.

Rosa gallica var. officinalis, the Red Rose of Lancaster, spreads vegetatively and by seed. The early breeding of roses was by seed and thus determining the parentage of varieties of old roses from before the 19th century is often impossible. Examples are cv. Tuscany, which is known to be an old variety, cv. Sissinghurst Castle, which is thought to be a very old selection, and cv. Charles de Mills. The earliest striped rose cv. Rosa mundi was described by de I’Obel in 1581 but may be older.

Rosa x centifolia L. is thought be a very old hybrid possibly including Rosa gallica, Rosa Phoenicia, Rosa moschata and Rosa canina. It was described by de I’Obel in 1597. Flowers are usually pink although sometimes white. An example is cv. Fantin-Latour.

Rosa x alba is thought to be a natural hybrid, probably cultivated in Roman times. Examples include cv. Cuisse de Nymph, cv. Celeste and cv. Felicite Parmentier.

Rosehips: The red fruit is a pseudocarp that encloses numerous achenes. Rosehips are collected from wild rose species such as the dog rose Rosa canina.


Usage of cultivated roses in Britain for the preparation of medicines should be restricted to certain old rose cultivars as they have equivalent volatile oils to Rosa damascena but other rose cultivars may have none of the typical constituents so should not be used to make preparations. Hybrid tea roses should not be used as they were not bred until the 19th century and have a different parentage.

It is thought that cultivation of Rosa damascena originally developed in the Lyzangan Valley near Fars in Iran. A study of 40 accessions, both cultivated and wild, from 28 provinces of Iran, identified nine genotypes and the authors argue that this shows Iran to be the centre of diversity for the damask rose. A study of 40 accessions from five rose-growing areas in Iran also found genetic diversity and six of these had a separate genetic background.

Cultivars were taken from Iran to Bulgaria in the 17th century and the genotype in Isfahan, the main production area of Iran, was found to be identical to the Bulgarian genotype. A study of 24 Rosa damascena plants cultivated in Kazanluk, Bulgaria found that the plants had a very narrow gene pool. Cultivation was also developed in Turkey from the 1880s. The largest producers of rose oil today are Bulgaria and Turkey. A study of cultivated material from 15 sites in Isparta, the main area of rose-growing in Turkey, showed that all Rosa damascena samples were genetically identical.

The study above on Bulgarian roses also studied 13 garden damask roses and found that the old roses Kazanlik, Quatre Saisons and York & Lancaster are identical with the Bulgarian roses. A genetic study of the four oldest damask roses in Europe (cv. Kazanlik, cv. Quatre Saisons, cv. Quatre Saisons Blanc Mousseux and cv. York & Lancaster) found that their common ancestors were Rosa moschata and Rosa gallica, which probably formed a natural hybrid that was then crossed with Rosa feldschenkoana. The authors suggest that Rosa feldschenkoana could have contributed the glaucous leaf color and shape of the hips to these roses. These four roses can therefore be used for medicine. Other damask roses that are likely to be suitable are cv. Ispahan, cv. Omar Khayam and cv. La Vilie de Bruxelles. In addition, Rosa x alba cv. Felicite Parmentier, Rosa x gallica cv. Charles de Mills and hybrid perpetual cv. Ferdinand Pichard were shown to have similar components to Rosa x damasacena as was the Austin rose cv. Othello.

Damask rose varieties are discussed by Katzer (2003). Useful books on the cultivation of roses are Thomas (2004) and Joyaux (2005). The national rose collection is held at Peter Beales Rose Gardens (2009) and the Royal National Rose Society (2009) has a substantial collection.

Other species cultivated for rose oil in France and north Africa are Rosa centifolia, Rosa gallica, and, in China, Rosa rugosa but, as the above cultivars are widely available, then they are recommended for cultivation.

Damask rose: Heritage And Identity

Parts Of The Rose

Damask rose: Ancient Use

Damask rose: Medieval Contraction

Damask rose: Some Expansion

Damask rose: Abundance


Culpeper follows Parkinson throughout, almost word for word, but his introduction, and he was obviously in jocular temper when he wrote it, is to the point: ‘What a pother have authors made with roses! What a racket they have kept! I shall add red roses are under lupiter, Damask under Venus, white under the Moon, and Provence under the King of France. The white and red roses are cooling and drying and yet the white is taken to exceed the red in both the properties, but is seldom used inwardly in any medicine. The bitterness in the roses when they are fresh, especially the juice, purges choler and watery humours; but being dried… they have then a binding and astringent quality. Those also that are not full blown do both cool and bind more than those that are full blown and the white rose more than the red’. Turner cites Mesue with different emphasis ‘The white roses purge nothing at all or else very little, but they bind and strengthen more than the red do. The juice of them that are fully ripe is better, and so is the water wherein the ripe roses are steeped’.

The juice of the best quality is made from red roses, says Mattioli, then the pink, but it is of much weaker quality. Rhodopharmacum, a harmless laxative, is made from the leaves (petals) of pink roses, but damask are far better. But Mattioli says damask roses are white. It raises the question then whether his reference is to white damask roses or simply the white roses which Dodoens tells us the Italians call damask. Twenty such leaves, Mattioli says, eaten, draw the bowels quickly and harmlessly. These 20 petals appear again in Parkinson but not ascribed to Mattioli. Parkinson is considering whether the simple or double roses are better and it is to Camerarius he refers the recommendation ‘The Muske Roses both single and double doe purge more forceable then the Damaske, and the single is he’d to be stronger than the double, for although none of the Greek writers have made any mention thereof, yet Mesues especially of the Arabians doth set it down: twenty of the leaves of the single rose must be taken saith Camerarius but more of the double kinde to open the belly and purge the body”. But although they purge, Culpeper reassures us, roses leave a binding property. Is this perhaps another example of balance?

Gentleness And Breadth Of Use

All Renaissance authorities seem to agree on the gentleness of rose. For example, Dodoens says ‘the juyce of roses, especially of them that are reddest, or the infusion or the decoction of them is of the kind of soft and gentle medicines which loose and open the belly, and may be taken without danger. Gerard similarly writes ‘The juice, infusion or decoction of roses are to be reckoned among those medicines which are soft, gentle, loosing, opening and purging gently the belly, which may be taken at all times and in all places, of every kinde or sex of people both old and young, without danger or perill’. Mattioli notes how ‘modern doctors’ credit a rose syrup preparation for loosening the bowels among the medicines termed ‘Benedicta’.

Most authors give a summary, and they mainly coincide, of the main uses of rose, familiar from Dioscorides, Pliny and Mesue. Gerard’s list is typical: (1) they strengthen the heart and help its trembling and beating. Dodoens explains on this point ‘for it dryveth forth, and dispatcheth all corrupt and evill humors, in and about the veynes of the heart’. (2) They strengthen the liver, kidneys and other weak ‘intrails’; they dry and comfort a weak and moist stomach; stop leucorrhoea and excessive menstrual flow; staunch all bleedings in the body, stop sweating, bind, loosen and moisten the body. Dodoens adds of the juice that ‘it purges downwards choleric humours and opens stoppings of the liver, strengthening and cleansing it. It is also good against hot fevers and the jaunders’. (3) Roses can be added to antidotes and similar, internally or externally to which they will add a strengthening and binding quality. (4) Honey of roses, mel rosarum, is very good for cleansing and drying wounds, ulcers, ‘issues’ and other similar lesions. (5) The oil reduces all heat and will help and ease inflammations and hot swellings.

Dodoens adds to Dioscorides’ reference to heat of stomach, St Anthony’s fire and erysipelas an application of roses ‘pound and beaten small’ for inflammation or swelling of the breasts or paps and serpigo. Turner alone cites Mesue that they ‘make a man sleep but they provoke a man to nese [sneeze] and steer a man to the pose and are evil for rheumatic persons’. However, they fasten the uvula and ‘thropple or throat’ and they take drunkenness away.

Culpeper in the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, writing of sugar of roses, summarizes its actions ‘it strengtheneth the heart, the stomach, the liver and the retentive faculty; is good against all kinds of fluxes, prevents vomitings, stops tickling coughs and is of service in consumption’. This is one of the few references in our texts to coughs, perhaps an expansion of Dioscorides’ spitting of blood.

Damask rose: Use Of Parts

In a number of authors, there is a further consideration of the virtues of the separate parts. For example, Gerard begins with ‘yellow haires and tips’ which bind and dry; then he mentions, almost in parenthesis, ‘fluxes at sea’, which may refer to Pliny’s ‘nausea(s)’ which can mean both sickness and sea-sickness: ‘the cups and beards are of the same temperature, but since none of them has a sweet smell they are not so useful, except in fluxes at sea for which they are more useful than on land’. The anthera, dried and beaten to a powder, stay fluxes on land as well as at sea, he says, and also both white and red flux in women, 2 scruples (2.6 g) in red wine with some powdered ginger. Mattioli adds Dioscorides’ defluxions of the gums here. For Culpeper, the stamens, powdered, should be drunk in distilled water of quince for overflowing of women’s courses and defluxions of rheums on gums and teeth. The nails, says Gerard, are good for watering eyes. Mattioli says they are useful incorporated into lotions and clysters for stopping fluxes. The heads or buttons staunch bleeding and stop the laske (diarrhoea), continues Gerard while Mattioli talks of the calyx with the remaining part of the base, stopping flux of the bowels and coughing of blood. The hips astringe, he says, and are a remedy against diarrhoea, abundance of flow in women of whatever kind and are particularly powerful against gonorrhoea/urethral flux. Culpeper adds more on rosehips ‘hips are grateful to the taste and a considerable restorative, fitly given to consumptive persons, the conserve being proper in all distempers of the breast and in coughs and tickling rheums. The pulp, powdered, breaks the stone and helps colic’.

Damask rose: Preparations And Thei Application

Damask rose: Recipes

To complete the instruction for the reader some authors offer recipes.

Gerard’s syrup of the infusion of roses says: ‘Take two pounds of roses, the white ends cut away, put them to steepe or infuse in six pintes of warm water in an open vessel for the space of twelve hours: then straine them out, and put thereto the like quantitie of roses, and warm the water again, so let it stand the like time: do thus foure or five times; in the end adde unto that liquor or infusion, foure pound of fine sugar in powder; then boyle it unto the forme of a syrup, upon a gentle fire, continually stirring it until it be cold; then straine it, and keepe it for your use, whereof may be taken in white wine, or other liquor, from one ounce unto two’.

Gerard’s syrup of the juice is made thus: ‘Take roses, the white nails cut away, what quantitie you please, stampe them, and straine out the juice, the which you shall put to the fire, adding thereto sugar, according to the quantity of the juice: boiling them on a gentle fire unto a good constistence’.

Three recipes from Culpeper follow:

Sugar of roses: ‘Take of red rose leaves (petals), the whites being cut off, and speedily dried in the sun an ounce, white sugar a pound, melt the sugar in rose water and juice of roses of each two ounces which being consumed by degrees, put in the rose leaves in powder, mix them, put it upon a marble, and make into lozenges according to art’.

Rose vinegar: Take of red rose buds, gathered in a dry time, the whites cut off, dried in the shade three or four days, one pound, vinegar eight sextaries, set them in the sun forty days, then strain out the roses, and repeat the infusion with fresh ones’. Taking a sextary as equivalent to a sextarius, eight sextaries would be 4320 mL. Estimates of asextary vary from just under a pint to apint (568 mL) to a pint and a half.

Honey of roses solutive: ‘Take of the often infusion of damask roses five pounds, honey rightly clarified four pounds, boil it to the thickness of honey…after the same manner is prepared the honey of the infusion of red roses’.

Damask rose: 18th Century And Later

More Modern Thoughts -Decline And Resurrection

Mythology, Symbolism And Deeper Appreciation


Renewed exploration of the virtues of the rose and their various preparations are to be encouraged. It would be interesting to discover the nature of Rosa gallica again and compare it with the damask. To what extent is a preparation from dried red roses more binding than one of damask? Are the damask preparations more amphoteric in their effects? Would sugary concoctions be acceptable in these days of obesity awareness? There are many explorations to be made if we wish to approach Renaissance expertise in these matters. Nevertheless, from the literature general recommendations can be made:

• To strengthen the heart, in palpitations, fainting.

• To lift the spirits in melancholy (internal and external preparations).

• To strengthen a ‘weak stomach, liver and bowels.

• For vomiting and diarrhoea.

• For constipation in children and adults.

• For cooling hot fevers, hot headache and joint ache (internal and external preparations).

• For menorrhagia and leucorrhoea, and for use in menopause.

• For sore mouth and throat, and for coughs, especially as honey of roses.

• Hips for diarrhoea, menorrhagia and as source of vitamin C.

• Seeds as diuretic and for stones. As external use:

• Rosewater as eye wash for sore eyes.

Honey of roses for wounds, ulcers, sores, inflammations and swellings.

• Rose vinegar for headache from sunburn.

• Rose vinegar or ointment for insomnia.

Dosage: We are currently using an excellent 1:1 specific tincture of Rosa damascena, distilled and macerated, as a cordial and calming digestive astringent in doses of 5-10 mL per week. Culpeper recommends 1-4 oz of the syrup of roses solutive as a single dose. Honey of roses, he says, is made of the same infusion and works the same effect but it is more commonly given to phlegmatic subjects than to choleric.

Regarding the prescribing of these preparations today the dosage for honeys, syrups and electuaries is likely to be limited as much by concerns for the quantity of sugar used as by the amount of fresh rose petals required.


Volatile oil

Total 0.017-0.035% (means at 13 sites, 40 samples, Iran).

Rose oils are complex and 95 compounds were identified (94.75% of the oil), monoterpene alcohols: beta-citronellol 26%; oxides; ethers; aldehydes: geranial; hydrocarbons: eicosane 30%, docosane 14%, 1-nonadecene 7% (cultivated, Iran).

Monoterpene ‘rose’ alcohols: 18 alcohols, citronellol 24-43%, geraniol 2-18% and its cis-isomer nerol 0.7-18% (15 rose oils, Turkey).

Rose alcohols 96%: citronellol and nerol 24%, geraniol 21 %, linalool 23% (oil redistilled from rose water, cultivated, India).

Monoterpene alcohols: geraniol 0.1-30.6%, nerol 0.01-18.6%, very low citronellol; hydrocarbons 7-28% (24 old roses, Italy).

Other alcohols: 2-phenylethanol 12-90% (over 50% in 19/24 samples), benzyl alcohol 0.3-34.2%, (24 old roses, Italy).

Relative yield of oil depends on the extraction conditions. Babu et al (2002) argue that extraction at atmospheric pressure produces a better oil and their study of field distillation in India found that the rose alcohol content was higher in rose water than oil. Water-soluble constituents such as 2-phenylethanol are partially extracted during distillation but are significant components in rose water. Ethanolic tinctures would also contain more alkanes than rose oil. This is suggested by a study of rose concrete, a quasi-solid extract, treated with ethanol as solvent, which found citronellol 4.7%; 2-phenylethanol 25%; alkanes: n-nonadecane 13%, heneicosane 12%, n-trixcosane 7%. A detailed review of rose oils, rose waters and rose concrete found substantial complexity in the constituents, and variation between samples. It also reviewed studies on rose oils cultivated in India and a new cultivar Ranisahiba developed in India.

Fragrance is associated with characteristic components of the volatile oil such as as and trans rose oxides or damascenone. A study of the changes in fragrance of rose oil over 5 hours on the skin of volunteers suggests that whilst the rose oxides and damascenone are very important, the compounds which are characteristic of rose oil, namely citronellol, geraniol, nerol, geranial, 2-phenylethanol contribute significantly to the fragrance, and the hydrocarbons have a fixative effect which results in a longer-lasting fragrance when applied to the skin. A study showed that volatile oil content and aroma was highest just as the petals open, which confirms the practical experience of growers.

Phenolic acids

Total 8% measured as gallic acid equivalents (total 6% in green tea). The rose teas were rich in free gallic acid.

Gallic acid (cultivated, northern India).

Glycoside of 2-phenylethanol (see other alcohols above), ester of glycoside of 2-phenylethanol with gallic acid (Pakistan).


Flavonol glycosides

Quercetin glycosides: rutin, quercitrin; myricetin; kaempferol.

Quercetin glycosides; kaempferol glycosides.

Quercetin glycosides; kaempferol glycosides (cultivated, Turkey).


Total 2.85%: cyanidin 3,5-diglucoside 95% (fresh flowers, cultivated, Turkey).