Damask rose: Ancient Use

Dioscorides (I 99) records modest use. He tells us that roses (rodon, plural roda in Greek) cool and contract, but dried roses contract more strongly. He is precise about the preparations and the parts used. In preparing the juice, the ‘nails’ of the roses are first removed. The remainder of the petals, and they should be from young roses, are then squeezed and pounded in a mortar, compressed into a ball and stored to make ointment for eyes. Roses have to be dried carefully in the shade and turned frequently to avoid mould. The expressed juice of dried roses boiled in wine is good for headaches, ear aches, sore eyes, painful gums, and for anal and uterine pain – for the latter when ‘applied with a feather brush’ and ‘used as a wash’ (Beck), thus presumably massaged onto the abdomen or used as a douche or pessary. Osbaldeston’s version records perineum, intestine, rectum and vulva, here. For inflammations of the hypochondrium (Parkinson has ‘region of the heart’), for excess fluids in the stomach and for erysipelas roses should be used as a plaster. The preparation here is ambiguous. Beck reads ‘The roses themselves, chopped up without being squeezed …’ which could refer either to the previous preparation of dried roses boiled in wine, or simply to fresh roses. Parkinson’s interpretation is for the former, since he translates ‘the same decoction, with roses remaining in them…’ Dioscorides continues that dried roses, ground up finely to powder are used on the inside of the thighs. Beck suggests here an interpretation of anti-perspirant and deodorant, since roses contract the pores. Turner’s wording is very resonant ‘when as they are dried and broken they are sprenched amongst the thighs or shares’. The same preparation can be mixed with lip salves, wound medications and antidotes. Dried roses, burnt, make a paint for eyelids and eyelashes. The yellow centre, the ‘flower’, has its own specific use, dried and applied for discharges of the gums. Rose hips (although an argument could be made that this is the unripe head of the rose) control diarrhoea and the spitting of blood. These need to be drunk, Dioscorides says, but he gives no specific preparation. He finally gives a recipe for making ‘rhodides’, disks or beads which women hang round their necks to counter perspiration or they are made into powders for use after baths or in ointments. The recipe runs: 40 drachms (160 g) of fresh dried roses, 5 drachms (20 g) of Indian spikenard Nardostachys jatamansi, 6 drachms (24 g) myrrh Commiphora molmol, ground together and mould into small disks, dry and store in a sealed jar. Some add, he says, 2 drachms (8 g) of costus root, 2 drachms (8 g) of Illyrian iris, mixed with honey and Chian wine.

Beck includes an earlier entry, (I 94) as kynosbatos, Rosa sempervirens L. the white rose, which, Dioscorides says, ‘some call oxyacantha’. He describes it as ‘a tree-like shrub, much bigger than a bramble. It bears leaves broader than the myrtle’s, strong thorns around its twigs, a white flower, and fruit that is oblong, resembling an olive pit, growing red as it ripens and having its insides woolly’. The dried fruit, with woolly interior removed (as it is bad for the trachea), boiled in wine and taken internally will stop diarrhoea. There is more controversy over this plant. Mat-tioli, for example, treats it only as oxyacantha with no mention of kynosbatos, although with further actions and a long discussion of what it might be. Parkinson argues it is more likely hawthorn saying: Tragus and Dodonaus because they would not confound Cynosbatos with Cynorrhodon, the descriptions being so different both in Dioscorides and Theophrastus, referred the Cynosbatos… to the white thorne or Hawthorne and the Cynorrhodon to the wilde Rose… and yet many even to this day doe referre the Cynosbatos to the wilde Rose’.

Pliny on rose reads much like Dioscorides, although with additions. Fuchs and Dalechamps, citing Pliny, include the use of rose in fever by itself or with vinegar, and for sleep and sickness. Roses have the capacity to penetrate deeply. They inhibit fluxions of women, especially ‘the whites’, i.e. leucorrhoea, and menorrhagia, with vinegar and water. The flowers (yellow centres?) help sleep. The saffron-colored seed is best dried in shade and no older than a year. It heals toothaches and excites urine. It purges the head if put under the nostrils, presumably thus as snuff. The nails are good for ulcers of the eyes applied with bread. The petals are good for weakness of the stomach, corrosions and weak bowels and intestines, and very healing for the praecordia. This word ‘praecordia’ perhaps deserves a comment. Is Pliny suggesting here this is a topical remedy for the heart? Roses are used as seasonings in food. Wild rose with bear’s fat ‘heals alopecia wonderfully’. Finally Parkinson relates Pliny’s commendation of the root of wild rose for the bite of a mad dog which was discovered ‘by a miracle [other sources say an ‘oracle’].. .but how wee may beleeve him I know not’.

Galen is succinct; the rose possesses heat in a watery substance, mixed with two other qualities, astringency and bitterness. The flowers are more astringent. Parkinson’s rendition suggests this reference to ‘flowers’ is to the yellow centres.