Damask rose: Heritage And Identity

The rose has an ancient heritage. Fossils have been found across the northern continents of Europe, America and Asia dating back to the Miocene period, 7-26 million years ago. From an easy tendency to hybridization, chance mutation and human inclination to encourage these processes dating back to the earliest civilizations, we have the joyous variety of current blooms. The breeding of roses appears to have originated in three main areas – Iran, Iraq and China. Clements et al (1979) write of rose gardens in China possibly as far back as 2700BC, and certainly in imperial Peking in the 4th and 5th centuries BC. In Persia early references are found, one of the earliest to 2200 BC in Sumeria, and as official symbol of King Kyros II in the 6th century BC. Medicinal rose plants can be found among the predecessors of our cultivated old garden roses, from early western hybrids, developed through a long history of successive civilizations from mainly Persian descent, and carried to the West. The development of our modern tea roses owes its heritage to aspects of Chinese antecedents and these were developed in Europe relatively recently in the 19th century. There is evidence of roses in Egypt and mention in Homer, Herodotus and Pindar among early authors. The Romans appear to have taken rose use to extremes with stories of revellers suffocating in rose petals at banquets, culminating in Nero spending a fortune covering a beach with rose petals for one of his celebrations. Clements et al (1979) report the Roman poet Horace complaining that instead of the necessary food crops, the grain fields and orchards were planted with roses because the rose culture was so lucrative.

Rosa gallica is described as the ‘European prototype’. By the 17th century, Clements et al (1979) assert, Europe had developed varieties of roses descending largely from this rose. Varieties were also based on the three hybrids: damascena, alba and later centifolia. Grieve says the Ancients were familiar with at least the Rosa gallica, that is the red Provins rose or apothecaries rose, mistakenly called the Provence rose, although the varieties were limited. Provins is the town southeast of Paris where roses were cultivated. Dioscorides specifies no type, nor even color, nor offers description nor comment of any kind in this direction, Galen neither. Pliny, on the other hand, gives us 11 names and appends at least some description to each, but not enough detail to allow any definitive, or necessarily useful, comparison with later blooms, although of course a number of authors have made more or less informed guesses as to their identity. Parkinson and Mattioli cite Pliny that the Romans esteemed greatest the praestinian, campanan and milesian, this latter held to be the best red rose and of the brightest color. The tracynian, less red, and the alabandican, the least one, with white petals, follow. Most useful of all, but the smallest, is spineola. There is a centifolia and a variety of moscheuton, of which Pliny’s coroneola is generally agreed, says Parkinson, to be the double musk rose. The Renaissance authors, not unexpectedly of course, have a field day enumerating the varieties familiar to their own experience and comparing these to Pliny and to each others’ views on this matter with commendable fastidiousness. Gerard discusses six garden roses, eight musks and four wild types. Dodoens offers 10, including musk and wild, Bauhin covers 12 and is particularly detailed on discussion of who says which rose is which, while Parkinson excels with 24. Their opinions and descriptions do not always coincide, particularly on which might correspond to Pliny

Dodoens’ 10 roses, as example, cover, briefly, (1) rosa alba, the white rose, called (confusingly) in Italy the damask rose, possibly the campana of Pliny; (2) rosa rubra, the red rose, Pliny’s trachinias, amongst which rosae milesiae are the deepest red; (3) rose de Provinces, called in English also damask rose, perhaps Pliny’s alabandicas; (4) rose de Provins, perhaps the rosae milesiae of Pliny; (5) the civet rose or bastard muske rose, possibly the rosa praenestina of Pliny; (6) rosa coroneola of Pliny, the muske rose; (7) rosa canina, the brier bush or hep tree; (8) the kunosbatos of the Greeks, Pliny’s rosa spinosa; (9) the yellow rose; (10) eglantine, rosa Graeca in Latin. Of garden roses Gerard details the white rose, the red rose, the common damaske rose, the lesser Province rose, the rose without prickles, and the Holland or Province rose.

There are nevertheless many points of similarity through the Renaissance authors, particularly concerning the main varieties used in medicine. All of their texts seem to have some version of the later recognized varieties: Rosa gallica also known as Provins or Apothecaries rose, of a deep crimson color; the white rose; the damask rose, which is pink to light red, and Rosa centifolia or Provence rose, which is also pink. It is doubtful whether they had the damask rose in the Roman era, since it may not have reached the West by then. Mattioli includes a suggestion that Mesue might not have been familiar with the damask, since it had only recently been introduced into Italy in Mattioli’s time, but Mesue, I would have thought, being Persian, is possibly rather more likely to have been acquainted with it than not.

As a flower of perfection, the symbol of love, famed in many mythologies, highly prized by poets and holding a central position through many traditions and ages, the rose as a medicinal plant has a less uniformly sustained history. It begins its journey in our sources with appreciable use in Dioscorides and Pliny. It then seems to parallel the relative constraint to local resource of all cultural activity in Europe, following the fall of the Roman empire, with many records limited to wild rose use. By the 12th century however, we find Hildegard extolling its use as addition to any medicine ‘Rose is also good to add to unguents and all medications. If even a little rose is added, they are so much better, because of the good virtues of the rose’. In the meantime, again pacing cultural development, the rose takes a significant leap forward in Arabic hands, both horticultural and medical, and in recorded form. This serves then the crescendo to the Renaissance with its explicit recognition as one of the most useful herbs and its detailed recorded use, where its medical applications were arrayed in a fine appreciation of the niceties of internal and external treatment through many different preparation choices. Parkinson says ‘The rose is of exceeding great use with us’. Mattioli says ‘clearly roses are to be esteemed highly.. .not only because they are an embellishment to pleasure gardens.. .but because they are useful as the most outstanding medicines by which human life is aided’. It then sinks gradually into relative obscurity with the perfunctory ‘almost entirely overlooked as a medicinal plant’ of the National Botanic Pharmacopoeia of 1921 and an unprepossessing role as adjunct to make other medicines taste better. It appears only as rosehip in the 1983 British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, and is missing entirely from many later herbals. There are encouraging signs of its rehabilitation among current authors and herbalists, but it merits a more serious reappraisal of its virtues.