More Modern Thoughts -Decline And Resurrection

Grieve gives a fine account of the development of rose oil production. How Avicenna first produced rose water in the 10th century, yet the distilled oil did not appear until the late 1500s or early 1600s. She tells the story of the wedding feast of Akbar’s son, when a canal was dug circling the wedding garden and filled with rose water. How then in the hot sun the oil separated from the water and its exquisite perfume was realized, captured and shortly afterwards manufactured. Medicinal use in Grieve’s time seems to have come more or less to a stop, or at least has dwindled into relative obscurity. She records rose petals as official in nearly all pharmacopoeias but in very limited use ‘though formerly employed for their mild astringency and tonic value, they are today used almost solely to impart their pleasant odour to pharmaceutical preparations’. She mentions the confection of 1 lb fresh red rose petals beaten in a stone mortar with 3 lb sugar, used for pill making, though formerly prescribed, she says for haemorrhage of the lungs and for coughs and the acid infusion employed for treatment of stomatitis and pharyngitis is no highly rated preparation owing its action more to its sulphuric acid content. A simple infusion is used for ophthalmia. She mentions syrup of red rose and honey of roses and their use in the past. Rose vinegar is specific on the Continent, she says, for headache caused by a hot sun, when cloths, soaked in the vinegar in which the rose petals have been steeped, but not boiled, are put on the head. Rosa centifolia is also not official in British pharmacopoeias at that time, used again only as a vehicle for other medicines, an eye lotion and in cold cream. Grieve gives a recipe for the latter: 3 oz of waxes melted with 9 oz almond oil, mixed with 7 fl oz rose water and 8 minims (0.5 mL) oil of roses added. The only use in ‘modern herbal medicine’ noted by Grieve is that of dried red rose flowers in infusions, or sometimes as powder, for haemorrhage, or the tincture for strengthening the stomach and a pleasant remedy for haemorrhage. Rose hips, while long official in the British Pharmacopoeia, Grieve continues, as refrigerant and astringent, had by then been omitted and only used for confection with other drugs.

The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia of 1983 has no entry for rose itself, only for rose hips for gastritis, polydipsia and avitaminosis C. In a number of modern texts it does not appear at all. Such a journey from its Renaissance heyday! Weiss writes on rose briefly; the use of the seeds as a ‘family tea’ being mildly diuretic, and the hips for colds and flu and in larger amounts as diuretic when necessary. He mentions rose honey from the petals for coughs and its strengthening effect, and the pureed pulp of the hips as use for food. Rose was not covered in the curriculum when I trained as a herbalist at the School of Herbal Medicine in the 1980s. Its coverage by some modern authors demonstrates encouraging sign of some recovery since then. Menzies Trull records two preparations, tincture of flowers and rose water, along with the broad historical uses.

Barker (2001) covers apothecaries rose for diarrhoea, especially in children and for afflictions of the mouth and throat, with infusion or syrup as preparations, and the hips of the dog rose for diarrhoea, vitamin deficiency, convalescence, lassitude and debility, and those prone to infection, again through infusion and syrup. Wood in the USA records traditional use, particularly for consumption, and notes indication of the petals and hips, although not as separate preparations, for acute inflammatory conditions of the respiratory tract, chronic inflammation and use in convalescence, old age and for delicate children, also its use in digestive tract, menstrual problems and yeast infection. He cites Messegue’s recommendation against the ill effects of antibiotics on intestinal flora. He notes, however, that most frequent use today is made of the hips.

Chevallier goes as far as to suggest that though there is little current use of rose, ‘it is probably time for a re-evaluation of its medicinal benefits’. He records the mild sedative, antidepressant and antiinflammatory properties of rose petals and use of rose water for inflamed eyes, and the use of hips of dog rose for their vitamin content, as a diarrhoea remedy and capacity to reduce thirst and ease gastric inflammation. This is at least a beginning.

As noted, the recording of modern uses in these herbals indicates some, and in my view most merited, return to grace of the rose. I am encouraged by a very recent conversation with a reputable and busy current herbal supplier that he sells more tincture of fresh damask rose than any other plant. Perhaps the herbals are already out of date and rose needs a fuller coverage to reflect modern need.

In contrast to the European decline, rose remains important in the Middle Eastern tradition, supported by encouraging scientific research, revealing very modern applications. For example a study of six samples of ‘Zahraa’, a Unani herbal tea widely consumed in Syria, identified 6-12 ingredients, but all included flowers of Rosa damascena 11-50%, lemon verbena Aloysia triphylla 4-9% and a hollyhock Alcea damascena 15-29%. The samples were purchased in the central market in Damascus. A study on hot water infusions found that the antioxidant activity in vitro was higher for Rosa damascena than for green tea. The authors review other studies on the antioxidant activity of Rosa cultivars. They correlate this with the concentration of phenolic compounds and suggest that roses would be a valuable addition to herbal tea mixes.