A Rose is a Rose is a Remedy

This Valentine’s Day, I’m sure you’ll hear about all the benefits of eating chocolate. But I report on chocolate throughout the year, not just on Valentine’s Day.

So today, I decided on another symbol of Valentine’s Day. This symbol of love has a long history as a highly beneficial medicinal plant. And if you’re fortunate enough to have a dozen of these delivered to your home today, you could pull off the petals to steep some tea. Your partner may not appreciate that gesture, but it might help improve your sleep…control your cough…help your achy hip…or even sharpen your memory!

Of course, today is Valentine’s Day…so I’m talking about the wonders of the rose.

The rose–or Rosa, from the Rosacea family–is a celebrated ornamental flower. Yes, it’s beautiful and it’s highly fragrant. But it also has a very long practical history as a medicinal plant.

Indeed, the rose is one of the oldest cultivated flowers. The first mention of it on clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia (the Middle East) dates back nearly 5,000 years.

Pliny the Elder, the Roman natural philosopher in the first century, may have been the first to document its medicinal properties. In fact, he described 32 different medicinal uses for the rose in his encyclopedia, Natural History. In the next generation, the Greek physician Discorides wrote about using the rose for headaches and as an external pain reliever.

Physicians in ancient Persia, India and China used the rose medicinally as well. But it was in the Middle East where the rose staunchly took hold as a powerful medicine.

With the advent of Islam, the rose became an important part of the mystical tradition in Islam known as Sufism. The famous Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “Rose is sent to earth by the gardeners of paradise for empowering the mind, the eye and the spirit.”

In Islamic medicine, practitioners used distilled rose water, rose oil, and rose confection paste. To make rose water, you pour boiling water over fresh rose petals. Then you let the liquid cool and remove the petals. To make rose oil, you steep the fresh petals in sesame seed oil or olive oil. Rose confection paste is a jam produced by combining rose petals with honey or sugar.

Islamic physicians used rose oil to treat burns, ulcers, and hemorrhoids. They also recommended it as a drink to lower fevers and to alleviate drunkenness.

The great Persian physician Ibn-i Sina (Avicenna) first recognized the beneficial effects of the rose on the heart and brain in the 11th century. He spoke of it benefiting both the heart and the soul, like a ‘mind-body” therapy of today.

He also described rose oil’s effect on comprehension and memory. He said rose oil would even help alleviate anxiety and put the mind at rest. During rose blossom season, the sick were carried to wells where they were immersed in the residues of the rose pulp.

You can learn more about Ibn-I Sina and his approach to medicine in my forthcoming translation of his medical textbook Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine with Drs. Mones Abu-Asab and Hakima Amri. The translation will be published later this year.

There are also many surprising modern day uses of the rose in medicine.

Modern day scientists continue to study the rose pharmacologically. They found it has a wide-range of properties as a sleep enhancer, pain reliever, cough suppressant, heart remedy, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial agent, antioxidant, and memory enhancer.

Clinical trials demonstrate that two varieties of the rose–R. damascena and R. centrifolia–also have powerful effects on brain function. Laboratory studies show that R. damascena, in particular, has impressive ability to inhibit the formation of amyloid-beta. These plaques appear to be a major cause of Alzheimer’s dementia. R. damascena also appears to support strong brain cell growth.

The cognitive enhancement effects of the rose–first recognized by the great Islamic Persian physician Ibn-i Sina (Avicenna in Latin)–should be an important area for medical research in the future, given the modern epidemic of Alzheimer’s dementia.

The rose also appears to benefit the heart. These benefits should not come as a surprise as the rose comes from the same botanical family as Hawthorn (Rosaceae). Hawthorn has a long, proven history as a safe and effective remedy for early-stage heart failure. Similarly, rose extract appears to regulate the heart rate and strengthen the heart muscle. This is another direction of science worthy of further study.

Roses have not yet made it into the dietary supplement market in a major way.

You can find dried rose flower buds in herbal teas. And you can get rose jam and syrups that are prepared from fresh rose flowers. And if you know a good Middle Eastern or Middle Asian restaurant, look for rice or rice-flower puddings. Very often, they add rose water to these traditional desserts.

You can also find dried rose hips in health food stores. Rose hips form after the petals of the flower fall off. They are the fruits of the flower blossom and grow just below the petals. As the fruit, they also contain the seeds of the rose plant.

Fresh rose hips contain high levels of vitamin C. However, the manufacture of dried rose hips destroys much of the vitamin C. Because of this, many manufacturers add vitamin C back into their dried rose hip products. But their labels may not always say so.

So if you’re looking to fight off a cold or want to help prevent the long-term risk of major chronic illnesses, you’re better off taking straight vitamin C. That is, unless, you can have fresh rose hips in your garden. Then, you can make your own tea using fresh rose hips. Just don’t select rose hips from a rose bush treated with pesticides. Better yet, don’t treat roses with chemicals in the first place.

According to WebMD, you can also try a rose hip supplement as a “tonic” for intestinal diseases and stomach irritation. It is also used for:

  • diarrhea & constipation
  • gallstones & gallbladder ailments
  • lower urinary tract and kidney disorders
  • fluid retention (dropsy or edema)
  • gout, back and leg pain (sciatica)
  • high cholesterol
  • weight loss
  • high blood pressure
  • fever
  • increasing immune function during exhaustion
  • increasing blood flow in the limbs
  • increasing urine flow
  • quenching thirst

The list appears long and versatile.

Of course, before taking a rose hip supplement, check with your doctor. Also, when choosing a rose hip supplement, make sure you go with a reputable manufacturer. As I’ve warned many times in the Daily Dispatch, poor manufacturing practices can be the norm. And the more “popular” a brand, the poorer the quality typically.

I was also thinking, just why does something like a rose–aside from its biological effects in the body–make us feel good? Is it the aroma? Is it the touch or feel? Is it just the sight of the rose? Or, is it simply a symbol of something we feel in our hearts?

Aromas, fragrances and smells do have a powerful effect on the brain. They seem hard-wired into our memories. In fact, your sense of smell is the strongest memory-holder.

The olfactory nerves–which are also responsible for most taste sensation–travel from the nose up through a porous entry in the skull. The olfactory nerves gather at the olfactory bulb right in the midst of the brain tissue.

Certain aromas and smells seem to have powerful effects, conjuring up strong memories and feelings. This is no doubt part of the biological equipment that protects humans and animals in learning and reacting to their environments.

I just put on an old bottle of “tropical” tanning oil to enjoy some Florida sun–with an SPF of zero. The smell transported me back in my memory to relaxing settings of yesteryear. I breathe in the smell of coconut and fruit oils and it makes me think of the ocean. It helps me feel relaxed and breathe more deeply.

But back to our roses…

We prize roses for their fragrance as well. It is said Cleopatra seduced her lovers by bathing in rose water. To be sure, the rose is a strong aphrodisiac for some.

Why else do we value roses?

Well, for one, getting a bouquet of roses touches the heart. It makes us feel connected to someone else. And that’s a powerful emotion.

The ancient Egyptians considered the heart the seat of consciousness, not the brain. They casually discarded the brain during preparation for mummification, but the heart was carefully kept and housed.

Perhaps the Egyptians were on to something…

Is the heart as important as the mind, even in matters of health? Without a doubt, your mind is often your own worst enemy. Especially at times of stress. Especially when you’re sick. Indeed, mental stress can make you sick. I’ve said it many times in recent weeks–stress is the real killer.

But when someone tells you to “follow your heart”–or even to “stop and smell the roses”–it usually just means to relax. Stop over-analyzing. Stop stressing. Stop thinking altogether!

Indeed, this is what meditation teaches you. In fact, this is the basis of authentic yoga, mindfulness and other related practices. Physiologically, a kind of aware-relaxation is part of the process. This is very different from the deadened kind of “relaxation” provided by drugs. And learning to relax the mind may be the most potent panacea of them all. It can even help get the body back on track to heal itself. That’s a scientific fact.

So, do you want my advice? Try to stop and “smell the roses”–excuse the cliché–all year long. Relax your mind. Your body and your health will benefit. And you’ll come out smelling like a rose.

1. Baser,  KHC, Altinas, A, Kurkcuoglu, M, A Review of the history, ethnobotany and modern uses of rose petals, rose oil, rose water and other rose products, HerbalGram: Journal of the American Botanical Council, Issue 96, January 2013, pp. 40-53.
2. Senol, FS, Orhan, I, Kurkcuoglu, M, et al, Planta Medica 77 (12): 1440.