The rose in history – part 2 of the rose series

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose; By any other name would smell as sweet.” – William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

The rose is the most classic and enduring symbol of love, purity and beauty. It is considered by many to be the supreme of all flowers. Of the roses, Rosa damsacena is considered to be one of the finest, especially when it comes to its unrivalled perfume. There are 3 main aromatic roses and they are Rosa damascena, which is believed to have originated in Syria and thus the name damascena from the city Damascus, Rosa gallica, which is believed to have originated in central Asia, and Rosa Centifolia (meaning 100 petals), which is believed to have originated in Persia. In Persia, the word for rose and flower are the same, perhaps evidence of the archetypal nature of this flower.

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There are around 200 species of roses in the world and of these there are many variations, in fact, there are estimated to be around 18,000 cultivars (Boskabody et al., 2011) although some other sources cite up to 30,000 cultivars (Herbs2000). Of these, there are 31 species and many cultivars growing in Turkey, including Rosa damascena, but also the very rare black rose (here is a blog on this species Anatolia is described as a “major center of rose differentiation” (Widrlechner, 1981). Even at the time of Theophrastis (300BC), a botanist, there were many species of roses growing in Anatolia (now modern Turkey).

Roses have been in existence for millions of years, and this is evidenced by fossils which have been estimated to be around 35 to 40 million years old and have been found in the USA and Europe (European medicine agency). Rose seeds have also been found in Europe, and are estimated to be from the neolithic era (Widrlechner). However, they have been cultivated and used by humans for only about 5000 years. There are claims that roses were widely grown in China around 2700BC (Medicinal plants) and there is evidence in the form of the roses imprinted on Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets (European medicine agency) which are around 5000 years old and also a fresco found in an ancient palace in Crete which is estimated to be around 3700 years old (Widrlechner, 1981).

Roses were seen as valuable and were traded by the ancient civilisations (Phoenecians, Minoans, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans) and thus the spread of roses all around the Mediterranenean and Middle East. A wreath of well preserved roses was found in ancient Egypt (Widrlechner) and paintings have also been found on the walls of pharoahs’ tombs (Herbs 2000). Additionally, frescoes have been found in the ancient city of Pompeii. In ancient Greece, the rose was revered for its perfume and it was the flower of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Aphrodite was often adorned with roses in pictures. Roses have also featured in Greek myths and even in Homer’s The Iliad, and were called the ‘queen of flowers’ by the Greek poet Sappho. It is said that Mark Antony wanted Cleopatra to cover his tomb in roses. In ancient Rome, there were many public gardens, which apparently were planted with roses. They were used as deocorations for houses and there was even a festival to celebrate the rose, named ‘rosalia’. There are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, many stories of rose decadence during this period and one is of Nero who apparently spent a fortune getting a beach covered in rose petals and others where fountains had rose water coming out of them. There are also other stories of celebrations having masses of rose petals being released from the ceilings of buildings which apparently led to the suffocation of guests. However, the popularity of roses was very controversial in ancient Rome, as their demand was such that precious land which could have been used for food production for the peasants was used for the cultivation of roses. For the early christians, the rose became associated with the Virgin Mary and came to symbolize divine love and also came to represent resurrection. The thorns are often interpreted to represent sacrifice and suffering. During the middle ages with the change in economic conditions, it is said that only monasteries had rose gardens and these were kept for medical reasons only. In Persia, roses were used in the place of corks for wine to give the wine a pleasant aroma. In the 14th century, a war in England between dynasties later became known as’ the war of the roses’, with one side adopting the white rose as its symbol and the other later adopting the red rose. In the England of Henry VIII, roses decorated weddings and other festivals. In the 19th century, Josephine, Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, loved roses and she did a lot to invigorate rose growing in France. It is reported that she collected 250 specimens, with Napoleon bringing them back wherever he found them. Her gardens were very well known in Europe and she is credited with creating interest in growing roses in Modern Europe.

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In addition to being used as a decoration, roses have had a long history of being used as medicine. In ancient civilisations, they were used for a wide variety of conditions from skin to menstrual issues. They were also used as a gentle laxative (European Medicine Agency) and also for their anti-inflammatory properties (Boskabody et al.,). The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about the medicinal properties of roses and their ability to treat many ailments from headaches and chest pain, to gum problems. They were also used to fortify organs, such as the heart, the stomach and the liver. Paracelsus believed that taking roses elongated ones life. In American Indian culture, a decoction of the roots was used in the treatment on children’s coughs (European Medicine Agency). In Chinese medicine, roses were and are still used in the treatment of stomach issues and femal reproductive system issues. In Assyrian culture, roses were boiled and the resulting water was used as medicine, which has been recorded on tablets. In Persia, the method of distillation was apparently invented for the strict purpose of producing the widely viewed medicinal rose water, and interestingly the essential oil was viewed as a waste product, although the rose water was (and still is) used as medicine and food. In France, prior to the 13th century, roses were widely used in food and as medicine. In the rennaissance, where the rose was recognised as a very useful herb and medicine, rose leaves were taken as a laxative. A herbalist of this time wrote “[t]he rose doth deserve the chiefest and most principall place among all floures whatsoever, being not onely esteemed for his beautie, virtues, and his fragrant and odoriferous smell; but also because it is the honour and ornament of our English Scepter” (Doctor Schar). Rose leaves were also used in a poultice to stop the loss of blood in flesh wounds occuring in battle (Cambridge Chronicle).

The rose is also very important for the Islamic religion, where it is symbolic of purity. In 810 AD it was recorded that a province of Persia was required to give up to 30,000 bottles of rose water to the caliph of Baghdad (Widrlechner). Rose water was used during this period, mixed with mortar in the building of mosques, so that when the sun shone on the building, the aroma would be released. The rose is known as the flower of the prohet Mohammed and is used abundantly in religious ceremonies perhaps because of its relaxing and meditative effects (Boskabody et al.,). It is said that Saladdin, the military leader of Egypt at the time of the crusades, after the seige of Jeruselam and capturing what is now known as Al Aqsa mosque or the Temple, had it purified with rose water which had apparently been brought with 500 camels from Damascus. It is also reported that Mohammed II wanted the same upon the conversion of the church of St Sophia into a mosque after his conquest of Constantinople (Widrlechner). In Sufi mystic poetry, the rose features and is compared to the soul of a sufi. It is believed that there is a relation between the soul and perfume and thus perhaps the popularity of rose water in Islam. Today in Mecca, rose water and rose oil is still used during the annual pilgrimage (Baser et al., 2012).

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A story from the early 17th century, in India, has a princess who had a canal around her garden filled with rose water from Persia. Upon inspection, she realized that there was a ‘scum’ on top of the water. This of course was rose oil, which they then realised was the source of the most beautiful perfume and this, as the story goes, was the moment of recognition of oil’s importance. With this, the production of rose oil in Persia increased greatly. It had its beginning in the town of Kashan which was the centre of world rose water and oil production until the 16th century (Boskabody et al.,). It is recorded that a Turkish merchant brought Rosa damascena to what is now known as modern Bulgaria (then part of the Ottoman empire) from Persia at the end of the 17th century (Baser, et al). With the separation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman empire at the beginning of the 20th century, cuttings of Rosa Damascena were brought to Turkey where it has subsequently thrived in the town of Isparta, now known as the rose district. Rose oil has been produced in Bulgaria for around 300 years and in Turkey for less than 100 years.

From this short survey on the growing and use of the rose, it may be understood how intertwined this flower is with our history. It is everywhere, in culture, in literature, in medicine and in recipe books. This precious aromatic flower pervades our being.


Baser, C.H.K., Altintas, A., & Kürkçüoğlu, M. (2012). Turkish Rose: A Review of the History, Ethnobotany, and Modern Uses of Rose Petals, Rose Oil, Rose Water, and Other Rose Products. HerbalGram. American Botanical Council

Cumo, C (ed) Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia. Retrieved from google books

Doctor Schar. Retrieved from

A few facts about roses (1876, December). Cambridge Chronicle, Volume XXXI, Number 49Herbs 2000. Retrieved from

Medicinal Plants. (2011). Retrieved from

Widrlechner M P. (1981) History and utilization of Rosa damascena. Economic Botany 35 (1), pp 42-58 Jstor Retrieved from

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