By Iris Brooks
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2006.
For thousands of years, roses have been symbols of love, beauty, and spirit. They have also been used as universal healers in oil, water, and tea, as well as a flavoring and food. Once considered the “fragrance of the gods” in ancient Egypt, roses have a history that can be traced to Persia, Babylon, and China. In ancient Rome, roses were used for blessings, as garlands, to decorate war ships, and to float in wine as a tribute to Venus, the goddess of love.
Nowadays, roses are revered as the flower of choice for Valentine’s Day and in all matters romantic. But its uses have blossomed to more than just symbolic gestures. Rather, the rose is used to produce many therapeutic benefits. But creating products from roses — including essential oil, creams, and moisturizers — is very labor intensive. In fact, it takes 20 roses to produce only one drop of rose oil. And rose hips or haws — the fruit of the rose — only develop after the petals have fallen. This prized fruit is exclusively gathered after the first frost.
At the Hills Health Ranch in western Canada, the harvest is a family activity involving nearly 150 people. “Rose hips are good for your insides and outsides,” says ranch owner Pat Corbett, as he tours me around the crop. The picking area is 300 to 400 miles in length, and it is at an ideal 3,000 to 4,000 foot elevation. The wild crop is organic. No pesticides are used. And the hips — all picked by hand — are dried on racks without heat. The entire process takes approximately 9 to 10 months from picking to bottling the rose hip oil.
The real challenge comes in the extraction practice. That’s what led the Corbetts to an agricultural lab in Manitoba for research and development of rose hips. They are also working in partnership with the University of Northern British Columbia, researching healing indigenous plants as well as planning a on-site lab at the Hills Health Ranch.
In my quest to further understand this complex growth and extraction process, I discovered Rudolf Hauschka, Ph.D., a Viennese chemist. His techniques involve growing plants biodynamically, according to the planetary cycles of nature. His company, WALA, hand harvests roses before sunrise (when the oil content is at its highest) and incorporates the results into 56 products, including mascara, where the rose helps protect fine lashes.
Hauschka’s holistic and organic skin care line (sold internationally and used in select spas) relies on the damask roses grown and harvested by a cooperative of 2,000 people in southwestern Turkey. After the harvest, the roses are mashed with a mortar and pestle, put in a liquid ice bath, and aged for a year. The final products include a rose day cream (for dry, sensitive, or mature skin) using a combination of both rose petal and rose hip extract along with avocado to soothe red, irritated skin. The rose body moisturizer blends rose ingredients with almond, jojoba oil, and quince extract to hydrate and soothe even a baby’s skin. And the rose oil is recommended for rubbing in the heart region, to create a calming effect.
The therapeutic benefits of roses are vast when flavoring a bath or applied to the skin. In Tibet, rose hips are put in a tub to help people with arthritis. In India, rose water is considered an ideal toner for skin as well as a gentle eyewash. When applied topically, rose oil is effective for a variety of skin conditions, including acne, thread veins, varicose veins, capillary damage, scars, burns, and wrinkles. Hans Harbst, M.D., head of the radiology department at the Chilean Air Force Hospital in Santiago, has successfully used rose hip oil to treat dermatitis resulting from radiotherapy and to reduce scarring.
Herbologist and organic chemist Claudio Dario — who developed a memory serum from the skin of the rose hip seed— believes rose hips are helpful for wound healing and for ulcerated areas in diabetics. He explains, “Rose hips have an antiaging effect against the sun, and with their omega-3 and omega-6 properties, have the ability to reverse damage. But you have to be careful about oxidation,” he warns. He suggests keeping it in the refrigerator or a cool place in a dark bottle.
Roses are said to be emotional uplifters, curbing stress. But a range of additional properties are also associated with the rose. They have a high nutrient content — including vitamin C, which is used to treat infections and heal wounds — as well as anti-microbial, antiaging, and circulatory benefits.
The healing properties of rose hip tea run the gamut from antidepressant and aphrodisiac to circulatory aid and infection fighter and are used by cultures around the world. Consumed either hot or iced, it is said to be a tonic for energy, a protector from disease, and a cleanser for the respiratory tract. Chinese medicine uses the rose hip for urinary disorders and kidney energy, while in Indian ayurvedic practice, roses act as a mental tonic. Rose hip tea even helps with menstrual difficulties.
The Oriental karkade tea mixes rose hips with hibiscus, black currant, apples, and spices. Native Americans drink the rose hip tea and also eat the fruit. Edible rose dishes are found around the globe, ranging from syrup in India and vegetables in China to a delicious petal jam in France. Rose hips may also be found in soups, stews, puddings, and pies. The most tasty variety is said to be rosa rugosa.
The rose means many things to many people. For some, it is a symbol of completion and perfection. For others, it is the mystic center of the heart and an emblem of Venus, associated primarily with romance. Perhaps you think of the rose in relation to the garden of Eros or the paradise of Dante. Or maybe it is simply a way to calm yourself with a cup of fragrant tea. Whether or not you use rose oil or rose products, try to make time in your day to just stop and smell these powerful healers.