For centuries the rose has been highly valued by many cultures not only for its beauty and perfume but also for its profound healing properties both on a physical and psychological level. Rosewater and Rose Oil were used in the traditional medicines of China, India, Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome, to cure a wide range of medical conditions.
The exact origin of rosewater and rose oil production was never recorded in history. However, we can trace the existence of rosewater as far back as 1200 BC to the Mycenaean city of Pilos where it was traded commercially¹. The production of rosewater was also a thriving industry in Shiraz in Persia. From 810BC the province of Faristan in Persia was required to give an annual tribute of 30,000 bottles of rosewater to the Caliph in Baghdad. At this time Faristan was the centre of global rosewater production exporting to China and throughout the Islamic world.
We know that rosewater preceded the discovery of rose oil and was used for centuries before the oil or ‘attar’ was first produced. The most romantic tale of the origin of rose attar has to be the story of the Emperor Djihanguyr, who ordered the fountains and canals in the royal gardens to be filled with rosewater to celebrate his wedding to the princess Nour Djihan. When later walking through the gardens with her husband the princess noticed an oily residue had collected on the surface of the water. She ran her fingers through the scented water and was delighted to find that a fragrant oil clung to her hands. From then on the Emperor had it produced and bottled as a tribute to her.
Today there are four main centres in the world where roses are grown for the production of rosewater and rose oil. They are Kazanluk, known as ‘The Valley of Roses’ in Bulgaria, Isparta in Turkey, Shiraz in Iran and Grasse in the South of France. Each of these regions has its own particular climate and process of distillation. These factors produce a rosewater and rose oil of individuality, rather like wines from different parts of the world. It is the damask rose (rosa damascena trigunti petala) that is most widely grown. This is the same rose that was used in ancient Persia.
The Iranian connection
It was in 1994 that I was first introduced to rosewater and rose oil by an Iranian lady called Shahin. She was the wife of an ex pearl diver, Homayon, who had become a university professor of Persian literature. For centuries his family had owned land in Southern Iran. During the reign of the Shah most of the land surrounding his had been converted to growing opium poppies and the region was run by drug barons. Homayon was against all this and was trying to persuade the peasant farmers to grow roses instead . He wanted to create a new industry that would be beneficial to everybody.
Naturally, the drug barons opposed him and decided to cut off the water supply to his rose fields. It was through this that he discovered the true hardiness of the rose he was growing (rosa damascena trigunti petala) which he was surprised to find needed very little water indeed and so his crop was able to survive the deprivation. His roses also survived his unjust imprisonment, which lasted two years.
A new agriculture
When the regime in Iran changed, he was released and the politics swung more in his favour. After a few tough years, under his leadership the whole agricultural region was converted to growing roses. The oxen that draw ploughs fertilize the land there naturally. No herbicides or pesticides are used. The roses are handpicked and distilled with pure mountain stream water to produce rosewater and rose oil. The methods of farming and distillation have not changed in this region for hundreds of years, which produces a totally organic and authentic rosewater of unrivalled quality. We now import 2 tonnes of rosewater a year from the Iranian farm cooperative.
Last year the farm was awarded the Soil Association Organic Standard Award. The only difficulty we had was getting the Iranians to take the paperwork seriously. They couldn’t understand why there was there so much fuss about something that was so ordinary to them.
In France and Bulgaria they use modern technology and scientific methods to grow the roses and to produce the rose oil, but in the remote hills in Iran time has stood still, and their methods have not altered for a thousand years. The skills are not those of a computer but the gifts and instincts passed down over the generations. There, the roses are handpicked in June, but only the roses that are perfectly ready, and just before dawn when the moisture content is right. The crop only lasts for six weeks and during that time every rose must be gathered. Over 2 tonnes or 1.2 million flowers are needed with 12 tonnes of water to produce one kilo of essential oil.
Once the rose petals are gathered for the day, they are laid out for a group of women to sift through them, taking out any leaves, ensuring that only the rose petals go into the stills. These stills are not made of stainless steel but of copper, and the heat is not generated by gas but by wood fires augmented by bellows. Once the correct amount of rose petals are placed into the still, pure mountain stream water is added, three parts by weight of water to one part roses. Then the mixture is gently boiled for four hours as steam is passed off and condensed into another container, as rosewater.
The Healing Rose
When we asked the Iranians what problems they used rose oil and rosewater to treat, the surprisingly long list we compiled fell into a number of areas: the skin, the heart, the liver, digestion, gynaecological problems, appetite, breathing, the eyes, the mouth, bruising, cuts and wounds, veins, limb joints, head pain, infectious illness, sexuality and the mind. These are very much in line with what rose was claimed for as a cure in ancient medicines. And much of it has been confirmed by modern scientific investigation, particularly in Germany, and in Bulgaria where a large rose industry has been established.
Shahin introduced us to the remarkable healing properties of this rosewater. She told us how in Iran today rosewater is the first remedy people will try for many ailments, from an insect bite to cardiac palpitations. Every Iranian housewife has a bottle of rosewater in her medicine cabinet as well as among her cooking ingredients. Traders at the side of the road sell it from open stalls as if it were Coca-cola. People drink it first thing in the morning to set themselves up for the day. They apply as much rosewater to themselves internally as externally. We were made to promise that we ourselves would take half a teaspoon of rosewater mixed in a glass of water and a little sugar every morning for six weeks, and then to report back. They assured us we would feel a lot better after two weeks, and we did. They also told us that rosewater was like wine: if kept in the right conditions, it would mature and improve with age. This, we have discovered, is true.
Of this health-giving rosewater that we import directly from the Iranian farm cooperative, some we sell to aromatherapists, some straight to the general public through mail order and some specialist stockists. Some we use in our Organic Persian Rose range of skin care, bath and beauty products. We import smaller quantities of the rose oil for other products in the range
Some case histories
My own first experience of the rose’s often dramatic curative properties was when I was badly bitten by a mosquito when on holiday in France. I had no pharmaceutical remedy with me at the time so I put some of my rosewater to the test. I soaked some cotton wool with rosewater and held it on the bite. In about half an hour all the pain and swelling had completely disappeared. I now find it works every time. For me it was the first evidence of the antiseptic, soothing and regenerative properties so long claimed for the oil of this remarkable flower.
Last year a friend with a new baby asked me for help. The child had a particularly virulent form of eczema, which was causing acute distress. Of the three types of eczema two are definitely treatable with rose. Fortunately, the child had one of the two types. I recommended they use our rose and aloe vera gel. After only a few treatments the condition subsided. A local aromatherapist has recently been treating a baby with exactly the same condition, with the same treatment, and with the same result. Both these babies had been prescribed hydrocortisone cream by a general practitioner, which was not working and was thinning their skin. I was interested to read recently in the national press that a clinic has opened in Harley Street specifically to treat eczema with rose treatments.
Recently I received a letter that included the following:-
‘I bought some of the Persian Rose hand cream merely because of the fragrance only to find that after using it on a regular basis for about two weeks, an annoying skin disorder of some few months on my hand had mysteriously cleared up.
This form of dermatitis was also present on the ball of my foot- so I used the hand cream on that also! Sure enough that also cleared up. I continued to use the hand cream –simply because of the fragrance! Guess what- the dermatitis hasn’t returned either’.
A man I knew had a complaint that caused his eyes to become swollen and sticky. I never discovered whether it was a case of conjunctivitis or of drinking too much alcohol, which can cause similar symptoms. I got him to soak some cotton wool in our rosewater and hold it against the eye. After only a few minutes the problem began to clear up. From then on he carried a bottle of rosewater wherever he went.
Wide range of applications
Each of my Persian Rose products has a variety of uses, which are compatible with all skin types. The Rosewater, used regularly as a facial wash and toner will cleanse, soften, stimulate and hydrate the skin – a superb wrinkle reducer. Rosewater is also used as an eyewash which helps brighten and refresh the eyes. Taken internally, half a teaspoon of rosewater per glass of mineral water, helps to cleanse the system.
Down the centuries one of the most highly valued properties of rose, whether as a plant (especially the old fashioned varieties) or as rose oil or rosewater, has been its outstanding fragrance. In the case of rose plants this clearly has high aesthetic value, but it also has a narcotic and aphrodisiac effect, and is said to stimulate the brain with the same chemical as when we are in love. Hence, perhaps, its popularity as a symbol of love. Hence too, its wide use in Roman feasting (and orgies) where guests would often lie and roll on rose petals and have the petals poured over them from balconies².
With rosewater and rose oil too there is a distinct cephalic effect. It lifts the spirits, can alleviate depression and help people cope with difficult life situations involving emotions such as loss, grief or fear. This cephalic effect can be achieved either from a bath to which drops of rose oil have been added, from a burning candle whose manufacture has included the addition of some rose oil, from a vaporiser fed with rosewater, or from simply wearing a rose oil perfume.
The healing powers of rose can be applied to the body in a number of ways, for example through bathing, applying compresses or poultices, by massage, swallowing, gargling and inhaling, as well as via lotions, creams and gels which are my particular interest. We also provide rose oil massage, which naturally reaches parts of the body, which my products on their own may not. This is especially beneficial to women with hormonal problems.
It was not until 1956 that the chemical composition of rose oil began to be understood. How the oil works, either as a perfume agent or as a therapeutic one, is still not fully understood. It has over 400 chemical constituents, but only a few of these are involved in creating the famous rose fragrance³. This natural complexity makes it impossible to be imitated.
The Persian Rose oil production we buy from Iran comes from a single-distillation of rosewater. This means that the rose petals are distilled only once, producing a prime quality rosewater. In other countries the rose petals are re-distilled up to 8 times in order to extract the maximum amount of oil possible. This rose oil, which is subsequently extracted from the rosewater, is too concentrated and overpowering to be used on its own. The Iranian rose oil is more delicately fragranced and can be enjoyed as a perfume in its original form.
The precious rose oil is present in all of our products, and it is this which is responsible for their extraordinary powers of healing and rejuvenation. Whether moisturising, curing skin disorders, reducing wrinkles, disinfecting, reducing swelling, or curing with aromatherapy, there is a lot more to the rose than just a beautiful flower.
1. Borchard Ruth. Oh my own rose. Privately printed. 1982.
2. Lawless Julia. Rose Oil. Harper Collins. 1995.
3. Brud W. S. and Szydlowska I. Bulgarian Rose Otto. International Journal of Aromatherapy. Autumn 1991.