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Herbal uses for the rose

Harrison's Yellow, a good rose for herbal use.
Harrison's Yellow, a good rose for herbal use.
Kim Willis

June is National Rose month and June’s birth flower is the rose. There is a lot to love- and learn- about roses. Roses of some 100-150 species grow almost everywhere in the world. Some are fragrant, some are not but it’s the fragrant types that probably caught man’s attention first, although those roses with big “hips” (seed pods), certainly provided some food. If those hips remind you of apples it might be because the apple and the rose are in the same plant family.

Roses, like most domesticated plants, were probably first used as either food or medicine. Their pleasant smell and beauty then captured people’s attention as an ornamental. While not considered to be spectacular healing plants and not mentioned much in modern herbals except as a cosmetic or aromatherapy preparation, various preparations made from roses were once used regularly. But if you have roses in your garden or wild roses growing nearby you may want to experiment with rose remedies.

Recent research published in the American Society for Horticultural Science has found that roses contain phenolic antioxidants and some 30 plus flavonols that are probably responsible for any medicinal effects. They found higher amounts of these substances in wild rose species or old cultivars closer to the species than in newer hybrids. Heavy fragrance and rose or red coloration also seemed to predict more phenolic compounds.

Some medicinal uses of the rose

Native Americans used teas made from rose leaves and petals for eye problems (as a wash), and to drink for inducing sleep and calming anxiety. Rose water has a reputation as an eye wash for irritation and infections among many cultures. In Asia tea from dried rose petals was used for indigestion and headaches.

Rose syrup and honey was used for sore throats, coughs and colds in a number of cultures. Sometimes the petals are used; other times the hips, (seed pods) to make the syrup or honey. Rose vinegar was a harsher cold and cough remedy. Rose has a pleasant soothing taste and rose syrup and honey were often added to other less pleasant tasting herbal preparations to make them easier to swallow.

Rose hips are high in Vitamin C which may have helped patients’ immune systems. They were used as foods for many indigenous people and helped prevent scurvy. They were eaten fresh or turned into jellies or even drinks. Rose hips store about as well as apples and could be saved for winter consumption. You can make a rose hip jelly by following a recipe for apple jelly. Rose hips can also be fermented into wine.

Rose water was used to soothe irritated skin and as a vaginal rinse. A tincture of rosehips can be used for diarrhea and colic. The hips were turned into conserves and jellies for this use too. The Chinese used rose petal tinctures as a blood tonic and stimulant.

Ointments and lotions were made with rose water or rose oil and were the basis of the first “cold creams” for cleaning and moisturizing the face. Rose preparations are used for sunburn and minor skin irritations. Rose water and rose oil are also used as massage oils. In aromatherapy rose oil is said to relieve depression, symptoms of grief and anger and help headaches.

How to make a simple rose honey

To make rose honey collect petals from roses that have just opened after the dew is dried in the morning. Use petals from roses that have not been sprayed or treated with pesticides. Wash the petals and pick through them to remove insects or debris. Bring 2-3 cups of distilled water or rainwater to boil for a quart or so of petals. Turn off the heat. Mash the petals in a bowl (or use a food processor for just a few seconds. Add the petals to the warm water. Pour the mixture into a glass container with a lid and set it in the sun for a few hours or alternately set the jar inside a crock pot turned on low heat.

After a few hours, (don’t let this sit too long) you can strain the leaves off the remaining water using cheese cloth or a fine strainer, saving the water. You can also use the distilled rose water described next to make rose honey. Mix rose water with pure honey (not store honey made with corn syrup) in the ratio of ½ cup rose water to a cup of honey. Store the mixture in a clean container in the refrigerator and use within 30 days. Discard any mixture that grows mold, although it shouldn’t. Shake or stir before use. Swallow a tablespoon or so for a sore throat or scratchy throat every hour or so. You could also add it to tea.

How to make rose water

Rose water is made by distilling rose petals with pure water. Distillation creates a stronger flavored and more fragrant rose water. The water you use should be distilled water or clean rain water.

The best roses to use are older types that are very fragrant and preferably deep pink or red. This includes damask, centifolia, moss and alba roses. But any fragrant rose can be used including modern tea roses. The roses must absolutely not be treated with pesticides and this includes systemic rose care products. Keep in mind it takes a lot of rose petals to make only a modest amount of rose oil or water and the plants won’t be so attractive after they are harvested.

Rose buds are harvested just as they begin to open. Harvest is best done in the morning just after the dew has dried. Plan to use the roses on the day they are gathered. Some people insist that the small white triangle at the base of each petal be removed but that is tedious work and not essential. Make sure there are no insects in your rose petals.

Here’s one method of making a homemade “still” for rose water. Find a glass or ceramic container that will fit inside a big pot, like a canning kettle or big soup pot leaving a few inches between it and the wall of the pot. A tall, heavy container is best. A shallow container may need to be elevated off the floor of the pot a bit with a rack or even some flat stones, so there is some depth around it for rose petals. The outer pot needs a lid that has a dome shape for best results.

Place your rose petals in the outer pot, all around the center container, as deep as possible. Pour in the distilled or rain water until it just covers the rose petals. Place the lid on the pot upside down. Place the pot on a heat source and heat until it is gently simmering. Then place ice cubes in the upside down lid of the pot. Keep simmering.

What should happen is that the steam from the heated rose and water mixture will condense on the lid of the pot and then fall back into the container in the middle of the pot. If the pots lid doesn’t slope to the center where water will run to the middle before dripping in the center container the still won’t be as effective.

Don’t let the distillation process go on for more than 30 minutes or after the water is all gone from around the petals. That will weaken the fragrance of the rose water. More ice cubes may be needed from time to time. Don’t add more water to the pot after distillation begins.

After the pot has cooled remove the center container with your rose water. It should smell like roses and it may be pink in color if you used red or pink rose petals. Discard the rose petals after one distillation period. There probably won’t be a lot of rose water from one distillation but you can make more from fresh rose petals. Keep the rose water you collected in the refrigerator.

Use your rose water for herbal or cosmetic preparations. It can also be used to flavor lemonade or tea and in baking or other cooking. Milk dishes like ice cream, yogurt and rice pudding are excellent flavored with rose water.

Next year you may want to plant more roses so you can harvest them for herbal use and still have roses in the landscape or in bouquets.

Here are some additional articles you may want to read.

Growing and using Lemon Verbena

How to grow trout lilies in the garden

How to grow jewelweed in the garden

You can read the authors weekly garden blog at

Contact the author at

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