Sweet Medicine: Healing with the Wild Heart of Rose
This is a shortened version of my newest piece on my very favorite herb and namesake, enjoy!
Primary Actions: astringent, blood moving (emmenagogue), refrigerant, aphrodisiac, anti-inflammatory,
Organ Systems: immune, digestive, reproductive, heart/circulatory, nervous
Parts used: every little bit, even the thorns
Common names: Sweetbriar, Shatapatri, Yeu ji hua, Briar Rose and many more
In the driest whitest stretch of pain’s infinite desert, I lost my sanity and found this rose. — Rumi
Growing up, I scorned garden Roses for weedier, wild plants. Though I loved all things green, I had a hard time understanding the common emphasis on the dandified and often weak hybrid flowers that populated gardens, lawns and windowsills. Never having been pampered myself, I didn’t have any use for domesticated and over-fertilized prima donnas. Instead, I fancied berry brambles and Nettles — rampant and untameable children that overtook gardens and yards, climbing fences and walls as they spread through waste areas and forgotten lots. As I erupted into adolescence as an angry runaway from an abusive home, I could identify with their tenacity and fierce will to not just survive but thrive in even the poorest soil.
I was surprised then, by the wildness and ferocity of the first Wild Roses I met along the bank of a now forgotten river. The thorns snagged the hem of my long frayed skirt and held tight. I turned to untangle myself from them and found myself faced with obscenely pink petals unfurling in the morning sun, and the alluring scent of something both earthy and etheric, surely a creature apart from the nearly scentless and carefully made up faces of the tea roses my mother grew. As I struggled to unwrap my skirt from the thousands of spines, I was repeatedly poked and cut by the needle fine thorns that guarded the sweet smelling flowers, until my own blood streaked across the flowers. The intensity and insistence of the plant amazed me, though I still held onto a deep resistance against America’s symbol of love, femininity and romance.
The moment I arrived in New Mexico, with its red volcanic rock faces and lush green river banks, I knew I was home. Here in the Gila, Wild Roses grow in thick protective hedges along the river… immediately, I loved their needle sharp thorns combined with the delicate vulnerability. As an exotic dancer from the streets turned canyon wild child, I could relate, though I didn’t feel nearly as vulnerable as the slowly unfolding flowers looked. Their long red canes shimmer come springtime, and they are one of the first woody plants to leaf out, providing a welcome splash of vibrant green.
There are as many varieties of Rose as there are shades of green, and every kind holds some profound therapeutic value. My favorite variety is the New Mexico Wild Rose (R. neomexicana), the very same beauty that graces the river banks and cliff bottoms of this wild canyon sanctuary deep in the heart of the Gila. Though her scent is subtler than some of her middle eastern sisters, I find her medicinal values to be myriad and powerful. In general, any strongly scented, old-fashioned or wild Rose can be used medicinally, and the rest are still strong medicine through their gentle presence and lovely appearance. I prefer my Roses complete with thorns, and avoid modern hybrids with little or no thorns, feeling that this takes away from the special balance of fierceness and vulnerability the Rose embodies.
Rose is a broadly acting and gentle yet effective medicine that is both nourishing and enlivening. The beautiful flower is one of my primary allies and finds its way into almost every formula I create. I have experienced first hand the power this plant has on mind, body and spirit and can only hope to pass on a fraction of that those I teach and work with.
The rose was not searching for darkness or science:
borderline of flesh and dream,
it was searching for something else.
Rose hips are best known for their Vitamin C content, and are indeed a widely available and abundant source of this necessary substance. Rose hips are also rich in vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, Niacin, Bioflavanoids, K, and E as well as polyphenols and heart healthy pectin. And even the Rose petals are rich in polyphenols, B vitamins and bioflavanoids.
Rose petals also contain as much or more antioxidants as green tea, making them a wonderfully healing and caffeine free beverage. Some people find the taste of Rose petals too perfume like, but I have found that it depends largely on the species used. My favorite Rose of commerce to use for tea is, hands down, R. centifolia, it’s lovely, spirited and sweet without the strong aftertaste of some other species such as R. gallica.
Its rich nutrition makes the Rose, and especially the hip, a fine blood tonic for those experiencing fatigue, anxiety, vertigo, pallor, dry skin and hair and other signs of blood deficiency. If the individual is also experiencing feelings of coldness, I recommend adding warming blood tonics such as blackstrap molasses or Dang Gui.
The entire plant is incredibly anti-inflammatory, Scandinavian studies show that Rose hips and seeds significantly reduced the need for painkillers in individuals suffering from osteoarthritis. I have found all parts of the rose to be strongly anti-inflammatory, and have used a liniment of rose petals for traumatic injuries, sore muscles and chronic muscoskeletal pain in individuals that fit the Pitta type profile Rose is most useful for. I’ve had remarkable success treating dislocated discs with accompanying swelling, stiffness and pain with topical applications of Rose petal liniment and infusion. Just this liniment, with no other treatment, recently resolved a dislocated disc with severe pain, swelling, tension and loss of movement. It’s also been effective in less serious cases typified by inflammation and pain.
Though primarily a medicine for overheated Pitta types, it can be helpful (or at least pleasurable) for just about anyone, and is easily warmed up with a bit of ginger or cinnamon for colder individuals. I find it calming and wonderful for keeping my red-headed temper mellowed out.
Rose can effectively balance hyperimmune disorders (think Pitta) where the body overreacts to every perceived threat. It also generally enhances immune function through its cooling, cleansing effect. I use Rose as a standard remedy for any cold or flu type illness, the hip is traditional for this but I often use both hip and petal in my preparations. Many Native tribes were known to use the root or bark in the treatment of cold and flu, and while I haven’t yet tried this, I imagine it will be at least as effective as the petal or hip. I make Rose petal pastilles with honey for sore or inflamed throats. Rose infused honey can be used as a syrup for the same symptoms. And an infusion of petal and leaf will also help symptomatically with sinus congestion, runny nose or damp heat in the lungs.
Rose is classified in most traditional medicine as a blood mover, with a special affinity for the reproductive system. I’ve found it to be very useful in treating general pelvic congestion resulting in scanty menses, cramps, water retention, cysts and mood swings. Rich in the building blocks of hormones, Rose helps nourish the endocrine system through its provision of these basic hormonal elements. An age old aphrodisiac, stirring up both blood and libido as well as opening up the heart, it has a history of treating sexual dysfunction such as impotence and frigidity.
Partially due to these same blood moving decongestant properties, Rose is also strengthening and healing to the heart and circulatory system. It is especially indicated in high blood pressure and/or poor circulation in individuals with Pitta symptoms such as inflammation, constipation, headaches, feverishness, red face, heart palpitations and hot flashes. Note that several of these symptoms can also be caused by a congested or inflamed liver, which Rose also serves to relax and cool.
That same uptight, overworked and congested liver can also cause any number of digestive symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, gastric inflammation, IBS, hyperacidity and conversely, food fermenting in the stomach from sluggish digestion (usually rooted in stagnant liver Qi). Rose can help these symptoms through addressing the liver problem at the root, as well as cooling, healing and protecting the gut lining, assisting the digestive process to help things move a bit better and by generally nourishing the mucosa as well as the intestinal bacteria. I have personally found Rose petal infusions to be a very effective long term treatment for IBS with signs of internal heat and inflammation (diarrhea, food allergies, nausea, burning/churning stomach, red, cracked tongue with anxiety and restlessness).
Traditionally considered one of the finest wound medicines in North America, Rose is no longer a common remedy for wounds and injuries. In modern use, it often seems to be relegated to the ranks of simple astringents. It certainly does make a fine smelling astringent, but has a plethora of other properties adding to its wonderful wound healing abilities. The whole plant, but especially the root, has pain relieving properties when used externally, and is also a very good antibacterial agent for treating nearly any kind of infection, inside or out, including UTIs, yeast and vaginal infections. Indigenous peoples use the hips for severe infections externally, making a mash of the hips and using as a poultice. An acquaintance from Alaska recently told me a story of her mother using rose hips alone to successfully treat a severe wound on a dog. I’ve since used rose hip poultices on several infected wounds with great results.
Rose oil can be used externally for menstrual cramps and Canadian herbalist Terry Willard recommends Rose petal infused wine for uterine cramps and labor pains. I find that Rose works best internally for cramps when both hip and petal are used and are appropriately combined other herbs such as Mugwort or Peony root.
Diluted Rose petal vinegar is amazing for sunburns, clearing the heat from the skin and relieving a great percentag of the pain. A universal remedy for sore, inflamed eyes and even cataracts. Petals are most often used, but many indigenous tribes used the roots. Rose leaf spit poultices are great for bug bites and cuts and scratches, Rose petals will work too, but it’s usually easier to get a leaf most times of the year. Gentle enough for babies, many cultures have used Rose petal infusion for teething, fussiness and diarrhea in infants. I frequently give our daughter, Rhiannon, Rose glycerite when she gets into a overheated, hyperactive and irritable state that often results in a nervous stomach and diarrhea. I find that it helps to cool and calm her, and also helps settle her belly.
Also appropriate for delicate areas other herbs might irritate, finely ground petals or leaves can be used as a powder for rashes, itchy or inflamed areas and wounds anywhere on the body. A traditional recipe of the Mesquakies involves boiling down Rosehips to make a paste to be used for itching anywhere on the body, including hemorrhoids. All parts of the plant will help the itching and pain of red, inflamed eczema, contact dermatitis, hives, poison ivy etc., a diluted vinegar of Rose petals and Mugwort is my potion of choice for such cases.
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.
— James Oppenheim, “Bread and Roses”
While the healing power of the Rose is pervasive in how it touches nearly every part of a person, perhaps the most remarkable aspects of this flower are found in its ability to affect the heart and spirit. Long praised for its anti-depressant qualities and ability to open the heart, it has been used across the world to raise the spirits and heal broken hearts. An amazingly uplifting herb, I often use it as an antidepressant/antianxiety agent, especially for those who have been the victim of violence, sexual abuse or betrayal as well as anyone who can use more self-love. It has a profound opening effect on the heart and on sexuality, and is a deeply nourishing tonic for the nerves.
In my own time spent with this plant, taking in both her body as well as spending time with her spirit, I have found a great healing. She has the remarkable ability to allow vulnerability while reinforcing personal empowerment and freedom. This plant teaches a deep self love and knowledge that results in nourishment and wholeness. While the term rose colored glasses often applies to seeing the world in an unrealistically positive light, what Rose really gives us is the ability to see the earth and ourselves in all of its true and inherent beauty.
My good friend and talented herbalist Ananda Wilson says she finds Rose to help “when I get neurotic about things, or mysteriously desperate feeling”. I agree with her findings, and have used it for very similar indications, especially when those neurotic feelings are hormonal or heart centered. Minnesota herbalist Matt Wood believes that it turns down excitement in the limbic centers which control both heat and passion. I consider it to be an emotional modulator, balancing out both intense feelings and intense apathy, and provides a solid foundation from which to sense and connect to the world we are a part of.
Rose is very calming and balancing, assisting us in finding a ground level state from which we can access our real emotions rather than just react. In this way it can help those suffering from anxiety, anger, insecurity, grief and depression. It can be used as a baseline in any nerve strengthening, emotionally balancing formula including more specific herbs for the exact person and situation.
My favorite formula for recovering from a crying jag or traumatic experience is Sage and Rose, either externally as a scented oil or internally as a tincture, infusion or elixir. You don’t need too much Sage for this, just enough to give a grounding base for the Rose to ride on. Skullcap is a nice addition to this in cases where insomnia or deep muscle tension is an issue.
Throughout my experiences in the wilderness while rediscovering my own lost little girl, the Rose has played an important role in revealing my true self. She’s comforted me in my tears, cheered my sad moments and instructed me in being fiercely free while remaining deeply vulnerable and open to love and beauty. When overwhelmed by grief or stress, I anoint myself with Rose oil or cream, and drink an elixir of Rose petal, hip and leaf. Just these two small acts help me reconnect to my spirit and reaffirm my commitment to self nourishment. This is an important way for me to maintain personal balance after years of self imposed denigration and abuse. In the Rose, I have found my own nature and I have learned to deeply love her.
As Spring emerges in my third year here in the Sweet Medicine Canyon, the Roses start to swell with promising buds, and in a month, new pink blossoms will begin to open. Their petals will unfold, slowly and deliberately, in the warm May sun, stretching past barriers and known limitations to soar skyward. As I carefully gather petals and leaves from their graceful forms, I will feel my own heart continue to open, slowly and deliberately, stretching towards the warmth and great love of this beautiful life.
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood
The Complete Floral Healer by Anne McIntyre
Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rocky Mountains and Neighbouring Territories by Terry Willard
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West by Michael Moore
The Yoga of Herbs by David Frawley and Vasant Lad
Ananda Wilson – Personal Correspondence