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A member of the Rose family, rosa damascena is a deciduous shrub growing large, many-petaled roses that are usually a shade of red, pink, or white. The common name, damask rose, comes from the plant’s origins in Damascus, Syria, before being exported through Europe and the rest of the world. Petals, fruit, and essentials oils from this plant are used in cooking, perfumes, homeopathic medicine, and herbal remedies.
In the garden, a rosa damascena can grow in temperate zones with winter protection up to 7 feet tall (2.1 meters), with many stiff stems covered with thick, sharp bristles rather than long thorns. With rich, well-watered soil and full sun, these shrubs can grow into a formidable yet beautiful hedge. Roses bloom once in mid-summer, although some cultivars will extend their blooming time to autumn. The flowers are wide and generally have full, ruffled petals, although some single-petaled varieties exist. The scent of a damask rose is described as rich, musky, and exotic.
Rosa damascena flowers and fruit are often used in cooking, especially in Middle Eastern foods. Rose water, made from the essential oils of the petals, is used for flavoring beverages, candies, and desserts. The dried petals and small buds are used in the Moroccan spice mix called ras el hanout, while recipes made from poultry and fresh flower petals are used in countries from the Middle East to Central America. The orange-red fruit of roses, called the hips, are rich in vitamin C and are a great source of winter wildlife food as well as for making an unusual jelly.
Essential oil of rosa damascena, called rose otto or attar of roses, is made by picking new blooms early in the morning before the oil and scent dissipates in the sun. Oil is extracted when the petals are steamed. Attar of roses has been used in cosmetics, lotions, and perfumes around the world for centuries, and the flowers can also provide a hint of color in emollients.
In aromatherapy, the oil is said to relieve anxiety, depression, nervousness, tension headaches, and sadness when applied to the skin, especially temples and neck. Middle Easterners also recommended the oil as an aphrodisiac. Homeopathic medicine practitioners recommend rosa damascena as a remedy for asthma, hay fever, allergies, and itchy, runny eyes. As an herbal remedy supplement, the plant is available in pill form, granules, ointments, and liquids. Patients should always check with a doctor before adding supplements to their diets.