A Love Letter to Rose
Written by Ayo Ngozi Drayton
Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
(except where credited)
My Beloved Rose:
Given the way you show up with your gifts of flowers and medicine year after year—perennial and glorious, with little help from humans—I’ve been feeling that the least I can do is to write.
You’ve been hailed as royalty among flora for ages, from at least the time of the ancient Egyptians, but probably long before that. After all, fossils of your ovaries and petals have been found from Norway to Mexico, Alaska to the Balkans—all millions of years old. You’ve been blooming for eons on this earth before we humans were even here to appreciate you—a humbling reminder that you, Rose, serve more than our human desires.
“Bloom or fade, the flower never cares about the arrival of spring; best peonies only appear in late spring and early summer, yet roses enjoy the four seasons with unceasing beauty,” wrote the Chinese poet Su Shi of the Chinese rose (Rosa chinensis) about 1,000 years ago. Rose, you are a prime example of beauty as medicine. And not only beauty—lush, bountiful, diverse beauty.
The Rosa genus (in the Rosaceae family) contains over 300 species of roses, both wild and domesticated—beyond which are thousands of cultivars and hybrids.
When describing you, Rose, we have to speak in specificity: your blooms range from creamy white to velvety reds that are near-black, with all shades of yellow, pink, and peach in between. Your blooms may be large and heavy, or small and compact. You may bush out as a tiny shrub, or climb to heights of several meters. Your flowers may remain small, carefully-hybridized buds, or may open wide and wildly, releasing your scent over the summer air. In all of these forms, your beauty is a delight to our senses.
When I was a little girl visiting my grandmother, she would send me and my cousins several houses up the block to visit with Aunt Cora. Aunt Cora was not a blood relation, to my knowledge, but she was extended family and shared the southern Black woman’s love for a flower-filled, well-swept yard. What I remember most about our brief visits was her walking us through the rose beds all around her clapboard house, clipping and pruning, and then sending us back to Grandma’s with gently-toted, thorny armfuls of roses in all hues.
Aunt Cora loved those visits, as did we. The beauty of her generations-old roses was appreciated by all of us, whether we were 5 or 75 years old. Rose, your beauty shines not only across the seasons of the year, but across the seasons of life.
Herbalists have long observed that the healing properties of rose family medicine bestow these same gifts across our human seasons, supporting the very young to the very old. Rose petals and hips (usually considered cooling, though some species like Rosa rugosa are described as warming) are indicated in weakness and infirmity. A syrup or conserve of Damask rose (Rosa × damascena) petals or flower buds was once a common purgative for children and helped keep the bowels of adults regular. For those who menstruate, an astringent and slightly bitter infusion of red rose petals has been a customary way to slow heavy bleeding.
Rose, you are beloved as a rosewater tonic and skin toner, with your gentle, astringent, and softening actions, but we often limit your full healing power. Sure, you are sublime for skin care, but your medicine soaks in deep below the surface. I know this from personal experience—I have learned that my prickly, itchy autoimmune skin always finds instant relief with a simple spritz of rosewater.
When I think of “cordial,” I think of you. Not so much because of your usefulness in cocktails (although a good rose syrup is fantastic with ginger syrup, grapefruit juice, and gin!) but more so in the old-timey herbalist sense of the word. Cordials can be strengthening and nutritive to the heart and to the digestion, and uplifting and gladdening to the spirit. These are just some of the ways that your leaves and flowers meet us humans where we are.
Even toward the end of your flowering cycle, the slightly browned edges and freckling of your wilting blooms hold a particular reminder of the beauty in each of life’s stages. I’m not yet an elder, but see elderhood right around the corner, and rose medicine reminds me of the gift of beauty in all seasons and in our perceived imperfections. It’s like Aretha Franklin and Lauryn Hill sang: “A rose is still a rose … Baby girl, you’re still a flower.” You remind us that with love, we are more than okay, we are beautiful precisely as we are.
And you hold such powerful lessons in balance. For all your sweet, floral headiness, you can cut a serious bitter streak. That’s not a bad thing, for without it you wouldn’t be such a support to the digestion—strengthening the stomach and cooling hot inflammatory conditions of the gut, skin, and mucosa. This balance shows up again in the contrast of your gorgeous, silken blooms and your spiky thorns.
You haven’t attained legendary status over the ages by shrinking back or folding yourself into shady corners. No, you show up bright-faced in your full and luxurious glory—with protection, in the form of prickly outgrowths along your stems. Amazingly, you manage to be strategic about your protection, depending on your needs. Sometimes your thorns are hook-shaped and woody, better for protection against predatory animals. Other times (as in the case of my beloved beach rose, Rosa rugosa) the prickles stand straight and densely-packed, to protect blooms and fruits not only from birds and animals but also from damage by wind-driven sand.
The way your outgrowths protect your beauty and your fruit reminds me of the way our pericardium—the tough, fibrous, outermost layer of our heart—protects the fleshier, life-giving apparatus within.
French herbalist and a true master of flower medicine, Maurice Mességué, speaks of your ability to balance the harmful effects of long-term antibiotic use by supporting the gut flora—most likely because your petals have high soluble fiber content. For this reason, I heap your beauty on top of yogurt, salads, birthday cakes, and salsas.
Even your hybridized offspring—soft but with no alluring scent, few thorns, and no hips—are a knockout, still lovely and statuesque. But where I used to think that you were demure, romantic, and easily contained—a perfectly suitable flower for prom corsages and wedding bouquets—I’ve come to find you to be much more: more wild, more fragrant, more powerful, more sweet, more bitter, more healing.
It can be easy to underestimate your power, but virtually all of your parts are helpful in healing. The petals and sepals, hips, stems, leaves, roots, root bark, and thorns of both wild and domesticated species together have a dizzying array of applications. Perhaps your rosebuds and petals are more recognized than other parts, as they are so popular in formulas to tighten and firm the skin. However, they are capable of so much more, and have traditionally been included in formulas that staunch bleeding from the lungs, stomach, and nose.
I just spent my first season witnessing the full glory of Rosa rugosa along the south coast of Massachusetts, and it was a whole event in itself. For a month and some change, the sea winds carry the sweetest, strongest scent, and the riot of magenta and pink (and occasionally white) flowers up and down the dunes are striking not just in their appearance but in their magnitude and proliferation—so many roses! This species is native to East Asia, but has become naturalized and even invasive in many coastal areas in North America, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia.
Ah, your hips. Nutritive and highly antioxidant, this seems to be where you keep many of your healing secrets! I used to only hear about how much vitamin C your hips contain (which is true, along with plenty of flavonoids). But we need not limit rose hips to remedying colds, fever, and flu. You come to our aid whenever it’s necessary to staunch the loss of fluids from our hot, excited tissues—in all kinds of situations, but perhaps most importantly in the case of diarrhea, where cooling, drying, and binding the tissues is needed right away. You come through, gently and powerfully, to stop the loss of vitality and moisture in miraculous ways.
I only had the opportunity to gather your red, bursting, seedy ripe hips for the first time last fall. I encountered your prickles (even within your fruit are tiny prickles that must be removed), so the time spent gathering, preparing, and deseeding your hips for syrup was an exercise in mindfulness.
In the meantime, this summer I’ve gathered mounds of petals, setting them out on screens throughout my living room, bringing in the scent of sea and deep pleasure. I’ve made distillates from your blossoms, infused petals in oil for salve, and am watching a small bottle of glycerin turn the most gentle hue of pink as it infuses each day. I dream of developing a perfect cream named in honor of my grandmother, Rosa Lee Johnson James, who loved a good skin cream, and had a beautiful complexion until her death at 105.
I am grateful to you today and in every season, Rose, for your gifts of beauty, of nurturing and protection, of love and calming coolness. Thank you for perennially showing me and my human family those qualities within ourselves.
A Simple Rose Hydrosol
This hydrosol is a simply-distilled rosewater, one of the most versatile rose preparations to keep in the home apothecary. This fragrant water can be included in skin and hair care regimens, in beverages and foods from tagines to sorbets.
You don’t need to have a distiller to make hydrosol from roses (or other scented flowers!). This recipe calls for a very basic distilling setup.
- A 12-quart (11-liter) saucepan and snug-fitting convex lid (glass or Pyrex is ideal)
- A heat-safe glass or Pyrex bowl (a glass measuring cup works in a pinch)
- A brick
- A bag of ice cubes
- A gallon-sized (3.7-liter) freezer bag
- A funnel
- 6 cups (1.4 liters) fresh rose petals
- 6 cups (1.4 liters) distilled water
About 1 cup (240 ml) of hydrosol
- Inspect your petals and remove any debris or insects.
- Place the brick in the center of the saucepan, and center the bowl on top of it.
- Arrange the rose petals in the saucepan around the brick and bowl.
- Pour enough water into the pan to cover the roses, keeping the water level no more than about an inch over the top of the brick.
- Cover the pot with the convex lid upside down, so that the handle points inside the saucepan toward the bowl.
- Bring the water and roses to a simmer over medium heat. Then adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.
- Set the bag of ice cubes on top of the lid. Keeping the lid cold will increase condensation as the steam from the roses rises inside the pot. This condensation is distilled rosewater, and will collect on the underside of the lid, dripping into the bowl.
- As the ice cubes melt, pour off the water from the bag, adding new ice cubes before replacing the bag on the saucepan lid.
- Let the rose petals simmer for about an hour, which will yield about 1 cup (240 ml) of hydrosol. Be careful not to let the pot run out of water—the easiest way to do this is to be sure the heat remains at a low simmer. Once you’ve collected about 1 cup (240 ml) of hydrosol, turn off the heat and allow the pot to cool to room temperature.
- Remove the saucepan lid and carefully lift out the bowl of hydrosol.
- Transfer the rosewater to a sterilized bottle (use a small funnel so that you don’t risk spilling any of this precious liquid!)
- Use the rosewater right away, or store it in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.
AYO NGOZI DRAYTON is a community herbalist, historian, and artist committed to documenting traditional herbal practices of the African diaspora and making evidence-based herbal education accessible to all. Ayo holds a master’s degree from Cornell University in Africana studies and the Maryland University of Integrative Health in Clinical Herbal Medicine. Ayo is an instructor at Wild Ginger Herbal Center in Maryland and Costa Rica, has designed and contributed to numerous courses at the Herbal Academy, and teaches at conferences and herbal schools in the US and abroad. In her clinical practice, Ayo works with clients of all ages using an approach that integrates scientific knowledge and traditional wisdom to maintain wellness and support common imbalances. She’s also the founder and CEO of an herbal education startup, The Creative Root. You can follow her on Instagram and Facebook. Ayo lives in New Bedford, Massachusetts with her family.
JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession with writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.