Stepping into the New York Botanical Garden, the sight of the Apothecary’s Rose in full bloom is an enchanting experience. Amidst a symphony of vibrant foliage and diverse flora, it stands out with its distinct deep pink to light red blossoms. As you approach, the plant’s rich history as an ancient medicinal staple seems almost palpable, interweaving with the present in its timeless beauty. Its flowers harken back to medieval gardens and ancient apothecaries’ lore. Taken in it’s bushy totality, it exudes an alluring combination of elegance and resilience, a captivating spectacle in the heart of the city’s botanical haven.
The Apothecary’s Rose, also known as Rosa gallica Officinalis, is one of the oldest members of the Rosa gallica species. This species has been grown in cultivation since the 12th century, and possibly even longer. It is thought to originate from the Middle East, and it was widely grown by apothecaries and physicians for its healing properties.
The shrub grows up to about 4 feet in height. It is a deciduous, which means it loses its leaves in the fall and grows new ones in the spring. It typically grows to a height of about 1.2 meters (4 feet) and can spread up to 1 meter (3.3 feet) wide. Its stems, like many rose varieties, are covered with sharp thorns which provide protection from various herbivores.
The leaves of the Apothecary’s Rose are pinnate, meaning they are divided into multiple leaflets, usually in groups of three to five, arranged along an axis. The leaf color is a dark green, providing a nice contrast with the flower color.
The flowers themselves are semi-double, with five petals typically, and a color that varies from deep pink to light red. The bloom diameter is typically 7 cm (2.75 inches). The flowers usually bloom in early summer, depending on the climate and geographical location. They have a strong, old-rose fragrance, and are followed by spherical, red-orange fruits, also known as rose hips. These fruits are rich in vitamin C and have been used for culinary purposes.
As for the plant’s reproductive biology, the Apothecary’s Rose is a hermaphrodite, meaning each flower has both male (stamen) and female (pistil) reproductive organs. Bees, butterflies, and other pollinators are attracted to the flowers, facilitating cross-pollination as they move from flower to flower. Once pollinated, the flower’s ovary develops into the aforementioned rose hip, which contains the seeds. These seeds can be dispersed in the environment to grow new plants, often with the assistance of animals who consume the fruit and excrete the seeds in new locations.
The plant is supposed to be relatively easy to grow (for experts maybe!), and it is resistant to most pests and diseases that commonly afflict roses. It can tolerate a range of soil types, as long as they are well-drained, and it prefers full sun exposure.
Historically, Rosa gallica Officinalis was highly valued for its diverse medicinal uses. A staple in ancient herbal medicine, the Apothecary’s Rose was used to produce rose water, attributed with mild astringent properties. This rose water was employed in a variety of applications, including eye washes, skin tonics, and soothing compresses. It was also incorporated into culinary recipes and cosmetics, providing flavor and fragrance.
The petals of the Apothecary’s Rose, rich in aromatic essential oils, were extracted for use in perfumes and aromatherapy. These oils were believed to have a calming and uplifting effect on the mood. Moreover, the petals were used to treat mouth and throat infections due to their mild antiseptic properties.
In addition to its medicinal uses, the Apothecary’s Rose found its way into the kitchen. Its petals flavored honey and jams, and contributed to the creation of rose vinegar, which was cherished for both its taste and perceived health benefits.
The rose hips of the Apothecary’s Rose, laden with Vitamin C, were also used by apothecaries. These fruits were employed as remedies for colds and the flu and were recognized as a general health tonic.
In terms of cosmetic applications, the products derived from the Apothecary’s Rose found widespread use. Rose water and essential oils were key ingredients in lotions, washes, and other beauty products, providing a hint of fragrance and a sense of luxury.
Rose essential oil is a complex medley of volatile compounds that bestow upon it its unique fragrance and potential therapeutic benefits. It’s noteworthy that the precise composition can fluctuate depending on various factors such as growing conditions, extraction methods, and the specific rose subspecies.
One of the primary constituents of rose oil is citronellol, which is instrumental in creating its characteristic rose-like scent and is also recognized for its antimicrobial properties. Geraniol, another major component, similarly contributes to the rose-like odor and has been examined for its potential antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties. Nerol, akin to geraniol, also adds to the sweet rose fragrance and is studied for its potential health benefits.
Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol (PEA) imparts to rose oil its signature sweet, floral aroma. Eugenol, with its spicy, clove-like scent, is another component present in rose oil and is noted for its antimicrobial properties. Farnesol, a common constituent of essential oils, is evaluated for its potential antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects. Additionally, hydrocarbons such as nonadecane and heneicosane add to the unique fragrance profile of rose oil.
Rose Oxide, a compound with a strong floral smell, is typical in rose oils and further enhances the bouquet of scents. It’s important to remember that while these compounds are present in rose oil and have been researched for their health benefits, their effects in aromatherapy or topical application can vary. Consequently, it is always recommended to consult with a healthcare provider or an essential oil expert before using them for health-related applications.
Historically, it has been cultivated and used for centuries across many different regions. Its origins are believed to be the Middle East, but its use spread across Europe during the Middle Ages.
In medieval Europe, Rosa gallica Officinalis was grown in monastic gardens and apothecaries’ gardens for medicinal use. England, France, and Germany were notable for their use of this plant. In France, the city of Provins became famous for its cultivation of the Apothecary’s Rose, where it was used extensively in the production of rose water, jams, and other rose-based products.
In the Middle Ages, the Apothecary’s Rose was also grown extensively in Ottoman Turkey for the production of rose water and rose oil. The tradition of rose cultivation continues to this day in places like Isparta, a city sometimes referred to as the “rose capital” of Turkey.
More recently, the Apothecary’s Rose has been carefully cultivated in the New York Botanical Garden… which is how I ran into it in the NYBG.
WORDS: The Biology Guy.
IMAGE CREDIT: Scientific Inquirer.