Roses Are Red, and Curative Too: The Herbal Medicine Benefits of Rose (Mei Gui Hua)

It’s becoming more and more evident—and accepted by the mainstream—that the natural world around us holds the keys to our health and healing. I’m a big fan of Alexis Nikole Nelson, or @blackforager on Instagram, an enthusiastic forager and vegan cook based in Columbus, Ohio. Nelson journeys around her neighborhood and into nearby woods and harvests plants and mushrooms that she then incorporates into (sometimes quite elaborate!) vegan confections. Her botanical knowledge is impressive and she is careful to acknowledge the African-American and indigenous roots to foraging. She sees foraging as encountering “this very vibrant ecosystem that we are a part of. And there’s something so fulfilling about it, right? You’re just like, I pulled this out of the ground, and now it’s sustaining me! So I look into natural spaces and I just see wonder.”

And while Nelson sees the natural world as a place that provides nourishment, it also provides healing. Rose, or mei gui hua in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is a perfect example of this. Most people probably think of roses as pretty flowers that you give or receive on special occasions. But rose is also a wonderful qi-regulating, stagnation-busting, blood-moving herb.

But don’t worry: you don’t have to go around chomping on whole flowers to see the benefits. In fact, you can make some pretty delicious concoctions and still enjoy the anti-inflammatory, qi-balancing effects.

The History & Symbology of Rose

Roses are perennial shrubs native to Central Asia, and started being cultivated there some 5,000 years ago. They soon spread all over the world and have been adored and prized by gardeners, poets, artists, lovers, and mourners ever since. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare wrote, “Of all the flowers, methinks a rose is best.” But the rose is not just a simple flower. It has so much symbolic meaning: roses are often charged with communicating emotions and messages that may be too difficult to put into words. In Greek mythology, Aphrodite named the rose in honor of her son, Eros, god of love, (eros and rose are anagrams). But Eros then gave the flower to Harpocrates, goddess of silence, to bribe her into staying quiet about his mother’s dalliances. Familial love, erotic love, bribery, secrets: they’re all wrapped up in a rose.

Just as the rose is a multivalent symbol, it is also a multi-species, multi-use plant. What we talk about when we talk about rose can differ tremendously: there are over 300 species of rose! Different rose species easily “hybridize,” which is why there are so many different kinds and why they are often hard to tell apart.

Health Benefits of Rose

In TCM, and specifically in Five Element Theory, rose, with its simultaneously bitter and sweet flavor, has a cleansing effect on the liver and the spleen, clearing these organs of stagnation and allowing them to function optimally. This is extremely helpful as the liver is in charge of regulating the blood as well as the emotions, whereas the spleen aids in digestion, both essential functions in the body. Rose also has a warming effect, meaning that it rids the body of too much “cold.” Excess cold in the body can manifest as menstrual cramps, acute muscle cramps, abdominal pain and diarrhea, and even infertility. When cold enters the body through food or directly into the muscles from the outside, it causes the blood vessels to constrict, which leads to a lack of blood flow. Rose is a useful antidote, with its warming, blood-moving properties.

In Western medicine, there have been some encouraging studies on rose’s anti-inflammatory effects, which are mainly due to the presence of polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that protect the body from oxidative stress. In a study from 2018, researchers looked into the skin anti-inflammatory effects of rose petal extract from rosa gallica, and found that it helped reduce the effects of sun exposure. One study from 2016 demonstrated the potential of using the extract from rosa rugosa, native to eastern Asia, to treat inflammatory diseases such as bowel disease, atherosclerosis, and cancer. Rosa rugosa is also one of the species of rose that produces rose hips, which are the edible seed pods of the rose plant, packed with Vitamin C, as well as Vitamin A, Vitamin E, B-complex vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

How To Use Rose

Rose has a sweet flavor that has been compared to strawberries, green apples, mint; rose can be spicy, bitter, mild, sour, fruity—the list goes on. Anima Mundi, one of our favorite purveyors of herbs and herb mixtures, sells Rose Powder: 100% Organic Heart Opener, which promotes heart opening, anti-inflammation, and blood purification. They recommend mixing half a teaspoon into a latte, tea, or any other food that you want that sweet and bitter kick. You might even consider sprinkling it over some vanilla ice cream for a tart tang.

You can also find dried rose petals in many tea shops or health food stores and Asian markets. As with the powder, you can sprinkle these over anything you think they would complement, or simply boil them into a tea.

Nourishing, beautiful, healing, enigmatic: the rose is full of wonder.