Damascus Rose of Castille

If a single wonderfully scented flower can reveal more about the history of the spice trade than any other blossom, it is the Damascus rose (Rosa x damascenea), with its sweetly persistent fragrance and flavor. This peculiar double-flowered rose is not known to exist in the wild anywhere on earth. Instead, it appears to have arisen as an accidental hybrid between the common wild rose and the Caucasus and one or two others, perhaps the Levant rose R. phoenicia cultivated by Phoenician women in ports of the Mediterranean.

No one is sure whether this hybrid was first recognized in present day Syria or Turkey, but the history of Rosa x damascene has long been tied to the capital of Syria, the country once called the Land of Roses. Damascus is certainly where this rose has been cultivated for the longest stretch of recorded history. Called al-warda by the Levantine Arabs, its pink to pale reddish petals are rich in the aromatic oils geraniol, citronellol, and nerol, though one particular chemical, beta-damascone, provides its most distinctive fragrance. Herbalists everywhere steep its fragrant petals in spring water, olive oil, or alcohol to make “rose water,” which they then use as a flavoring for loukoumia (Turkish delight), jams, jellies, and sauces.

When I was four or five years old, I had the impression that my Lebanese and Syrian grandfathers, all of my uncles, and my father naturally smelled of roses. Whenever they called my habibi and kissed me on both cheeks, as Arab men are fond of doing to children in their clan, I became overwhelmed by the fragrance of the Damascus rose. It was not until several years later when I went to a barber shop with one of my uncles that I witnessed how Rex the barber splashed an astringent mixed with rose water on my uncle’s newly shaven skin and greased his hair with rose oil. Not too much later, I read the words rose water on a bottle my father kept in my parents’ bathroom. However naively these early olfactory memories arose in me, they have had staying power.

A half century later, after spotting so many roses lining the boulevards in Damascus, after tasting rose petals in the ras el hanout of Fez, after noticing that those same delicate petals were strewn on the walkways of the Alhambra in Granada, and after whiffing acres of roses in bloom on the terraced slopes of Jabal al-Akhdar in Oman, I realized that the Damascus rose could be found nearly everywhere I had traveled in the world. Nevertheless, I had always assumed that the rose of Castile displayed in Mexico during the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe was a flower of an altogether different origin. I was in error. These two roses of different names are one and the same.

Throughout most of its travels, however, this rose has kept its allegiance to the Syrian capital evident. From Japan and Russia to England and France, horticulturists and florists reaffirm that this rose hails from Damascus. In the Arabic- and Farsi-speaking stretches of the world, variations of the ancient Semitic al-warda remain more prevalent. The rose was likely taken to Morocco and Spain by the Umayyads feeling from Damascus; the Abbasids who then took power dispersed it to their strongholds in Persia and Turkey and vainly attempted to monopolize its production. But the Damascus rose surreptitiously found its way into other gardens, oils, ointments, and dishes, until the Abbasids conceded that it could not be owned. When the great eleventh-century medical scholar and chemist Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) devised an easy means of distilling rose water from the petals, its reach expanded once more.

Over the centuries, this venerable flower has infiltrated many cuisines, from Indian to Moorish to Latin American. Damascus rose oil, like mastic, contributes to the delightfulness of Turkish delight confections. It can also enrich a Moroccan tagine and a Spanish picadillo. I keep a bottle of rose water in my bathroom, and sometimes another in my kitchen, just to remember who I am.  

Davidson, Alan, ed. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” http://gernot-katzers-spice- pages.com/engl/index.html. Accessed May 4, 2013.
Image Credit: http://bit.ly/2dpT8IHhttp://goafrica.about.com/od/morocco/tp/Morocco-Festivals-And-Events.htm
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press