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Scientists say that odors are potent memory cues, and I’m inclined to agree. Whenever I smell wild roses, I am transported to a place of chirring cicadas, laughing waters, and lurking trout…

Years ago, the banks of my favorite fly-fishing streams were festooned with rambling tangles of wood rose whose heady aroma enveloped me as I roll-casted toward the shadowy places where fish lived (or so I hoped). Even if the trout weren’t rising, I could linger for hours, hip deep in the roiling torrent, and inhale that ethereal fragrance.

I haven’t visited any of those watercourses for nearly three decades, except in my mind – and wild roses are my conduit.      

Roses, whether wild or domesticated, are among the most popular flowers on the planet. After all, what would Valentine’s Day be (or first dates, or weddings, or golden anniversaries) without roses? What landscaper hasn’t draped an arbor or graced a sunny bed with a rose? Roses have secured an immutable foothold in the hearts of romantics and gardeners alike (I do recognize the redundancy in that statement), but a lot of rose-lovers aren’t aware that their beloved plants have uses beyond the amorous and ornamental.

At one time or another, probably all of the world’s 100 or so species of roses have been used medicinally. In America, the Costanoan Indians employed the hips of Rosa californica for treating colds, sore throats, fever, indigestion, rheumatism, and kidney problems. Members of the Okanagan-Colville tribe drank rose tea when taking sweat baths. Various other Western tribes used rose flowers and hips to reduce pain, relieve “clogged stomach,” make body and hair washes, and subdue childhood fevers.

Rose-leaf poultices are suitable for bites, stings, skin ulcers, rashes, and puffy eyes; an infusion of rose stems makes an excellent spring tonic. (By the way, the roots of roses possess many of the same salutary properties as the stems, flowers, leaves, and hips, but I avoid digging up the roots of an herb unless that’s the place where the medicinal constituents are; once the roots are gone, so is the plant.) Rose hips have served as a rich source of vitamin C since time immemorial, but they’ve been commercially exploited for this purpose since the mid-20th century. And, since rose hips cling to their parent plants throughout the winter, they provide good forage for birds and other wildlife – as well as an occasional misplaced hunter or fisherman.

Although most of the herbal lore associated with roses is derived from wild varieties, garden roses, too, are endowed with medicinal properties. Rosa gallica, a domesticated European red rose, is used as a nerve and heart tonic, and it is helpful for treating sore throats, earaches, headaches, uterine cramps, and mouth ulcers.

So, the next time you have swollen eyelids, a cold, or a few body aches – or if you’re just overworked and a bit stressed – brew up a cup of rose petal tea, ladle in a teaspoon of honey...

…and I’ll meet you on the river’s verge.


  1. A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Steven Foster, Christopher Hobbs. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2002
  2. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Michael Moore. Red Crane Books. 1993
  3. Edible and Useful Plants of California (California Natural History Guides). Berkeley. Charlotte Clarke. University of California Press. 1977
Images copyright Stephen A. Christensen, MD



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