Viriditas: Musings on Magical Plants

Rosa spp.

Originally published in Issue 36 of Plantings: The Journal of the World Sensorium/Conservancy

I’m haunted by a rose whose name I can’t remember. She lived in my aunt’s garden and as a child I was captivated by her beauty. Though I’ve lost the power of her name, I can still conjure an image of her in full bloom, glowing in the sunlight. The memory is potent. When I sit in it, I begin to feel the somatic echo of a trance state. I was completely taken by her. Perhaps I was susceptible to her charms because her vibrant petals of peachy pink, orange, and yellow appealed to my adolescent love for all things rainbow and glitter—my trademark t-shirt featured technicolor kittens playing with butterflies in beds of roses—or perhaps it was something more mysterious.

Around this time I began to develop a friendship with someone in the garden I called Sparkle Rose. She was terribly small and totally invisible. I don’t remember the moment we met. One day she was simply there, flitting in and out of my awareness wherever I went, flouting the laws of space and time, though the garden did seem to be her favorite location. After several years together, our relationship drew to a close, but I don’t remember her ever leaving.

As fantastic as it sounds, my experience with this rose is not extraordinary. The rose is an ancient plant with a long history. Fossil records from North America, Asia, and Europe are rich with roses1 and humans have maintained relationships with roses for millenia. Reaching back four thousand years, we find them painted into the frescoes of the Minoan Knossos Palace, three thousand years ago they were used to scent fragrant oil in pre-classical Greece,2 and two thousand years ago wild roses were grown in the gardens of the imperial palace of the Han Dynasty.3 We have long adored, ritualized, cultivated, hybridized, and monetized roses, our desire for them driving us to disperse them far across the earth.    

Roses belong to the genus Rosa, which contains more than 150 species. Today, after centuries of selective breeding, there are upwards of 30,000 cultivars including the resplendent Bourbon, Damask, China, and Tea. Yet most garden roses bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors. Human preference has transformed the five petaled wild rose into the showier many-petaled rose we find at the florist. Though technically, all roses still have only five true petals, the rest are modified stamens who have morphed into petaloids.4 And to trouble things further, roses have prickles, not true thorns.

Considered cooling and astringent, the rose is routinely employed in early medical texts. In his highly influential De Materia Medica, Dioscorides tells us that “dried roses (boiled in wine and strained) are good for headaches, as well as the eyes, ears and gums, and pain of the perineum, intestine, rectum and vulva, applied with a feather or washed with the liquid.”5 In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder echoes this and provides thirty-two remedies derived from the rose. He adds that the rose is very valuable for treating dysentery, which is supported by our modern knowledge that roses, especially the hips, are incredibly rich in the antioxidant vitamin C. Nearly a thousand years later, the Muslim physician and philosopher Ibn-Sina prescribed the rose widely and is credited with first discovering how to use steam distillation to extract essential oils and hydrosol from roses. In the form of rosewater, rose oil, rose vinegar, rose honey, and rose sugar, the rose was added to hundreds of herbal remedies. Hildegard von Bingen encourages adding rose “to potions, unguents, and all medications. If even a little rose is added, they are so much better, because of the good virtues of the rose.”6 She also notes that, “One who is inclined to wrath should take rose and less sage and pulverize them. When wrath is rising in him, he should hold this powder to his nostrils. The sage lessens the wrath, and the rose makes him happy.”7 As a gentle nervine, rose creates a sense of calm and ease. The scent of rose alone lifts me out of my head and brings me down into my heart. And recent scientific research has shown that inhaling Rosa damascena oil has antidepressant effects, increases parasympathetic activity, and even improves sexual dysfunction.8

But well before clinical trials, the ancients knew that love and pleasure were entwined with the rose. The Greeks dedicated the rose to an array of deities including the Graces, the Muses, the Erotes, Dionysus, and above all Aphrodite, the goddess of love, pleasure, beauty, and procreation. From an evocative poem fragment scrawled on a potsherd, Sappho reveals that the sacred grove of Aphrodite/Kypris was filled with roses:

here to me from Krete to this holy temple
where is your graceful grove
of apple trees and altars smoking
     with frankincense.

And in it cold water makes a clear sound through
apple branches and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from the radiant-shaking leaves
     sleep comes dropping.

And in it a horse meadow has come into bloom
with spring flowers and breezes
like honey are blowing
     [                          ]

In this place you Kypris taking up
in gold cups delicately
nectar mingled with festivities:
δεῦρύ μ’ ἐκ Κρήτας ἐπ[ὶ τόνδ]ε ναῦον
ἄγνον, ὄππ[ᾳ τοι] χάριεν μὲν ἄλσος
μαλί[αν], βῶμοι τεθυμιάμε-
     νοι [λι]βανώντῳ·

ἐν δ’ ὔδωρ ψῦχρον κελάδει δι’ ὔσδων
μαλίνων, βρόδοισι δὲ παῖς ὀ χῶρος
ἐσκίαστ’, αἰθυσσομένων δὲ φύλλων
     κῶμα κατέρρει·

ἐν δὲ λείμων ἰππόβοτος τέθαλεν
ἠρίνοισιν ἄνθεσιν, αἰ δ’ ἄηται
μέλλιχα πνέοισιν
     [                          ]                          

ἔνθα δὴ σύ . . . . ἔλοισα Κύπρι
χρυσίαισιν ἐν κυλίκεσσιν ἄβρως
ὀμμεμείχμενον θαλίαισι νέκταρ

The word κῶμα (kóma), translated in this fragment as ‘sleep’, can also be understood as a deep sleep induced by enchantment or supernatural means.10 In essence, the epiphany of Aphrodite is experienced through an altered state of consciousness that drifts down through the rose leaves.

Venus, the Roman counterpart to Aphrodite, was also honored with roses. On the first day of April, her cult statue was ritually cleansed and offered new-sprung roses.11 Later that month during the Vinalia Urbana, sex workers visited Venus’ temple to pray for her blessings and “give the Mistress myrtle, and the mint she loves, And sheaves of rushes, wound in clustered roses.”12 In his book on floral chaplets, Pliny attests that it was a common practice to weave roses into crowns and garlands for sacrifices and celebrations, but that it was illegal to wear a rose chaplet during times of war as they evoked revelry, drinking, and debauchery.13

Much later during the middle ages, despite attempts by the early church to purge the Christian faith of pagan predilections—which of course included the wantonness of wearing rose chaplets—the rose infiltrated the church and became a Marian symbol. Of her many epithets, Mary was variously known as the Rose Without Thorns, the Rose of Sharon, and the Mystical Rose. In Durer’s Feast of the Rosary, she is even shown bestowing crowns of roses upon her worshippers. Indeed our desire for the rose runs deep and the rose is highly adaptable. Skillfully shedding sensual pleasure, the rose in Mary’s garden transcends the corporal in favor of tame ethereal beauty.

But in another garden beyond the confines of the church, the rose retained its sexual symbolism. Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose) was an Old French poem about the quest for love that employed the rose as a symbol for female sexuality. Presented as a dream sequence, the poem follows a male lover who seeks entrance to a pleasure garden so that he might pluck and possess a rose. Thwarted by the thorns, the lover receives counsel from an array of allegorical figures, including Venus, on the art of courtly love. It was a controversial and influential medieval bestseller.

Transformation is a common theme with the rose. Especially when blood is involved. In some tales Aphrodite’s blood turns the white rose red, while others connect the rose to Christ’s blood and the spilt blood of Christian martyrs. But my absolute favorite is a Gnostic creation myth linking the rose to the birth of Eros and the blood of the first soul. Eros, born of the first blood, is a primordial being who is desired by the creatures of chaos and dispersed amongst them just as one lamp lights another. Soon the first soul (psyche) loved Eros “and poured her blood upon him and upon the earth. And out of that blood the rose first sprouted up, out of the earth, out of the thorn bush, to be a source of joy for the light that was to appear in the bush. Moreover after this the beautiful, good-smelling flowers sprouted up from the earth, different kinds, from every single virgin of the daughters of Pronoia. And they, when they had become enamored of Eros, poured out their blood upon him and upon the earth. After these, every plant sprouted up from the earth, different kinds, containing the seed of the authorities and their angels.”14 The alchemical poetry of desire, soul, and love precipitating the rose tickles my inner romantic. It’s a strangely satisfying myth.

But of course, where there is birth, death is wont to follow. Across cultures, the rose has funerary significance, often adorning the body of the deceased, being left as offerings for the dead, and being planted at gravesites. Red roses grew in the Elysium fields of the Greek underworld and rose oil was used to anoint and protect cadavers.15 Likewise, the Romans were known to mix their ashes with crimson roses, wine, and fragrant oils. They also observed a festival of roses to commemorate their dead. During Rosalia, graves were tended, roses were left as sacrifices for the deceased, and a meal might be shared. This practice was so significant to Roman deathcare that they provided for the celebration of Rosalia in their wills.16

The Roman association of roses with the afterlife lived on in Dante, who envisioned the virtuous dead residing in a giant cosmic rose. In Canto XXXI of The Divine Comedy, he describes the realm of divine love as a hierarchical rose that is home to hosts of angels and departed human souls:

1   In fashion then as of a snow-white rose
2   Displayed itself to me the saintly host,
3   Whom Christ in his own blood had made his bride,

4   But the other host, that flying sees and sings
5   The glory of Him who doth enamour it,
6   And the goodness that created it so noble,

7   Even as a swarm of bees, that sinks in flowers
8   One moment, and the next returns again
9   To where its labour is to sweetness turned,

10   Sank into the great flower, that is adorned
11   With leaves so many, and thence reascended
12   To where its love abideth evermore.

13   Their faces had they all of living flame,
14   And wings of gold, and all the rest so white
15   No snow unto that limit doth attain.

16   From bench to bench, into the flower descending,
17   They carried something of the peace and ardour
18   Which by the fanning of their flanks they won.

It naturally follows that roses also relate to the undead. In Romanian folklore, to prevent a vampire from escaping, “the coffin should be bound with trailers of wild roses.”18 The specification here of a wild rose rather than a garden variety is important. Domesticated roses are lovely, but wild roses are robust. Beautifully feral, they are autonomous and untamed. With their prickly, often dense bowering brambles, wild roses have very healthy boundaries. Encountering a wild rose is a magical experience. Their Venusian energy feels ancient and complex. I always stop to smell roses and if I’m lucky enough to come upon a wild rose in bloom, I tend to only partake in their perfume if a flower is on the edges of the bramble. Otherwise, the rose requires a blood sacrifice and a healthy dose of respect.

With their Venusian vibes, roses are a classic choice for love spells. But I like to work with roses for protection magic. Especially wild roses. And while protecting the heart is certainly fair game, when asked nicely, the rose is happy to assist with most warding, boundary, and protection needs. The disincarnate included: according to Ethnobotanist Enrique Salmón, some indigenous tribes of North America believe wild roses ward off ghosts.19 However, before working with wild roses, or any plant for that matter, I highly encourage you to go outside and meet them. Sit down, introduce yourself, get acclimated, listen. Use all your senses. But save taste for plants you know are edible! If you have permission from the plant to take a cutting, leave an offering in return. I like to provide water or if I’m in a pinch, my own saliva. The intention here, outside of general politeness and the cultivation of curiosity, is to develop a working relationship that enables you to call upon the rose when needed.

To perform a simple protection spell, find a quiet place where you feel safe and hold in your awareness a very clear understanding of what you are seeking protection from. Recall the specific sensation of the rose and ask them for help. If help is offered, visualize yourself surrounded on all sides by the rose’s brambles, knowing that what you are seeking protection from cannot cross your rose wall. Often, when we feel drawn to protection magic, a part of us is feeling unsafe. Rose is a powerful partner in these instances because of its affinity for the heart. Working with roses for protection is an act of self-love. To close the spell, place your hands over your heart, knowing you are worthy of safety and capable of maintaining healthy boundaries.

1 Herman F. Becker, “The Fossil Record of the Genus Rosa,” Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 90, no. 2 (1963): 99–110. See also. M. L. DeVore and K. B. Pigg, “A brief review of the fossil history of the family Rosaceae with a focus on the Eocene Okanogan Highlands of eastern Washington State, USA, and British Columbia, Canada,” Plant Systematics and Evolution, 266: 45–57 (2007)

2 Jennifer Potter, The Rose: A True History, (Great Britain: Atlantic Books, 2010), 8.

G. Wang, (2007). “A Study on the History of Chinese Roses From Ancient Works and Images,” Acta Hortic. 751, 347-356, DOI: 10.17660/ActaHortic.2007.751.44

4 Amy Stewart, Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful, (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008), 127.

5 Dioscorides Pedanius, T. A. Osbaldeston, and R. P. A. Wood, De Materia Medica: Being an Herbal with Many Other Medicinal Materials: Written in Greek in the First Century of the Common Era: a New Indexed Version in Modern English (Johannesburg: IBIDIS, 2000), 129.

6 Hildegard von Bingen, Hildegard Von Bingen's Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing, trans. Priscilla Throop, (Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1998), 21.

7 Hildegard, Physica, 21.

8 Safieh Mohebitabar, et al. “Therapeutic efficacy of rose oil: A comprehensive review of clinical evidence.” Avicenna journal of phytomedicine vol. 7,3 (2017): 206-213.

9 Sappho, “Fragment 2”, in If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, trans. Anne Carson, (New York: Vintage Books, 2003)

10 Silvia Montiglio, The Spell of Hypnos: Sleep and Sleeplessness in Ancient Greek Literature, (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021), 18.

11 Ovid,"Fasti: Book IV: April 1: Kalends," Poetry in Translation, trans. A. S. Kline, accessed May 10, 2024, 

12 Ovid,"Fasti: Book IV: April 23: The Vinalia," Poetry in Translation, trans. A. S. Kline, accessed May 10, 2024,

13 Pliny the Elder, The Natural History of Pliny, trans. John Bostock and H.T. Riley, (London: Taylor and Francis, 1855) BOOK XXI. An Account of Flowers. And Those Used for Chaplets More Particularly,

14 The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. James M. Robinson, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990) 178. 

15 In Robert Fagle’s translation of The Iliad, Aphrodite anoints Hector’s corpse with oil of roses to protect it from Achilles.

16 Ramsay Macmullen, “Roman Religion: The Best Attested Practice.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 66, no. 1 (2017): 111–27.

17 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1872) 151. 

18 Agnes Murgoci, “The Vampire in Roumania”, Folklore 37, no. 4 (1926): 320–49. doi:10.1080/0015587X.1926.9718370. 

19 Enrique Salmón, Iwigara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science, (Portland: Timber Press, 2020) 211. 

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