I was truly blown away by the sensory party that rose essence threw in my body

By Kara Crabb
Updated September 13, 2018
Credit: Photo by Kara Crabb

It was a dreary day, and I was feeling like the weather. I was despondent with a persistent mental fog. My friends wanted to go to Byblos, a restaurant in Montreal that serves traditional Middle Eastern cuisine. I went along in my haze, hoping some coffee would revive me. We ordered a spread of dishes to share: labneh, herbs, breads, jams, and omelets. To my surprise, there was a strong rose flavor in the jam and one of the omelets. After the meal, I felt much brighter. Over the next few days my mind kept returning to that rose flavor and how it resuscitated me. I was curious about the effects of eating rose essence, so I spoke with Dr. Belinda Hornby, lecturer of psychobiology at the University of Central Lancashire.

“My experience is researching with rose oil, and it does, in the long term, have beneficial effects on anxiety,” Dr. Hornby told me. She stressed that the effects were observed over a period of time, not just one dose, but that they were evident. She said that in her research, ingesting rose oil was comparable to taking the anti-anxiety drug Diazepam.

It all goes back to what the rose was made to do in the first place, she said. “If you look at what [roses are] designed for, they’re designed to attract or repel insects and so quite often they have hormone-like properties. They’re a bit like pheromones," she said, "so they draw the insect to the plant, so that it can pollinate it, and they have lots of other chemicals in them as well. They often have a tendency to influence hormone cycles and have different effects in males and females. Humans obviously need a lot more hormones than insects, so the effects are going to be a lot milder. An essential oil is a very concentrated version, you know, from thousands of plants, rather than just one flower, one plant.”

Credit: Photo by Kara Crabb

Thinking of myself as a giant insect obsessed with Persian food, I felt humbled and mystified by the culinary practices of the human species. I searched for scientific articles about the benefits of rose oil, but the returns were scant. I was now bewildered, but still understood a much more crucial relationship between plants and animals.

“The problem is," Dr. Hornby said, “most of the money that goes into the research comes from big pharma, and they’re not going to be interested in something that you can grow, unfortunately. Even in terms of veterinary medicine—because these things are also quite helpful to pets—there isn’t funding, because it's still big pharma. So it’s just like, people, like me, doing little bits of research here and there.”

There was a pause, and I deeply considered the motivations of big pharma. “If it were found to be lucrative,” Dr. Hornby continued, “or if it was found that essential oils cured cancer or dementia or something, there’d be a big rush and there’d be lots of people researching them.” As she said this, her voice seemed to become throaty with suppressed laughter. “It seems so new,” I mumbled.

“For a long time, people were looking at depression and anxiety, but now quite a lot of people are looking at positive psychology and wellbeing, because [essential oil] might actually provide resilience against depression and anxiety. So it is quite current.”

“I’m not familiar with the background or the technicalities,” I said. “But what can rose oil be compared to? Is it a sedative? Or it works on the serotonergic system? Or?”

“It’s not a sedative at all. Lavender is,” Dr. Hornby said. “Rose oil, my best guess—but again research needs to back this up, and I would be interested to see if somebody could test it—does probably work on the serotonergic system, but I don’t know. It does certainly seem to, in some of the work I’ve done, work on components of anxiety that are related to avoidance, if I can remember correctly. Whereas lavender seemed to work on components related to worry, which are in different regions of the brain—in the amygdala particularly, and the hippocampus.”

I was left thinking about the difference between “avoidance” and “worry,” and the tradition of giving roses to lovers became quite funny to me—that one would present their admirer with a chemical bouquet of anti-avoidance potion, essentially. Was Byblos knowingly seducing me with their rose-flavored omelets?

I went back to Byblos to speak with the owners and get an idea of their feelings on eating rose. “We use a lot of roses in a lot of our recipes,” said Nina Djavanmard-Hoghi, the restaurant's chef. “Most of it in desserts or in jams. We have one cold soup that we put rose petals on top of. We have the omelet that you ate. In the kitchen we use a lot of rosewater. The kids, they said, ‘Oh, it’s like I’m eating a piece of soap.’ But after they eat it, they love it. When we started the restaurant, we used to add a only few drops of rosewater, but we increased it slowly, and now people are more used to it. Once in a while people say, ‘Oh, I don’t like it, it tastes like perfume.’”

I told her that it did not have this effect on me, and that I was blown away by the sensory party that rose essence threw in my body.

“A lot of people say, ‘It’s a good way to start the day,’” Djavanmard-Hoghi said. “But most of them are people who come very frequently. They know what they are going to eat. It’s not like a surprise.”

With this, I felt even more inclined to visit Byblos more often and to make roses a cornerstone of my morning ritual.