General Description / Cultural Significance
Among the many varieties of roses grown in Afghanistan, Damask roses are endemic and the most culturally significant. This ancient flowering shrub, also an herb with pink and red blooms, has long been grown and cultivated in the country. The genus Rosa in the family Rosaceae is a perennial, a woody shrub that bears flowers and grows to approximately two meters (6.56 feet) in height. There are hundreds of rose species and tens of thousands of cultivars, and all but a few are deciduous. Their edible berry-like fruit, called a rose hip, begin to form below the petals after pollination. The rose hip contains the seeds of the rose plant which are rich in nutrients (particularly vitamin C) and phytochemicals. Some cultivars do not produce rosehips but all rose petals are edible. The herb is used as food and flavoring in culinary practices and possesses extraordinary pharmacological and nutritional properties.
Afghanistan is a country of vast pastoral landscapes with a long tribal history of sub-cultures united in their traditions and their love of the rose. Roses have high cultural significance for the people of Afghanistan, and they are emotionally connected to the flower’s scent through centuries of religious traditions and practices. They identify with the rose’s presence and aroma and, as Muslims, understand it as a divine symbol of the Prophet Muhammad. Roses and their scent are almost always present at important occasions. The iconic status of the rose is expressed further as an emblem of the country, the national flower of Afghanistan.
Rosa Ecae and other wild roses have flourished in Afghanistan for centuries, and Damask roses, Rosa damascena, have been grown since ancient times, primarily for rose water. Roses continue to be grown domestically for many reasons, integrated into most plantings for their scent and ornamental beauty, and to stabilize soil and slopes. The plant is also grown as a crop, cultivated in the rose growing areas of eastern Afghanistan, providing subsistence farmers a way of reconnecting to the country’s historic fragrance traditions, and as an alternative to growing opium poppies. There, native Damask roses are ecologically cultivated, often as trees for their durability and ease of harvesting petals. Attar of roses (steam distilled petals of roses), rose essential oil, rose water with its distinctive flavor, and other beneficial products are made, keeping with the role this rose has had in food, medicine and perfume since ancient times.
Rose has a wide spectrum of antispasmodic, antidepressant and anti-bacterial properties. The plant’s antibacterial actions are attributed to the citronellol, geraniol and nerol components of the rose oil. Clinical studies have found that use of Rosa damascene oil brings about emotional well-being, reduced nervous tension and lowered blood pressure in persons with hypertension. It has been used for skin care for thousands of years, effective both through inhalation and transdermal absorption. The broad pharmacological actions and properties of R. Damascene are brought about by terpenes glycosides, flavonoids and anthocyanins. Their effects include anti-HIV properties and treatment of dementia.
Humans have long known that the smell of roses affects both their physiological and psychological behaviors. Now science has confirmed that roses have hundreds of active compounds which explains why it has been used as a natural healer for thousands of years. This includes treating grief. The aromatic qualities of the rose are known to strengthen the life force and bestow beneficial effect on the mind and brain. Roses are flowers that in form and fragrance carry hope in a war weary country. Their aromas, which change with the time of year, are as diverse as their species and colors and all are widely perceived as pleasant. The scent of Damask rose is famous throughout the world.
For millenniums the people of Afghanistan and beyond, have been attracted to the aroma of the Damask rose (Damascene rose). Today, Damask rose is still one of the most fragrant roses on the planet and is widely identified as the true rose scent. Subjectively described as rich, sweet, spicey-floral, with touches of jasmine, chromatographic techniques have shown that the keytone β-damascenone is an important volatile in the perception of the scent among the hundreds of volatile compounds that make up the smell of Damask rose. The scent of the rose is contained in its petals which are most fragrant from early morning to early afternoon, when rose blooms are picked. Its pleasing scent provides calmness and relaxation, is restorative and lifts depression. The stamens of the flower have a different aroma than the petals which are often referred to as herbal or musky.
Constituents from the plant’s seeds, flowers and petals, (especially from R. damascene), are used to great benefit for human life.
Climate Change / Conservation Status
Like the majority of places in the world, Afghanistan’s weather has become erratic. Subsistence farmers say the temperatures have risen and that the mountain’s snow melts come earlier, before their crops need it. Early melts and torrential rain are causing deadly flooding. International aid mostly supports quick solutions for agriculture, and the country is highly undeveloped, unable to adapt to the changes in weather and water flow. Consequently, the cycle of droughts and floods is an ongoing problem. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says 80% of the conflicts are related to resources of land, water and food, so adaptive infrastructure could solve many problems.
In 2019, the United Nations Development Programme stated that “All but three of the past 11 years have seen floods or droughts, including the country’s most severe drought ever, which lasted from 1998 to 2006. Over the next 45 years, scientists predict a decrease in rainfall and a rise in average temperatures of up to 4°C (39.2ºF) compared to 1999. Droughts are likely to be the norm by 2030, leading to land degradation and desertification.”
Afghanistan’s economic stability and food security is connected to the high percentage of the population that is involved in agriculture. As droughts make common crops less viable and see more areas claimed by desertification, both livelihoods and food security will come under increased threat. There is concern that as temperatures rise, farmers that are cultivating roses will return to growing drought-tolerant poppies, Papaver somniferum. This reversal may trigger more societal tensions and conflicts. Studies have already linked reduced rainfall and lack of irrigation infrastructure to increased poppy production.
Roses, as a crop, have proven to be an excellent alternative to growing water-intensive food crops. It helps that rose water and rose essential oils are in demand, both regionally and around the world. Afghanistan’s farmers have found that the roses require minimal watering, no fertilizer and little care. They have also found that rose trees can be planted once and produce for up to fifty years, unlike poppies and crop plants that require replanting every season. However, inadequate resources to prepare and adapt to harsh droughts, frigid winters and flooding put even the rose farms at risk.
After four decades of conflict and now Taliban rule, the current humanitarian, economic and environmental conditions in Afghanistan are dire.
Four Seasons Rose
Rose de Castile
Rosa Damascena perpetua
Rosa Damascena Polyanthus
Rosa Damascena semperflorens
Rosier de Tous les Mois
Rose of paestum
Rosa Italica Ferrari
Rosier des Quatre Saisons
Rosier du Calendrier
The Mission Rose
Quartre Saisons Tous-les-Mois
Gotev, G., 2018. Roses instead of opium: Afghan farmers enjoy sweet smell of success. Euractiv. [website]
Grant, A., 2019. The Origin of Yellow Roses. Rose Magazine. [website]
Mission of the Islamic State of Afghanistan to the United Nations. This statement can be found on the World Sensorium original website.
Rasmussen, S.E., 2017. How Climate Change is a ‘death sentence’ in Afghanistan’s highlands. The Guardian. [website]
Yaniv, Z., and Dudai, N., 2014. Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of the Middle-East. Springer, Dordrecht, pg. 281-304. ISBN: 978-94-017-9275-2
UNDP, 2019. Climate Change Adaptation Afghanistan. United Nations Development Programme. [website]
World Food Programme, 2016. Climate Change in Afghanistan: What does it mean for rural livelihoods and food security? World Food Programme. [website]