A rosy tradition

Is it hope and optimism, or joy and innocence that waft out of Van Gogh’s Vase with Pink Roses? Difficult to say, for flowers have layers and layers of mystical charm and can easily reflect any emotion. Still, colour psychology attributes anything like happiness, admiration, gentleness, sweetness etc to pink roses.
Is it then a mere coincidence that the Sultanate, with its delightful damask roses that blossom across the Jabal Akhdhar range during March-May, was ranked second in the Gulf region and 23rd globally in the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s World Happiness Report a few years ago? Rose spells happiness, for sure.
In Jabal Akhdhar, the damask rose — Rosa x Damascena trigintipetala — is not just a flower; it’s glorious, living heritage and culture. The rose plants here number in excess of 7,000 and are spread across some 90 farms. This enchanting flower with a heady fragrance is mainly used to produce the famous Omani rose water. It may be noted that rose water production has been a thriving centuries-old cottage industry in the Jabal Akhdhar community.
Basically, it’s a two-step distillation process, and the traditional process is still followed with great enthusiasm. Once the roses are harvested, they are transported to small extraction units. Flowers are scattered on mats or cotton cloths so that they retain their freshness. Then they are distilled in clay ovens known as Al Duhjan. Post-distillation, the petals undergo gentle simmering for no less than four hours in traditionally made vessels called ‘Al Burmah’, covered by copper vessels. The water from the steamed petals is collected in copper vessels, and this rose water is then transferred into large pots named Al Karas. The fragrant essential water remains in the pots for a minimum of one month. Lo! the enchanting Omani rose water is now ready for use, and are bottled and sold for anywhere between RO 5 and RO 8 per bottle (of 750 ml or so).
To produce a 750 ml bottle of essence, as much as 2 kg of rose petals are needed. And to create the most sublime essence, the roses are plucked at the crack of dawn, when the blossoms have dew drops on them…
Rose farming has been an integral part of the local economy of Jabal Akhdhar, and the Omani government has been actively involved in ensuring the success and sustainability of the industry. The Public Authority for Craft Industries (PACI) has even set up a modern distillation plant in Shujeirah in Al Jabal Al Akhdhar towards making rose water production more commercially viable. However, traditional small-scale cottage distillation units also survive with a degree of success.
Rose water, with its soothing and anti-inflammatory properties, is traditionally used in preparing Omani foods, cosmetics and medicine, and has been indispensable in community functions. Omani meals and a host of sweets and desserts including halwa are never considered perfect without rose water. Further, rose water infused black eye-liners are traditionally applied to repair impaired vision and cure eye infections.
No wonder, rose water remains a strong cultural element in the
Sultanate.
The Lonely Planet, the popular international travel guide, has this to say about the Omani rose water: “While the exact production of the precious perfume is kept a family secret, anyone on Jabal Akhdhar will tell you the petals are not boiled but steamed over a fire with an arrangement of apparatus that brings to mind home chemistry sets. But the alchemy, according to mountain elders – whose hands are often stained black each spring with rose-water production – is not so much in the process of evaporation but in the process of picking.”
With so much of culture and tradition woven into the damask roses, the looming question is how many of today’s new generation are willing to be part of Oman’s rose water making industry?