I have come to you . . .
From the history of the Damascene rose
That condenses the history of perfume . . .
In discussion with our dear friend Roula Ali-Adeeb, founder of BioCham producer of natural Extracts and oils in Damascus, Syria. BioCham are growers and producers of organic Damascena rose, grown and produced in Damascus.
Could you tell us a little more about yourself and your journey with the plants?
My love for Syria and its beauty has always been the reason why I went home after I finished my education in the USA. I was 17 years old when I left to the USA to pursue my education. I graduated in business “Operation & Production management from Arizona State University with my major courses in business & my electives in sciences. After graduation in 1988, I worked in the California for a few years as Operations Manager so I could gain key experience on how to run a manufacturing operation and be able to apply this knowledge in my father’s pharmaceutical business, Adamco Company. Unfortunately, my father passed on before I got the chance to work with him. In 1991 I chose to go back home to run our family business.
Eight years later, something deep inside me was looking for a change, was urging me to be more in union with nature. Right at that point, a French company approached me to partner with them to create an extraction company. They offered to provide the machines, technology, and the know how to manufacture semi-finished cosmetics raw materials for their company in Sophia Antipolis, France.
I felt a surging spark of excitement rush into my life just listening to the opportunity. I truly sensed that this opportunity would provide me with a transformative experience that may lead to something truly satisfying and profoundly different.. By the end of 1999 I was drunk with joy by the idea. On January 26th, 2000 we signed a contract and BioCham was born. Our first extraction was olive leaves on the 15th February 2001.
By chance, while I was in Canada I came across Ernest Guenther’s six volumes on essential oil extraction from plants, which inspired me to learn about distillation so we could market it to cosmetic and food manufacturers. I returned home and asked what crops were being grown close to the factory that could be used for essential oils. We discovered Anise pimpinella. BioCham became the go to company for anything related to extraction or essential oils in Syria.
What does the rose and Rosa damascena mean to you? Do you remember your first physical interaction with this plant?
Before answering what Rosa damacena means to me, I need to share with you how I got introduced to this precious flower. While the demand for essential oils became high, simultaneously my curiosity about hydrosols and their effectiveness was peaking. A European customer for our Anise essential oil recommended consulting with a well respected, retired guru from the UK, Dr. Peter Wilde, to teach us how to do distillation properly for anise & other herbs & seeds.
Dr. Wilde of Wilde Company for Florasols came to help us in February of 2005 set up our laboratory distillation. He helped us purchase the best lab tools and recommended that we open up our Gunther books and read it again. Dr Wildes passion for essential oils was so vibrant, I started liking his ideas not from a business view point, but from a nature lover point of view.
A few days prior to his departure, on little walk in BioCham’s farm Dr. Wilde suggested distilling the Rosa Damascena. Coming from a pharmaceutical background, I was instantly very attracted to the idea. He then added, imagine how incredible it sounds “the Rosa Damascena essential oil from Damascus.” After researching about Rosa Damascena and confirming its therapeutic applications in modern medicine--the antimicrobial, antioxidant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and anti-depressant properties--I could not but to fall in love with this flower.
I instantly remembered The Syria Poet Nizar Qabbani, he once wrote, I come to you--- From Tales of the Damacene rose, that depicts the history of all fragrance”
We sent Dr. Wilde samples of the roses we found until he approved the area and the roses to plant. And planting we did, in a 1000 square meter field, with the company team in disbelief that I am jumping into this venture just following this brilliant man’s suggestion. So excited about the immense possibilities that Rosa Damascena will provide, I vowed, if we can’t make the oil, we will make the water; if we can’t make the water, we can sell the dried petals and buds. It is such a beautiful and giving flower, so this is what this flower means to me.
When was your first rose harvest? What memories do you have?
Oh the memory we have about our harvest will be everlasting. 2006, was our first little harvest of the Roses. Then while BioCham as a company was growing, our focus on the community engagement was growing as well. We have always hosted a public rose and lavender harvest since the beginning, inviting people to come collect the roses with us, since our roses are handpicked with great care early in the morning.
We taught the community about distillation, offered breakfast, and people left saying they had an out of this world experience. In 2011, just as war was starting, many people came for our harvest festivals, and people were saying see you next year. The next year came, along with my insistence that we continue the tradition. I invited people and pleaded for them to come, to keep hope. Some came just for the hope. Our 2012 Lavender harvest was our last public event until the Lavender harvest of 2017. BioCham’s focus on the community and its support is one of our core values.
How far back can you trace the origins of your Rosa damascena plants?
Our rose are from cuttings from an ancient rose that have been in the village of Erneh, Syria for over 90 years.
Do you have a favourite vintage for your rose oil? Any years that stand out?
Year 2012, after expanding the rose plantation we had our first harvest that was fruitful enough to give us the 200 grams of Rose oil, the oil & the water had an exquisite fragrance I never smelled before or after, we still have some rose water from that year & the smell is still better than any latter year & even microbiological tests are negative.
What are some of the traditional uses of rose oil and hydrosol in Syria?
The direct rose oil was used by people inhale it to calm themselves and to reduce anxiety. The inhalation of the oil became more popular during the war.
I use it with our sweet delight Lukum infused with essential oil and rose flavour (Roula is famous for her Lukum).
The hydrosol is used as an anti-inflammatory so people drink it directly or add few pumps to water. It has delicious flavour which encourages people to drink water and be hydrated.
It is also drunk or sprayed to help reduce anxiety and added to drinks in the summertime.
You are the only organic certified grower of damascena rose in Damascus is that correct?
Yes that is correct, we proudly are the only grower and producer of the Organic Rosa damascena from Damascus in the world. Since our inception, we received our first Organic certification from ICEA in 2010 which stopped in 2013 because of the was & sanctions then it was awarded to us again by CCBP in 2019
From the outside looking in and speaking with you Roula, it seems it’s not easy to grow, produce and then sell to the rest of the world.
That is correct, in the spring of 2011, When war started sanctions were enforced. I quickly recognised the economic threat we all were facing. I had to find a way to continue thriving in the mist of the struggle to face constant change that war offers with shocking force. War taught us to think constantly outside of the box.
In order to survive we started expanding internationally to Dubai, China and Russia. People loved our products immensely and BioCham gained great popularity and built wonderful reputation in these countries.
Luckily, during the war, BioCham products became extremely popular in Syria due to the lack of medicine In the country. I have always been a great believer that being in the service of others is the only way to be. So many families were seeking refuge and were placed in the school of the village close to BioCham.
We, as everyone, tried to help, we sent a big supply of Neroli and Rose hydrolat bottles, and an assortment of other products to be distributed at the clinic for the displaced families. We were told it helped them relax and “lightened the mood”.
War had caused people to go back to the natural way of healing. BioCham products started to be sold in pharmacies as over the counter supplements and doctors started prescribing our products for therapeutic reasons--particularly the hydrolats and cold press oils, including Black cumin seed and Flaxseed.
At the start I worked along to educated doctors about the health benefits of our products by visiting them and presenting the products.They were all convinced in the essential plant properties that would promote natural healing.
How have you seen the art of growing and distilling change in Syria over the last decade or so?
The Rosa damascena became recognised by the UNESCO as Intangible heritage of Syria. Which caused a lot of Syrian farmers to go back to growing the Damask Rose. They mainly collect the buds & dry them which has extremely high demand. Some growers invested into the traditional small distillation equipment to produce the Rose water
As you know we have produced a quantity of our Damascena hand and body lotion with your rose oil, some of the proceeds will be donated to Angels charitable association for orphans in Saidnaya, Syria. This is run by Sister Aksana, could you tell us a little more about her work with the children?
We have knows sister Aksana since 1998, in the 3 Sherounean convent at the highest mountain in Saidnaya. She was taking care of about 20 orphans of different religions, then something happened in the church she had to leave the convent which was converted to all men sanctuary & sister Aksana insisted on taking care of the children so the village families supported her & rented a two bedroom apartment for her & the children. That happened in around 2009. In 2010 we organised an association to help the sister & the government gave a land which we helped start building in 2010 & all came to stop during the war.
Now we keep the support for the children & the building of the orphanage which is moving in a good speed.
Special edition of our luxurious hydrating lotion infused with some of our most precious rose distillates in combination with vintage sandalwood and hints of enchanting tuberose. Highly moisturising and nourishing for the skin, each bottle also carries the energy and fragrance of these majestical plants.
10% of each sale of this lotion will be donated to Angels Charitable Association for Orphans run by Sister Aksana in Saydnaya, Syria.
How best to enjoy
Gently massage into hands and body post washing.
Rosa Damascena: A beautifully pure expression of rosa damascena, produced in tiny quantities from the only organically certified producer in the hills of Damascus, Syria. These ancestral roses are from cuttings from the village of Erneh which are over 90 years old.
A 2020 vintage, harvest period March – April and produced in minuscule quantities.
Rosa Damascena: Another beauty from our collection, this is from Dare-Noor, Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan. Part of the wonderful Welthungerhilfe aid project that helps farmers grow, produce and make a living from roses rather than opium poppies. Distilled in traditional copper stills and stored in Florentine bottles to separate the oil from the water (hydrosol).
Santalum album (Sandalwood): Direct from our friends in Indonesia who champion sustainability in sandalwood production across the country. Aged Santalum album heartwood, this oil interacts on the skin deliciously revealing long sensuous notes; a wonderful expression of sandalwood.
This particular heartwood is over 30 years old and grown and harvested in Gunung kidul, Java Island, distilled by Didik Budy Andayani and produced in very limited quantities.
Polianthes tuberosa (Tuberose): Known in India as Rajanigandha meaning ‘night fragrance’. This is an enchanting 2019 vintage of freshly harvested and extracted flowers collected by local communities in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, southern India.
Rosa damascena hydrosol, Aqua, Cannabis sativa oil, Argania spinosa oil, Cetearyl wheat straw glycosides and Cetearyl alcohol, Glycerin, Cetyl alcohol, Rosa damascena, Santalum album, Polianthes tuberosa, Xanthan gum, Tocopherol, Sodium benzoate & Potassium sorbate. Naturally occurring Limonene, Linalol, Citronellol, Citral & Farnesol.