It is not uncommon for human beings in the United States to present their loved one with a rose. The beautiful flower, displayed in gorgeous varieties, is offered up as a gift to their love. This gift is received with a delightful smile, as it is accepted, and the presenter is showered with affection (ideally). With over 150 species of roses and thousands of descending hybrid varieties, the color of the rose can be carefully selected to the desires of your beaux. Have you ever wondered how a certain species of flower could secure such enormous cultural significance? This question led us down a path to explore the history of the rose and how it has secured its place in the world’s biota as a prolific powerhouse in its symbology of love and beauty.
Our historical journey begins at a bird’s eye view of time. Let us fly to the beginning of our timeline to 35 million years ago, where the earliest fossils of roses have been discovered in Colorado. It wasn’t until 5,000 years ago that we see evidence that human beings began to cultivate roses in Asia. There have been several ancient civilizations that are considered the greatest historical cultivators of roses.
In Ancient Greece, we see the cultural impact of roses in their mythology. According to legend, roses were created by the Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. The rose was created from a combination of Aphrodite’s tears and the blood of her lover, Adonis.
The Romans adopted the legend of Aphrodite but referred to her as Venus. The Romans held the rose as a symbol of love and beauty. The legend describes Cupid, the son of Venus, was shooting his arrows into a garden full of roses. He is subsequently stung by a bee and flees. Venus begins a walk through the garden, when she pricks her food on a thorn left by Cupid. The blood turns the roses red.
Roman Emperors utilized rose petals for ceremonies and their theatre. It was a tradition for some Emperors to shower their guests at their dinner with rose petals as a celebration of their company. Newly married Romans would be crowned with roses on their wedding. The Roman elite used roses as beauty products claiming that the rose poultices, when applied properly to the skin, could rid the face of wrinkles. Roses were placed in wine and believed to suspend drunkenness.
Cleopatra VII adored the use of rose petals during many of her public appearances and was inspired by the idea to associate the beautiful smell of the rose with her own scent, a rose smelling goddess. This idea of smelling like a rose was again used in Cleopatra’s romance with Marc Antony as her living quarters were filled with rose petals to associate the fragrant smell with her presence. In 1888, the English archaeologist Sir William Flinders Petrie discovered a funeral wreath of roses used during 200 AD in Northern Egypt.
The rose, R. Gallica Officinalis, was produced as a medicine in a variety of powders and oils in 1300 AD. The rose elixir was claimed to aid in a variety of illnesses and the processing factory grew to a large and thriving industry over time.
The great Frankish King, Charlemagne, grew his own roses at his place. The oldest rose plant living today is grown at a Catholic cathedral in Hildesheim, Germany. Amazingly, the rose plant appeared at Hildesheim in 815 AD and is an astounding 33 ft tall. It became commonplace for a knight that returned home from the Crusades, would bring back roses.
A Symbol of Civil War
During the 15th century in England a war broke out known as the War of the Roses and lasted from 1455 – 1487. Henry VI of Lancaster was attacked by the nobles of York. Edward IV of York, leader of the nobles, replaced the ruler of Lancaster as Monarch. The House of Lancaster took the red rose (Rosa Gallica) as their symbol, where the House of York selected the white rose (Rosa Alba) as theirs. Henry VII Tudor had eventually won the war, he merged the two roses into one symbol. The Tudor Rose became the Rose of England, becoming an important symbol to this day.
In 1798, Napoleon’s Wife, the Empress Josephine, started one of the largest collections of roses. Her life’s mission was to hold the greatest collection of roses in the world. Upon her death in 1814 she had nearly 250 different types of roses, in addition to several new hybrid species. Historical Biologists have praised her garden as one of the best sources of ancient roses.
Roses in the Modern Era
The introduction of the La France signaled the era of modern roses. In 1867, the hybrid tea rose “La France” was created by French horticulturalist, Guillot. The horticultural importance of this rose is highlighted by the following unique characteristics:
- Maintained its growing pattern as a hybrid perpetual rose
- The elegant shape of its buds and free flowering character
Today, roses have held their ancestral symbology of beauty and love. The demand for the rose has no doubt increased as cultivation of the beautiful flower continues to increase. The world’s most expensive rose was cultivated by the famous rose horticulturalist, David Austin. The rose, named the Juliet, took 15 years to breed and costs nearly 5 million dollars. Apart from the aesthetic beauty of the rose, a fruiting body on the rose known as the rose hip is considered a delicacy and medicinal product. The rose hip is packed with vitamin C and used in jams and jellies. Perhaps the most famous modern rose, “Overnight Scentsation”, was a miniature rose used for studies to show how the low gravity of space affected the smell of roses- the space rose! Spanning ancient to modern times, the rose has seduced our species with its visual and fragrant exceptionality. The impact the rose has had on our culture holds up to the test of time and securing it as one of the most prized flowers.