The History of the Rose

In my ongoing series about wedding flowers, this month I will feature the rose.  The classic rose has remained a very popular choice for weddings and is frequently used for bridal bouquets and boutonnieres, as well ceremony and reception floral arrangements.  In this post I will not only discuss the history the rose but also several legends associated with this beautiful flower.  Then in an additional post, Wedding Flowers – The Rose, I will discuss the customs and traditions associated with the rose and the meaning of the different colors of roses.  I will also offer some tips and suggestions in which the rose can be used in bouquets and floral arrangements for both ceremony and reception decorations.

The rose (rosa) is a perennial flowering plant which can grow as a bush, shrub, a climbing or trailing plant.  The flowers grow on wooden stems with leaves and prickly thorns which form on the outer layer of the stems.  There are approximately 150 species of roses grown throughout the world and the flowers can vary in diameter from 2” miniature to almost 6” large full blooms.  These different types of roses are available in a variety of colors with the most popular being white, pink, red and yellow.

In general, roses are considered a landscape plant specifically grown and used in gardens primarily for their fragrant and colorful flowers.   Commercially roses are also grown to be used as cut flowers for the floral industry and the rose petals are sometimes used as a source for the perfume companies.  In mild climates, the roses are grown outdoors, sometimes in covered areas to avoid any damage to the plant.  In more severe climates the plants can be grown in greenhouses with temperature control environments that can extends the growing season.  Whether it be outdoors or indoors, the plants are often sprayed to prevent plant disease or pest damage although today there are some growers that produce organic roses without the use of harmful chemicals.

A variety of hybrid roses are used by the lucrative floral industry, the roses are cut before their bloom while still buds and then refrigerated until ready for sale or to be made into arrangements for celebrations such as weddings.  For the perfume or cosmetic industries rose petals are crushed to produce attar of roses (meaning rose oil) and about two thousand flowers are needed to produce one gram of oil.

The Perfume Makers painting by Ernst Rudolf

Historical and archeological evidence suggests that roses have been used in a variety of different ways dating back several centuries.  There is a Greek legend about Flora (the goddess of flower) who is deeply saddened by the death of a woman of remarkable beauty.  She asks for the help of the other gods and goddesses to transform the woman into a beautiful flower as a lasting memorial.  She names the flower “Rose” and Apollo (the god of the sun) shines on the flower so that it will grow, Aphrodite (the goddess of love) gives it beauty and Dionysius (the god of fertility and harvest) gives it a lovely fragrance.

The mythological creation of the Rose

During the time of Ancient Egypt it has been said that Cleopatra used roses to seduce Mark Anthony.  In order to charm him she soaked the sails of her royal barge with rose water to create a heavenly scent when she first greeted him.  She also covered the floor of her bedroom with an intoxicating layer of fragrant rose petals to further entice him.  Needless to say, Mark Antony succumbed to her methods of seduction and was forevermore reminded of Cleopatra whenever he smelled the scent of roses.

Mark Antony meeting Cleopatra’s barge

During the time of the Ancient Romans, roses were often used in celebrations or religious ceremonies.  One such event with a tragic ending is depicted in the 1888 painting The Roses of Heliogabalus by the Anglo-Dutch artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.  The painting shows the Roman Emperor Elagabalus presiding over a feast during which the guests are showered with rose petals.  Although this may sound like an enchanting celebration, the ominous intent of the Emperor was to actually smother his guests thereby causing their deaths.

The Roses of Heliogabalus painting by Alma Tadema

As previously mentioned, roses are grown in a variety of different colors and there is a Persian legend regarding the Red Damask Rose that dates back to the 7th century which offers an interesting explanation as to how the rose got its deep red color.  The story goes that a nightingale (the poetic and symbolic bird once referenced in the Odyssey) loved the white rose so intently that when it held the flower tightly the thorns cut into its chest causing it to bled profusely onto the flower thus turning the once pure white rose into a blood red rose.

The Nightingale and the Rose

During Medieval times, rose petals were sometimes crushed to make powder or oils for medical purposes to cure a variety of illnesses. For this reason, the type of rose used for this became known as the Apothecary Rose (Rose Gallica Officinalis) because an apothecary by definition is a person who prepares and sells medicines and drugs.  Another use for the rose was to create beads for jewelry or other items, such as rosaries.  To form the beads, the dried rose petals were mixed with a little water or oil and the mixed would be rolled into small balls.  (Special Note: Rosaries made from rose petals are still available for purchase today through many sources, most commonly the rosaries are made for sentimental reasons usually created from the flowers from funerals)

A rosary made with rose petal beads

In the 15th century the rose became the symbol of two fractions fighting for power in England.  In the War of the Roses, which took place in the period from 1455 to 1487, the red rose (Rose Gallica) had become a symbol of the House of Lancaster and the white rose (Rose Alba) was used by the House of York.  When King Henry VII ultimately won the war and peace was established he ordered the two roses combined to create the Tudor Rose, this iconic symbol is still used today in England.

The Tudor Rose

In the 18th century Empress Josephine, the wife of Emperor Napoleon, had an extensive garden at the royal estate, Chateau de Malamaion, located a few miles from Paris.  The Empress had a special interest in botany and horticulture and it has been noted that she imported almost 200 different varieties of roses from Asia and England which were planted in the gardens at the Chateau.  To document the roses the Empress commissioned the botanical illustrator, Pierre Joseph Redoute, to create a series of watercolors called “Les Rose” which quickly gained fame as one of the finest collections of floral illustrations.

     Empress Josephine in her garden of roses by Farah Khan

During the Regency period an English garden looked very different, old rose bushes reached the height of sometimes six feet.  The growing season for old roses was relatively shorter in length and a rose plant could literally be covered with large blooming flowers that became known as cabbage roses because of their size.  Another popular rose emerged at this time and it was called the moss rose because the stem and sepals were covered with a bristly growth which resembled moss.

An Old Moss Rose

Today, the roses grown in a modern garden are generally hybrid tea roses which can be traced back to the 19th century when they began to be cultivated as different varieties, the first known hybrid tea rose was the La France rose in 1867.  By 1902, records indicated that there were only 36 varieties of old roses while the number of hybrid roses had grown to approximately 1,900 varieties.  By the late 20th century the number had increased substantially to more than 10,000 varieties of hybrid tea roses.

The La France hybrid tea rose

The oldest documented living rose bush is recorded to be over 1,000 years old.  Known as the Tauseandbjahriger Rosenstock (the German translation means literally the Thousand Year Rose) the rose bush grows on the wall of the Hildesheim Cathedral located in northern Germany.  The Rose of Hildesheim is a Rosa Canina which is a native climbing wild rose native to Europe and when last measured the rose bush was about 33 feet in height and 30 feet width.  During World War II the Cathedral was bombed, destroying the structure but the rose bush survived and it continued to grow and bloom among the church ruins.

The Rose of Hildesheim growing at Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany

For more information regarding roses, please click on the link to Wedding Flowers – The Rose.  In this additional post I will discuss the customs and traditions associated with the rose and the meaning of the different colors of roses.  I will also offer some tips and suggestions in which the rose can be used as a wedding flower.