Roses are older than the human hands that have tended them, but despite their antiquity and their thorns, they have perfumed their way into human hearts.
The sharp thorn often produces delicate roses. Ovid
I bury my nose in the rosebushes growing alongside my wooden American porch and I smell Greece, Rome, France, Germany, Western Europe, the world! The scent of the roses tickles my nose and my imagination. I think rose symbolism. Roses growing against a wooden porch amidst splinters and thorns can be universal symbols of human hope and survival, if frenzied, frazzled people stop long enough to smell and appreciate them. I think rose history.
Roses exist in the mists of legend, in pragmatic geological evidence, and trellised by historical documentation. One rose legend says that while carrying a vase of nectar, Love in heaven fell and upset the vase and the nectar spilled onto the valleys of the earth. Everywhere the nectar fell, roses grew. Roses are used in love potions and are symbols of love and beauty as well as war and politics.
Roses In The Beginning
More scientific, rational advocates point out that the rose fossils in Germany, Egypt, and China reveal that roses are at least 35 million years old. Fossilized Rose hips have been found in Europe and archeologists have retrieved petrified rose wreaths from ancient Egyptian tombs.
Over the centuries, roses have evolved to more than 150 species that spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere, northern Africa, Europe, and Asia. Botanists consider Rosa Gallica, or the French Rose, one of the oldest roses. They trace its beginnings to Twelfth Century BC. Persia, where it was considered it a symbol of love.
The inventive Chinese are credited with cultivating roses in their gardens at least 5,000 years ago and their cultivation habit spread to the Middle East and Europe. In the Old Testament of the Bible the Song of Solomon extols the Rose of Sharon and some Biblical scholars consider Jesus of the New Testament to be the Rose of Sharon. Islam has a tradition that the first rose was formed by a tear of the Prophet Mohammed.
Greek and Roman Roses
As the early Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans traveled and conquered their Mediterranean and European worlds, they brought roses with them and spread their appreciation and cultivation. In the Greco-Roman culture, roses represented beauty, the spring season, and love
Homer adorned the shield of Achilles and Hector’s helmet with roses. About 300 BC, Greek scientist and writer Theophrastus catalogued roses, describing them as having anywhere from five to one hundred petals. He was one of the first scientists to describe the rose in botanic detail. The Greeks had a custom of bequeathing money to maintain rose gardens over the graves of their friends and families.
Also around 300 BC, Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, grew roses in his garden and historians credit him with introducing cultivated roses into Europe and possibly Egypt as well
Some documents say that the Romans imported roses and the art of their cultivation from Egypt.
The Romans used roses as confetti in celebrations, for medicinal purposes and as a base for perfumes. In 41 BC Cleopatra filled her rooms with rose petals so that when Marc Anthony visited her, he would remember her every time he smelled a rose. He constantly remembered her.
Poet and satirist Horace chided the Roman government for permitting people to plant rose gardens on public lands, arguing that the land should be used for wheat fields and orchards
Patricians tended rose gardens at their villas and Romans of all classes spent lazy summer afternoons in the over 2,000 public gardens in ancient Rome. Nero, the hedonistic emperor from the First Century AD, scattered dozens of rose petals on his dinner guests.
To the Greeks and Romans, roses symbolized fleeting time, the brevity of life and the passageway of death in other worlds. The Romans celebrated a feast called rosalia which honored the dead.
Roses In The Middle Ages
Roses thrived as Rome fell, whether the historical fall date happened in 1453 when the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople or as historian Edward Gibbon argues on September 4, A.D. 476 when a German leader named Odoacer deposed Augustulus, the last western Roman emperor.
Europeans struggled to survive marching armies and barbarians, but they didn’t completely forget rose gardening. Charlemagne grew roses on his palace grounds at Aix-la-Chapelle and monks of all orders cultivated roses and other plants for medicinal purposes. Benedictine monasteries especially were botanical research centers. As the lives of ordinary people were less disrupted by public armies and invasions, they planted more private rose gardens.
The Crusades proved to be rose showcases on both sides of the sword during the 12th and 13th centuries. When Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1188, he wouldn’t enter the temple until he had its walls washed with rosewater, a task that took the hauling efforts of at least 500 camels. When Mehmed II took Constantinople in 1455, he solemnly purified the Church of St. Sophia with rose water before it had it converted into a mosque.
Soldiers coming home from Crusading brought back samples of roses from lush Middle Eastern rose gardens. As people turned their eyes and their noses to the larger rose world, traders diplomats, and scholars intensified the study of roses.
Roses In The Medieval Church
Roses were symbols of both love and hatred in the Medieval Church. At the Fourth Council of Nimes in 1284, the Catholic Church decreed that Jews were required to wear a rose on their breasts as a distinguishing mark to set them apart from Christians. Some sources say that roses were hateful to the early church fathers because of their association with the crown of thorns that the Roman soldiers thrust on the head of Christ before His Crucifixion. Many early Christians believed that the Jews instead of the Romans killed Christ, so wearing a rose as a mark of shame seemed to be a fitting punishment.
As the Middle Ages evolved, so did the symbolism of the rose in the early Christian Church. Gothic cathedrals and their circular rose stained glass windows that adorned their entrances represented the world of salvation that God offered and revealed to the human race through the Old and New Testaments. The Church also carried rose symbolism through in the devotion of the rosary. The influence of the Song of Songs in the Old Testament depicted the mystical union between Christ and the Church and God and his people. The Catholic Church honored Mary as the Mother of God and the rose became a symbol of the union between Christ and Mary. The Litany of Loredo included the title, “Mystical Rose.”
In 11th and 12th Century Rome, the Church set apart a Sunday which it called Rose Sunday, to bless the roses. On the fourth Sunday in Lent, the Church blessed the golden rose with the affirmation of the Pope who gave it as a mark of special favor and recognition to Christian sovereigns and later Christian civilians as well. In 1368, Pope Urban V gave the golden rose to Joan, Queen of Sicily which signified that he preferred her over the King of Cyprus. Pope Julius II and Pope Leo X both conferred the Golden Rose on Henry VIII.
Roses For Medicinal Purposes
From their beginnings roses have been used for medicinal purposes. Ancient peoples considered roses a perfect cure for hydrophobia. Philip the Handsome favored a wine flavoured with roses and Charlemagne firmly believed that a cordial made of roses prevented him from fainting from loss of blood.
Rose poultices were used for flesh wounds and many people believed that preserved roses would cure consumption and diseases of the throat and lungs. The best rose elixir was made from rosebuds and sugar in equal parts
Rose Growing and Rose Gardens
Nomadic humans planted the earliest rose gardens along their most traveled routes. Rose gardening evolved into the proliferation of rose growing and rose gardens in the middle Ages and these Medieval gardens developed from the theme of courtly love in literature, with the rose as the symbol of the beloved lady.
John Gerard, a Sixteenth Century English herbalist wrote a Herball in 1597 identifying fourteen kinds of roses. In his 1629 Herbal Paradisus, John Parkinson, apothecary to James the First, reported 24 different roses and by the end of the 1700s, English artist Mary Lawrence had identified and illustrated over 90 different roses in Herbal called “A Collection of Roses from Nature.”
In 17th Century France, roses were so popular that roses or rose water were considered legal tender and people often used them as barter and for payments. Roses played such an important role in 18th Century France that people had to apply for a royal license to grow them. When Marie Antoinette passed through Nancy on her way to marry Louis XVI, the ladies of Lorraine prepared a bed strewn with roses for her.
Between 1798 when she first started her garden to 1814 when she died a month before her fifty-first birthday, Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife Josephine created an extensive rose collection at Chateau de Maimaison, an estate seven miles west of Paris. She collected 250 rose specimens and her roses gained such renown that the English, although fighting a war with France, allowed roses for Josephine to cross blockades and permitted her head gardener to travel unmolested across the English Channel.
Josephine’s gardening stirred interest in rose gardening and rose hybridizing across Europe and eventually led to the creation of modern roses. Josephine’s Maimaison gardens propelled France into being a leading rose grower and by 1825, French growers had produced 5,000 varieties of roses.
After 13 years of trying, French hybridizer Joseph Pernet-Ducher in 1900 introduced a cross between a red hybrid and a Persion yellow rose, which created a yellow rose that could survive interbreeding. These innovations produced a new range of colors for modern roses, including gold, copper, salmon, and apricot and they were eventually merged with the hybrid tea class of roses. Joseph Pernet-Ducher became known as “The Wizard of Lyons,” after the French town where he did his work.
At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Danish rose breeder Syend Poulsen improved on a new class of rose called the polyantha that French nurseryman Jean Sisley had developed in the late Nineteenth Century. In the 1920s, Poulsen crossed the polyantha with the hybrid tea rose to produce the first floribunda rose which features an abundance of lowers, added height and long cutting stems.
Reimer Kordes, a Twentieth –Century German hybridzer, created Rosa kordesii, by crossing Rosa Spinosissima, which has existed since before the Middle Ages with hybrid tea roses to produce a group of modern shrub roses, including Frulingsgold. They are winter resistant, easy to maintain, and are commonly found along European roadsides and public areas.
World War II slowed down rose hybridizing in Europe, but the end of the War brought a rainbow array of forms and colors. In 1960, German hybridizing firm Rosen Tantau introduced “Tropicana,” which is a trailblazing orange-red hybrid tea rose.Now more than 30,000 varieties of roses of all classes -over eleven thousand of them hybrid teas-beautify and perfume the world.
Rose bushes growing alongside my wooden American porch are a living, blooming connection to West Europe. It is a connection as real as my fingers holding both the rose and thorns and my nose smelling their exquisite fragrance.
Grant, William A. Botanica’s Roses: over 1,000 Pages And over 2,000 Plants Listed. Laurel Glen Publishing, 2000.
Phillips, Roger and Rix, Martin. Best Rose Guide: A Comprehensive Selection. Firefly Books, 2004.
Quest-Ritson, Charles and Quest-Ritson, Brigid. American Rose Society Encyclopedia of Roses: The Definitive A-Z Guide. DK Adult, 2003.
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