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The Blooming and Fragrant History of Roses

The Blooming and Fragrant History of Roses

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Roses are one of the most popular flowers around the world. Over the centuries they have been a symbol of love but they also sometimes served as symbols in parts of royal coats of arms.

The first evidence of blossoming roses comes from a period 40-35 million years ago. The oldest known fossil was discovered in Colorado, USA. Fossils have also been found in Norway, Germany, Balkans, Alaska, Mexico, and some other locations. Nonetheless, it is difficult to write the earliest history of roses. Written sources started to mention them a few thousand years ago, but it is known that roses were also cherished in Ancient Egypt - rose petals have been discovered in many tombs and paintings of roses were even discovered in the tomb of the pharaoh Thutmose IV, who was a ruler of the 18th dynasty.

A Legendary Flower

In ancient times, roses appeared in myths and were appreciated by rulers and used during great celebrations and parties. They had a special place in Greek mythology. According to ancient legend, roses were created by Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. They grew from her tears and the blood of her lover – Adonis. Cleopatra VII, probably inspired by the mythical origins of roses, used their petals during public appearances. She wanted to be remembered as a goddess who smelled like roses. 

Aphrodite Pudica (Roman copy of 2nd century AD), National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

Aphrodite Pudica (Roman copy of 2nd century AD), National Archaeological Museum, Athens. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In the times of Alexander the Great, roses were already very popular in Europe and Asia, but sources say that the Macedonian king increased their popularity in Egypt. In 1888, English archaeologist Sir William Flinders Petrie discovered a rose garland used as a funeral wreath during the 2nd century AD in Upper Egypt.

The legend about Aphrodite was adopted by the Romans, who used to call the goddess of love Venus. Romans made this flower a symbol of beauty and love. It was an attribute of Cupid as well. In Roman mythology, the son of Venus (Cupid) was stung by a bee when he was shooting arrows into a garden full of roses.  When Venus was walking in the garden, she pricked her foot on a thorn left by her son. It turned the roses red. During the domination of the Roman Empire, roses were also a symbol of vanity. Roman Emperors used to dump tons of rose petals on the guests of their dinners and orgies.

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli c. 1485–1486.

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli c. 1485–1486. (Public Domain)

Apart from this, the newly married couples in Ancient Rome liked to be crowned with roses, which received the name Rosa gallica, which is a well-known rose even today. Rosa gallica is currently also called the French Rose, but it has been known since the 12th century BC, and it came to Europe from Persia. The descendant of this rose is the Rosa damascena.

Roses were mentioned in Confucian, Buddhist, and early Christian religious texts as well. Circa 500 BC, Confucius wrote about roses which grew in the Imperial Gardens. He also mentioned that the library of the Chinese emperor contained a few hundred books about roses. During the reign of the Han dynasty (about 207 BC – 220 AD), gardeners cultivated roses which were popular all over the country, including in agricultural lands.

Wild Rosa gallica in Romania.

Wild Rosa gallica in Romania. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Symbol of the Ruling Class

In medieval times, roses became a symbol of power. The King of Franks, Charlemagne, grew roses in his palace at Aix-la-Chapelle. The oldest rose plant which is still alive now is grown in a Catholic cathedral in Hildesheim, Germany. It is believed that the rose plant appeared there in 815 AD and currently it is 10 meters (33 ft.) high. During the 12th and 13th centuries, many knights and soldiers who returned from the Crusades in the Middle East carried samples of roses with them.

The rose also became the symbol of civil wars which took place in the 15th century in England. The War of the Roses lasted from 1455 – 1487. The name of the war has its roots in the coat of arms of both sides of the war. This war began when the nobles of York attacked Henry VI of Lancaster. The leader of the nobles, Edward IV of York, replaced the ruler of Lancaster as king. The House of Lancaster took the symbol of a red rose (Rosa Gallica), while the House of York chose a white rose (Rosa alba). When after many years Henry VII Tudor won the war, he connected the two roses into one symbol. The Tudor Rose became the Rose of England, which continues to be one of the most identifiable symbols of the kingdom.

The Tudor rose.

The Tudor rose. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Forgotten Smell of Growing Gems

During the colonization of North America, around 200 different species of roses were known by the NativesToday, around 35 species remain much like they were. William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania during his travel to America in the 1600s, made notes about the roses he saw. He brought Europe some species of roses, including the cabbage rose (Rosa centifolia), which has 100 petals. For many centuries, the most remarkable characteristic of the roses brought from North America was their strong and pleasant smell.

Rosa centifolia.

Rosa centifolia. (Public Domain)

In the early 19th century, the Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, became one of the biggest collectors of old roses. Her ambition was to create the greatest collection of roses in her garden at Malmaison in France. She started developing the rose garden in 1798, and at the moment of her death in 1814 she had collected as many as 250 different types of roses. She also created a few new species. Her garden is still one of the best sources for ancient roses.

Portrait of Josephine later in life by Andrea Appiani.

Portrait of Josephine later in life by Andrea Appiani. (Public Domain)

The Forgotten Glory of Old Roses

Gardeners are trying to bring back the forgotten glory of old roses. During the last 200 years, many hybrids have been created. One of the first of them were made by famous Moravian scientist Gregor Mendel. Unfortunately, there is a problem – many of the newer species usually don't smell as wonderful as the old ones did. During the process of breeding, many of them have lost their unique scent. It is believed that currently there are around 30,000 varieties of roses worldwide, but it is impossible to count all of them. Each year the number of gardens where the old roses appear also increases.

Featured image: The roses of Heliogabalus - oil on canvas. (Public Domain)

By Natalia Klimczak



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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