The Ancient and Colorful History of Roses
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
My childhood home had a rose garden complete with a large variety of different roses. It was a lush, fragrant, and colorful garden. I remember spending hours studying each of the rose varieties, completely in love with the feast of color and scent. The splendor continued into the house as cut roses regularly decorated our dining room table. At the time, I did not fully understand what a precious blessing it was to have a rose garden. Now in my adulthood, I find myself genuinely pining for such a garden. However, I am a terrible contradiction. I love love love gardens. I like to visit them, watch television shows on them, and even read magazines and books on them. Except I do not enjoy gardening. I don’t like getting dirty. I scream when I accidentally touch a worm, and well, I just do not enjoy it. However, I have lately found myself pretty obsessed with the idea of building a rose garden of my own and have been consuming documentaries and articles on roses. I really am hoping this obsession lifts off into an actual rose garden, as the history of roses is fascinating and has made me all the more encouraged to take yet another stab at gardening.
The rose is a very ancient flower. From fossil evidence, they are believed to be around 35 million years old. The wild rose has around 150 species and is found all throughout the world. The actual cultivation of roses for gardens began in China 5,000 years ago. (The History of Roses, extention.illinois.edu) “In ancient Mesopotamia, Sargon I, King of Akkabians (2684-2630 B.C.) brought ‘vines, figs, and rose trees’ from a military expedition beyond the River Tigris.” (History of Roses, theflowerexpert.com)
Additionally, roses have been found in ancient Egyptian burial sites. Confucius (500 B.C.) even wrote about roses in the Imperial Gardens. He also wrote that the emperor’s library had a few hundred books on roses. (The Blooming and Fragrant History of Roses by Natalia Klimcsak, May 8, 2016, ancient-orgins.net) The ancient Greeks often wrote about the rose, weaving the flower into their mythology and poetry. Aphrodite was said to have created the rose. However, there are several different accounts of the creation of the rose in Greek mythology. Ancient Rome loved and used roses to the extreme. For banquets and orgies, they would blanket the floor with rose petals. They would also use rose petals as confetti for military victory marches. In the latter part of ancient Rome, the rose became a somewhat dubious symbol of wealth and power. “Roses became synonymous with the worst excesses of the Roman Empire when the peasants were reduced to growing roses instead of food to satisfy the demands of their rulers.” (History of the Rose, countrygardens.co.uk) The Crusaders would bring the rose into France from the middle east and by the seventeenth century, roses were so valuable and in demand that roses and rose water could be used (and were often used) as legal tender. (The History of Roses, extension.illinois.edu)
Cultivated roses for gardens remained largely similar to wild roses. Wild roses have five wide petals with a yellow center of stamens. The rose we think of today has been hybridized to have extra layers of petals that hide the yellow stamen center. “The era of modern roses was established with the introduction of the first hybrid tea rose, ‘La France’ by the French breeder, Guillot in 1867.” (History of Roses, theflowerexpert.com) After ‘La France’ an explosion of rose experimentation happened to create a wide array of stunning, heavily petaled roses—unlike the five-petal wild variety.
Additionally, hardiness to frost and disease were also considered in the creation of hybrids. The most famous hybrid to date was developed by French breeder Francis Meilland in 1939. At first, the rose simply had a number for a name. He mailed his new rose all over the world to be tested in different environments, and it proved to be a great success. World War II was still going on while he developed and sent around his new rose. In 1945, after the war ended, the rose was then named Peace. (History of the Rose, countrygardens.co.uk) It continues today to be a cherished rose variety.
While the hybrid rose thrives today and really is the rose we think of when we think of a rose, it has a big downside, and that is the scent. Wild and antique rose varieties have a much stronger and more complex scent than tea roses or hybrid roses do. To get more petals and create a dense, intensely colored rose, the scent was sacrificed. Today, roses and rose gardens are making a comeback. Most gardeners though are now using a blend of wild, antique, and hybrid roses— to have the best of both worlds—wonderful scent and classic, petal-dense flowers. Roses also come in a vast variety of heights, flower size, and form. Miniature roses, ground cover roses, climbing roses, and sprawling bush roses are very popular and much easier to care for. I am a horrible gardener, and my miniature ground cover roses keep flowers all summer and do not need to be trimmed or winterized.
Roses have been hailed by poets and rulers. They were used for celebrations, medicine, and even heraldic symbols. We closely identify them with love and still today reach for them when we want to express our affections. There are thousands of varieties of roses, and one can build a garden around the weather and terrain of just about anywhere and any level of gardening talent. I’m personally praying I do not give up on my rose garden dream, and I have found one variety so far that I haven’t killed (my other rose bush did die). If you have not, I heartily recommend you plant at least one or two rose bushes. Roses are stunning and have an amazing history. It's cool to think of people five thousand years ago working, fretting, and enjoying their rose gardens. There just is something about the rose.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.