The rose might not be your favorite flower, but I'll bet it was the very first flower you learned to identify. One recent day I was cleaning cabinets and came across a cut glass bowl with its matching top. My grandmother gave it to me many years ago and she told me that it had belonged to her mother. She knew I had been saving special rose petals, so she thought the bowl would be a good container for storing them. When I removed the top, there they were, dried rose petals collected from special events throughout my life. The memories wafted like scents through my mind: a rose from my great grandmother Laurie's garden in the 40's, from Grandfather's garden in 1950, from my eighth grade graduation in '56, high school in '60, college in '64, marriage in '71, children both in the mid '70's, Dad's and Mom's memorials in the 80's and 90's, and my grandson's birth in 2004. Layers of memories. I can't identify the individual roses in the bowl, of course, but it doesn't matter, because they are equally important to me, and I will continue to hold tight to the memories.
It all started with Grandma Laurie. She was my Granny Ninna's mother, and she lived alone in a log house that had been built around 1880. In her front yard she had the loveliest rose bush that had tiny pink blooms and smelled like the sweetest perfume. Ninna and I stayed with her for weeks at a time when I was very young, and there was never a time when the rose bush didn't bloom. She let it grow wild and wonderful, in the same way that Aunt Bett and Granny Ninna let me grow. Today I have her rose blooming beside the corner of my house. And I let it grow as wild as it wants.
Roses have ancient roots. The oldest roses in recorded history are painted on a fresco at the palace of King Minos, who in Greek mythology was the king of Crete. The first written records that mention roses are from the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, about 5000 B.C. The Greek historian Herodotus, 485-425 B.C., mentioned King Midas took roses with him when he moved to Macedonia. In Book 23 of Homer's "The Iliad" it tells us that Achilles carried a shield decorated with roses, and that Hector's body was anointed in rose oil. The Romans and the early Greeks worshipped the rose, using it to carpet the floor during important banquets. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus, 372-286 B.C., recorded that roses could be propagated by seeds, stem cuttings or buds. Wreaths of Damask-like roses have been found in Egyptian tombs. Egyptian artifacts date the use of roses for decoration and ceremony to 1500 B.C. The festivals both sacred and profane of the classical Greeks included roses, as did the Romans. The garden roses of the most ancient times in Europe and the Mediterranean were seemingly the Damasks, the Gallicas, and the Albas. The Persians found a way of extracting the pure rose oil from the Damasks, today there are distillaries devoted to that same process. In another part of the world, the Chinese philosopher Confucius, 551-479 B.C., recorded the existence of at least 600 books on roses in the Imperial Museum.
The story of the rose continues with the Crusaders. They brought back many species to Europe from their travels to the east. The early tea roses were transported from China to Europe by the tea clippers from India. Napoleon's wife Josephine had troops collect roses from their every destination and deliver them to her in Paris. She built up one of the most impressive rose collections in all of Europe. The Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York combined to make the Tudor Rose, the emblem of Henry VII. The 100 year war came to be known as the Battle of the Roses.
Two geographical areas have had the greatest impact on rose history: the European/Mediterranean group and the Oriental group. The European roses are primarily the following: Gallicas, Albas, Damasks, Centifolias, and Mosses. The Orientals are Chinas and Teas. The Europeans for the most part, have only one season of blooms per year, while the Orientals repeat bloom. After years of intense experimentation and crossing, in the 1840's it all resulted in a new group called the hybrid perpetuals, which were hardy, repeat blooming and diverse in color and form. This group of roses, which included reblooming, hardy plants, overwhelmed the older roses, and interest in the ancient roses waned. The search to widen the range of hybrids continued and the Bourbon rose was crossed with the eastern teas, producing a plant called Hybrid Teas, the results of which were hardy repeat bloomers.
And so it continued through the 1900's and on into the 21st century: the cultivation, the hybridization, the experimentation, until now we have so many to choose from we can hardly make up our own minds. What to plant in our gardens? We choose our favorites just as we choose our favorite pets. We carefully choose our colors, just as we choose our dress for an evening out. We receive roses from those who love us, and we give roses to those whom we love. We adorn ourselves with the scent of the rose as easily as we clasp a bracelet around our wrists. We tend our roses as carefully as we tend our children and we mourn, when for whatever reason, they are lost to us. Has there ever been a flower as loved as the rose?
I smile when Grandma Laurie's rose begins blooming in the corner of my garden each year in early spring. It is a promise to me that life continues because this rose is older than I am and it will undoubtedly outlast me. If it is heavy with blooms, its canes waving wildly in the breezes of springtime, my fingers curl to wave in return. I am remembering another corner in another yard in another time, and the women who taught me to love roses.
Happy Valentine's Day!
The rose played a large part in medicine, in art, in literature, and in religion throughout history, and I plan to cover those areas in an upcoming article. My sources for this article include the following:
Photo credits in the order of appearance:
My Grandma Laurie's rose at the corner of my house
The Damask rose is by Lilylover; the Alba rose is by Grampapa; the Gallica rose is by chicochi; the China red tea rose is by Melvatoo. Thank you so much for contributing your lovely photos to this article.
The last photo is my collection of rose petals.