With Valentine's Day fast approaching, florists are stocking up on long-stemmed roses, the traditional gift at this time of year for a loved one. Soon delivery trucks will roll, loaded with bouquets that will grace office desks and living rooms around the world. Most of the people giving and receiving these roses have no idea how much this one flower has influenced civilization. Roses are not just a pretty face, they have been used in perfume, medicine, spirituality, food and even sorcery by countless cultures. As we give or receive roses this year, think about how roses have impacted civilization over the centuries. There has probably been more poetry written about roses than any other flower as well.

alba roses against a blue sky

Roses in legends and lore

Cultivation of roses probably began in China nearly 5000 years ago (Confucius was rumored to have maintained a library specifically dedicated to the art of growing roses) and each culture that came into contact with it, embraced it as an important part of their heritage. The Indian gods Vishnu and Brahma argued over whether the lotus or the rose was more beautiful. Vishnu touted the rose while Brahma believed that nothing was more beautiful than the lotus, however he had never seen a rose. Once he did, he agreed with Vishnu and created Lakshmi, a bride for Vishnu from rose petals. The Greek goddess Aphrodite was believed to have created the white rose from sea foam that fell from her body as she was born. Likewise, she was responsible for the red rose when her blood dripped onto a white rose. Ancient Mesopotamian texts indicate that roses were held in high regard and it is said that King Nebuchadnezzar included roses in the Hanging Gardens he built for his queen who was from the mountains. Rose wreaths have been discovered in Egyptian tombs and the story is told of Cleopatra carpeting her palace with rose petals when she met Marc Antony, so he would be reminded of her each time he encountered the scent. Most Christians are aware of the comparison of the Virgin Mary to a white rose and in Islam it is said that the first rose sprang from the ground where drops of Mohammad's sweat fell. The druids of what is now Great Britain believed that drawing a special symbol in someone's footprint and then covering that with rose petals would bind that person to you as a lover.

pink roses against a brick wall

Roses in medicine

Apothecaries used roses as a form of medicine throughout the centuries as well and there is actually a grain of truth buried in their lore. Rose hips are high in Vitamins A and C and are full of antioxidants and other compounds. Preparations either applied topically or taken orally prevent infections, help heal wounds, are heart-healthy and help prevent cancer. Research has also shown that patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis experience some relief of their symptoms when drinking rose hip tea. Rose hips, petals and leaves have all been used medicinally, however the hips are actually the most effective.

alba roses

The first cultivated roses

The first roses that humans cultivated were simply moved from their places in the wild to gardens near homes, villas and monasteries. Apparently, they originated in Central Asia, however they soon spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They only bloomed once a year for several weeks in the spring or early summer. Humans ultimately experimented with breeding roses and hybrid forms were developed. With the introduction of the 'perpetuals' from China in the 17th Century, Europeans were finally able to have roses blooming in their gardens all summer. More and more varieties (and colors) were created and the world fell in love with the rose even more. Over the centuries our love affair with roses has never flagged and so this Valentine's Day, if you are giving or receiving roses, you are part of an ages-old tradition that spans, countries, cultures and religions. Our ancestors set it in motion, but we keep it alive into the 21st Century and beyond.

single red rose

Commercial rose growers time their harvests

There is a huge commercial business in growing roses. There is also a huge amount of work and timing involved. Growers of cut roses need to time their blooming plants so that the buds are ready to harvest when the demand is highest. That usually falls near Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. The roses are cut with long stems, kept hydrated and kept cool until they are shipped out about a week before the holiday. Your hometown florist also keeps the roses cool until time to arrange and deliver them. This keeps the roses from prematurely opening. A properly cut and prepped bouquet should last about a week in the home before showing signs of deterioration. Enjoy your roses this Valentine's Day. They are an ancient tradition that spans the centuries.