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A Brief History of Roses

A Brief History of Roses

Shakespeare famously wrote, "Of all flowers, methinks rose is best." That feeling is not uncommon, and throughout history, all around the world, this lovely, meaningful flower has had captured the hearts and minds of people. Americans exhibit their love for roses by purchasing 1.2 billion cut roses each year. Furthermore, it is projected that 150 million rose plants would be purchased by gardeners globally during the upcoming growing season. Perhaps there is no better time to investigate rose history than February and Valentine's Day, the season of the year when an estimated 214 million roses will find their way into the lives of "significant others" globally.

Rose has around 150 species and is a member of the Rosaceae family of the genus Rosa. According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, named the rose after her son Eros by rearranging only one letter of his name. Eros eventually handed the rose to Harpocrates, the god of silence, as a bribe to disguise the gods' vulnerability. From there, the rose became associated with mystery, silence, and love.

Rose is one of the oldest flowers, according to fossil records. It is thought to have originated in Central Asia, but it has since spread across practically the whole northern hemisphere. Roses can be divided into two historical-geographical groups: Gallicas, Albas, Damasks, Damask Perpetuals, Centifolias, and Mosses are examples of European/Mediterranean roses, whereas China and Tea roses are examples of Oriental roses.


Rose cultivation is thought to have begun some 5000 years ago in Asia, and they have remained an integral part of human civilization ever since. Around 500 B.C., Confucius wrote about growing roses in the Imperial Gardens and mentioning that the emperor's library had hundreds of works on the subject. Later, the Han dynasty's obsession with roses grew to the point where its rose parks threatened the food supply, so the emperor ordered that some of them be plowed under.

In the 5th century, Egyptian tombs rose paintings on walls and other objects were discovered. Roses were thought to be Cleopatra's favorite flower, and she used them to try to entice Mark Anthony. To win his affection, she had her fountain filled with rose water and her chamber filled with two feet of rose petals.  In addition, Persian King Nebuchadnezzar is believed to have slept on a rose-petal-filled mattress.

Rose became connected with the rich excesses commonly associated with the Romans, who associated the rose with love, beauty, purity, and passion centuries later. For their feasts, Roman emperors filled their baths with rose water and sat on rose-petal carpets. During banquets, rose petals were utilized as confetti, and Nero was believed to enjoy seeing them fall from the ceiling (to the point dinner guest sometimes suffocated in their excess). The demand for roses was so great that peasants were regularly forced to grow them instead of food to appease the Roman elite.

Early Christians viewed roses as symbols of paganism and their oppressors, the Romans, and were instructed not to grow them by church officials. This admonition (obviously) went unheeded, and it grew in popularity through time, eventually being utilized in religious ceremonies. Rose became a Christian emblem over time and is now an important component of its culture and literature.

Many credit Alexander the Great for introducing rose to Europe, others credit knights returning from the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries.  During the Middle Ages, European monasteries kept the rose legacy by requiring at least one monk to be informed about rose virtues and adept in botany. Later, in 17th century Europe, roses and rose water were regarded as legal tender and could be used to pay debts owed by commoners to the royalties. Napoleon's wife, Josephine, a rose lover, developed one of the earliest major rose collections at Chateau de Malmaison, where her garden held over 250 rose species.

Because the China group was not introduced into Europe until the late 18th century, it is likely that the majority of the roses in Josephine's garden were of the European/Mediterranean kind. Shortly after, hybridizers mixed China rose (Rosa chinensis) with Rosa gigantea (a European/ Mediterranean kind) to create a new rose. The resultant cross was given the name tea rose because some people felt the newly opened petals smelled like a delicious cup of tea. A new type of rose was generated decades later by mixing Damask roses with various species of roses (a hybrid formed in the Middle East by crossing Rosa gallica with Rosa moschata). Because the offspring of these crosses rebloomed freely, they were dubbed hybrid perpetual, and they were quite popular for much of the nineteenth century.

Tea roses were crossed with hybrid perpetual to create the contemporary hybrid tea rose in the mid-nineteenth century, marking a watershed moment in rose breeding. They are the most popular form of rose in the world today, thanks to their enormous blossoms in a variety of colors and robust plants with glossy, green leaves. Most people believe them to be the gold standard by which all other roses are measured.

Roses are native to North America and were a favorite of many of the people who are credited with crafting American history. In 1699, William Penn brought 18 rose bushes from England. At Mount Vernon, George Washington planted roses, while at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson nurtured them. The first rose was planted in the White House by John Adams, and the formal rose garden, which still exists today, was constructed during Woodrow Wilson's presidency.

In its classification system, the American Rose Society lists over 40 different types of roses. They are divided into two categories: Old World Roses (introduced before 1867) and Modern Roses (introduced after 1867). (developed after 1867). Other major modern rose groups include polyantha, floribunda, and grandiflora, in addition to hybrid tea. Polyantha roses are low-growing shrubby roses with tiny flower clusters. They are usually fairly resilient and bloom abundantly all season long. Floribundas are the result of hybrid tea and polyanthus rose crosses. They grow big, resilient shrubby bushes with clusters of flowers that bloom profusely. Floribundas and hybrid tea roses were crossed to create Grandiflora roses. They bloom in bunches, just like their floribunda parent. Individual blossoms, on the other hand, are much larger than their hybrid tea father, as their name implies.

As may be seen from the previous, the rose family tree is rather complicated. Throughout history, breeders have strived to create the "perfect" rose, whatever that term means to the inventor. Despite all of the advancements in their development, roses continue to pose a daunting challenge to gardeners due to their susceptibility to illnesses and low temperatures. We tend to value the things in life that are difficult to attain the most. People might wonder, at least in part, people's fascination with roses stems from their delicate nature and the skill required to grow them.

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