We are fortunate to have many varieties of roses in our Connecticut garden, and they are running riot right now. I cannot take any of the credit other than consulting, for my hardworking husband does all the bull work. Walking our paths, enjoying the luxuriant display has made me curious about the role of the rose in history and folklore.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. By the time Shakespeare wrote his immortal lines, the rose was well ensconced in the popular imagination.
Roses have been part of world folklore for several thousand years. They were probably first cultivated in Persia. Wall paintings and objects depicting roses were found in Egyptian tombs (5th century B.C.). The Greek poetess Sappho called it the Queen of Flowers, and it was believed to have sprung from the blood of Adonis. Confucius (551-479 B.C.), wrote that the Emperor of China had over 600 books about Roses. The Chinese (5th century B.C.), extracted oil of roses from plants grown in the Emperor’s garden which could only be used by nobles and dignitaries. A commoner found in possession of this oil was put to death. Roman emperors had their floors strewn with petals, and brides and goddesses were crowned with roses. Cleopatra had a passion for roses. To seduce Mark Antony, she had the palace floors carpeted with rose petals and her chamber filled with two feet deep with red rose petals and fountains filled with rose water. One of better known fables from 7th century history involves Mohammed, who ordered that a bouquet of red roses be thrown into a pool to determine his wife’s fidelity. If the flowers turned yellow, she would be guilty of adultery; if not, she was innocent. The legend tells us that they turned yellow, and this is the origin of the yellow rose. In 11th century Sufi poetry, the rose was held up as the symbol of life, a representation of perfection, with its thorns symbolizing the difficulties that must be overcome to achieve that perfection. Rosewater became an agent of purification, and rose amulets were worn to protect against the “evil eye”.
Because of its association with the “infidel”, rose cultivation was discouraged by early Christian churchmen, its use connected to deception and trickery. In Arthurian tales, Merlin is trapped in a tower made from a white rose in the Broceliande forest of France. But once the Christians adopted the rose as the symbol of the Virgin Mary, who herself became known as the rosa mystica, it became prominent in medieval European thinking. The Christian take on the rose’s origin is that it came about from a drop of Christ’s blood falling upon a thorn bush. Some say that the first rosary beads were made with rose hips. In a typical medieval myth, Rosamond, the mistress of King Henry II, is poisoned by his wife, Queen Eleanor Aquitaine, in a concoction sweetened with roses. Rosamund’s grave is now adorned with Rosa Mundi, which bears pink and white flowers. It was a custom to suspend a rose above the table to remind participants that proceedings were confidential (sub rosa), and the need for secrecy made the white rose a Jacobite symbol in Scotland.
To this day, white roses are traditionally worn at weddings in the belief they will bring happiness and security.
Today, folklore and tradition have attached associations to rose colors:
· Red = Love, respect
· Deep pink = Gratitude, appreciation
· Light pink = Admiration, sympathy
· White = Reverence, humility
· Yellow = Joy, gladness
· Orange = Enthusiasm, desire
· Red & yellow blends = Gaiety, joviality
· Pale blended tones = Sociability, friendship
Today there are over 10,000 varieties of roses. Hybridization has severely diluted the fragrant properties of most roses, and for the sweetest scent, rely upon the old fashioned varieties.