The rose, symbol of beauty and love, has long been cherished for its elegance and fragrance. Its popularity is greater than ever, as gardeners rediscover the history and classic beauty of old roses and enjoy new simple-to-care-for shrub roses, which can be successfully grown even by the beginner.
An Ancient Plant
Fossil evidence indicates that roses have been growing for 35 million years. Wild roses can be found throughout the northern hemisphere. The Rosaceae family includes not just the flowering rose, but also edible fruits such as apples, almonds, cherries and raspberries. There are about 150 species of rose, but almost all roses share the common trait of having five petals. (A few have only four.)
Cultivation of the rose probably began about 5,000 years ago in China. During Roman times, roses were used as a source of perfume and for medicinal purposes. The petals were even used as confetti during celebrations. Both Confucius (551-479 B.C.) and Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.) are reported to have been fond of the flower.
Roses in Mythology
In Greek mythology, the rose is the flower of love, and was created by Chloris, goddess of flowers, from the body of a lifeless nymph. Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, gave the flower loveliness, and Dionysus, god of wine, contributed nectar for sweet fragrance. When Zephyrus, god of the west wind, blew away the clouds, Apollo the sun god shone down, making the flower bloom.
Roses in Europe
The Crusaders returned from the east with damask roses, and their use spread through Europe. Roses were commonly found in the medicinal plant gardens of medieval monasteries, where they were used for indigestion and sore throat, among other remedies. In fact, the oldest garden rose--rosa gallica officinalis--is called the apothecary rose. Roses increased in demand during the 17th century to the point that roses and rose water became forms of barter and payment.
Patron of Roses
Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine of France (1763-1814), patronized plant explorers who brought her unknown varieties from expeditions around the world. She grew more than 250 types of roses in her garden at Chateau de Malmaison, near Paris. It was here that botanical illustrator Pierre Joseph Redoute painted his highly regarded watercolor collection “Les Rose,” prints of which are enjoyed to this day.
New Roses Developed
Between 1750 and 1830, new roses such as the Bourbons, Chinas, teas and hybrid perpetuals were developed. The new varieties combined the characteristics of European roses, which had a short blooming time, with those of the less hardy Asian roses, which bloomed throughout the warm season. The development of the first hybrid tea rose in 1867 ushered in the modern era of roses. Today, about 80% of all roses grown are modern roses.