Written by Alanna Rossi, Illustrations by Jaclyn Simon
This time of the year, specifically around Valentine’s day, florists shift their focus to one flower in particular. You know it well. It’s about as famous and well known as a flower can get. Most commonly purchased in a dozen and given as an expression of love, the rose is one of the world’s most popular flowers and most associated with Valentine’s day. First cultivated approximately 5000 years ago in China, the rose has a vibrant and unique history and has been admired for centuries.
The rose is part of the Rosaceae family and Rosa genus. It is a woody perennial plant consisting of hundreds of species and thousands of cultivars. Asia is home to the majority of the native species, but smaller numbers are also native to Europe, North America and northwestern Africa. These native species don’t quite resemble the rose that you see for sale at your local florist. These wild roses are less ostentatious than their modern counterparts, but no less beautiful. In fact, they were considered so beautiful they were frequently depicted in art, literature and became symbols of love, beauty, war and religion all throughout history. Shakespeare even wrote a sonnet about the rose (Sonnet 54 if you’re interested).
Rich in symbolism, the rose is one of the most iconic symbols of love. In Greek mythology, it is said that Aphrodite, the Goddess of love, created the rose when her lover, Adonis, was wounded by a wild boar. The story says that the mixture of her tears and his blood created a red rose bush when they hit the ground. Talk about a dramatic origin story.
Roses are much more than ornamentation for gardens; the petals produce an oil which is utilised in the creation of luxury perfumes and other beauty products. In fact, rose oil remains to be one of the most precious of essential oils due the large number of petals required for production. That’s why it’s so expensive.
Like many plants, roses are also utilised for their medicinal properties. The rose species, China rose (Rosa chinensis) has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for millennia, and is said to aid in maladies such as arthritis, coughs and chest pain.
In Britain during WWII, rose hips were discovered to be an excellent source of vitamin C. The general public were encouraged to forage for them during a national shortage of the all-too-important vitamin, due to the cessation of fruit imports at the time – including oranges. The rose hips were made into syrups for consumption.
Fossil records show that the genus rosa has existed for at least 35 million years. The most common rose in today’s garden is the Modern rose. The roses you see today in rose gardens or sold as cut flowers are all multi-generational hybrid cultivators, all bred from native wild roses found throughout the world. One of the most popular class of rose today is the Hybrid tea rose which features large ornate blooms.
Rose gardens are a common feature of any botanical garden. The display of rose collections became popular during the eighteenth century when cultivated roses were first introduced to Europe from China via the Romans, who imported plants from the East. One of the first rose gardens in Europe was in France. Napoleon’s wife, the Empress Joséphine established an extensive collection of roses at the Château de Malmaison and became the setting for famed painter and botanist Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s botanical illustrations.
Due to the high demand around Valentine’s day, the rose is one of the world’s most economically important plants. American shoppers spend nearly $2 billion on flowers alone on Valentine’s day. The rose has a rather large carbon footprint. Transportation, being one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, plays a critical role in how roses are shipped all over the world and imported into North America. A locally sourced, in-season bouquet of flowers also makes a meaningful gift and has a much smaller carbon footprint – much more romantic in my opinion.
Despite its thorns, the rose is an intriguing plant with a long history of being sought after for its virtues. My personal favourite will always be the wild roses, where the modern roses of today got their start. The understated beauty and wildness of them are like no other plant in the garden. The next time you visit your local botanical garden, be sure to spend some time amongst the roses. They have quite the story to tell.
“Plant Profiles – Roses – Rosa” https://www.kew.org/plants/roses
“The Hidden Environmental Cost of Valentine’s Day Roses” – Gaby Del Valle https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/2/12/18220984/valentines-day-flowers-roses-environmental-effects
“The History of the Rose” – Allen Paterson; 1983
“Garden Story – Very Old Rose” https://www.vandusengarden.org/garden-story-very-old-roses/