Roses In History

A Brief Overview and Historical Perspective on Roses

Botanists believe the rose in some form flourished long before humans walked the earth. Pretty hard to believe? Definitely hard to imagine.

It’s thought that the human species has cultivated roses for more than 5,000 years. It makes you wonder . . .

And that’s how roses got to be the official language of love (and 12 became the standard number of roses to deliver!)Okay, so maybe the rose industry didn’t develop this way. But, it’s a nice story nonetheless.

But I happen to know for a fact, though, that some 35 million years ago, roses in some form existed. We’ve got fossil records that record this!

Actual cultivation of roses, however, didn’t occur until nearly 5,000 years ago in one of the most unlikely places (or perhaps you won’t think this so unlikely):


Chinese records indicate that some were cultivating roses in this advanced society as early as the fourth and fifth centuries AD. References to cultivated roses are apparent through the Song Dynasty which ruled from 960 to 1279 AD. These roses were perpetually flowering and raised in large cities.

In fact, the most outstanding fact about this discovery is the sheer number of varieties were already in existence. One city reported it had more than 41 alone.

By the time the Ming Dynasty became established from the years of 1368 to 1644 rose cultivation became a relatively established activity. If you’ve ever heard of the “China rose” then this fact probably doesn’t come as much surprise. It’s a complex of both natural and cultivated hybrid plants that have evolved for more than a thousand years in the gardens of this ancient country.

Perhaps then it’s no coincidence that the wild Tea rose actually came from upper Burma and southwestern China. It wasn’t introduced into Europe until 1888, however, when Sir Henry Collett discovered it in the Shan Hills of Burma.

Roman Period

During the Roman period, the shift to rose cultivation moved toward the Middle East where this flowering plant became extremely popular. Believe it or not, Middle Easterners used the petals as confetti, as well as remedies for various illnesses and, of course, as a source for perfume.

Not only were roses grown in private yards and courtyards, but the Roman nobility established large public rose gardens just south of the city of Rome so the entire population could enjoy these wonderful creations.

After the Roman Empire fell, the popularity of roses appeared to ride in and out of tides of whatever the gardening trend was at the time. Certainly, that’s to be expected. This time was noted — called by many the Dark Ages — didn’t afford your average person the luxury of tending to a flower garden.

But the fate of the rose, well . . . rose again during the fifteenth century when it became the symbol for the factions vying for control of England. The white rose became the symbol for the city of York; the red rose the symbol for Lancaster. And now you know why it is, to this day, called “The War of the Roses.”

During the seventeenth century, roses were in such great demand that royalty declared both roses and rose water legal tender. That means people were legitimately able to make commercial purchases using roses or rose water.


Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, Josephine, loved the flower so much that she established a large and impressive collection of them at Chateau de Malmaison, an estate several miles west of Paris.

The garden soon became the setting for the famous botanical illustrator, Pierre Joseph Redoute. In 1824, he finished his collection of watercolors called “Les Rose.” This is still considered one of the finest records of botanical illustrations ever created.

But it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that purposely cultivated roses were introduced into Europe from China. And because of this, most modern-day roses actually owe their ancestry to this country.

For the most part, the flowers which were imported from China were repeat bloomers. This was different from what grew naturally in Europe. And this difference intrigued those gardeners of the time.

Not only were individuals intrigued, but they became the overriding interest of some hybridizers. This created the perfect scenario to take the native Chinese plants and breed them with native European plants. Soon, roses were being bred for such traits as hardiness and a longer, lovelier bloom.

Whatever botanists know biologically about this flower and whatever its history as symbols of war, the rose is without a doubt best known as being the international and eternal symbol of love — young love, lasting love, undying love.

How this exactly came to be is lost to the legends of time no doubt. But more than one person has noted the relationship of the word rose the Greek god of love “Eros.” Hard to deny all the letters are there — just in a slightly different order. An anagram if you will. Coincidence?

Romance of the Rose, one of the most popular French poems of the Middle Ages, uses the pursuit of a rose by a lover as an allegory for the philosophy the troubadours of the time had towards the ideal of love.

The famous poet Robert Burns compared the love of his life to a “red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June.” German wedding customs involve the giving of a silver rose. The groom is required to send one to his bride before the marriage ceremony. This was such a legendary tale, that Richard Strauss fashioned an opera, Der Rosenkavalier around the idea.

Leave a Comment