Fragrant Rose

Article originally published in the San Francisco Nob Hill Gazette


Unmatched in elegance and beauty, the rose – National Flower, Queen of Flowers, messenger of love – has been revered for eons. Omnipresent on the world’s palette of flowers, it is entangled in history and is humanity’s longest love affair. No other flower has been so exalted and valued in cultivation. A profusion of hues dazzles the senses with color and symmetry of form. The purity of it’s deep perfume wafts charm on admirers.

The Greek poet Sappho in her 600 B.C. Ode to the Rose first bestowed its regal title. The rose finds mention in the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, and Confucius noted the extensive rose plantings in the Peking Imperial Gardens.

Ancient art is further testimony to the significance of this flower. Rose motifs found themselves on Asian coins in 4000 B.C. Cretan frescoes dating back to 1,600 B.C. bear single rose blossoms. Chaplets found adorning Egyptian mummies contain desiccated rose petals from a plant still cultivated today as “St. John’s Rose” or “rose of the tombs.” In life and in death this bloom has been venerated.

Legend links the rose as a symbol of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek Goddess of love. Victims of her son Cupid’s golden arrows fell in love.

As a symbol for survivors of religious persecution, a white rose often represented the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. The word rosary, means “bed of roses” or “rose garden,” and later became a meditation of prayers. Hundreds of Christian monasteries scattered throughout Western Europe cultivated the rose for medicine, perfume and probably Communion wine.

Valentine’s Day arose during the Roman Empire. Tragically, on February 14th, 269 A.D., St. Valentine, patron saint of lovers, was martyred for secretly marrying couples. He defied Emperor Claudius II’s edict for forbidding marriages, an attempt to get men to join the army. To this day, February 14th is consecrated to lovers as a special occasion for writing sweet notes and sending tokens, such as roses.

Theses blooms became an integral part of Roman society, and merchants prospered. Roses decorated events and festivities; statues and monuments were wreathed in them, streets and pounds were strewn with them. Guests waded in piles of petals around banquet tables.

The War of the Rose was the mid-15th century struggle for the throne of England between the houses of Lancaster (whose badge was a red rose) and York (whose badge was a white rose). Shakespeare portrayed this lust for power in Henry VI.

Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon I, used her vast resources to amass and maintain all the roses then known in the western world. Begun in 1804, her collection at Malmaison reached its pinnacle 10 years later, containing about 250 different varieties. To preserve her treasured collection for prosterity, she summoned a group of artists, including Pierre-Joseph Redoute, the “Raphael of the flowers.” The watercolors entitled Les Roses are still unsurpassed in artistic detail and beauty.

Fast forwarding to the U.S., today’s spectacular Rose Parade started out very simply, and quite by accident as a result of a winter picnic for members of the genteel Valley Hunt Club back in 1890. With the unexpected success of that event, riding after the scent of the fox and hare was soon replaced by chasing the scent of roses. In 1912, famous broadcaster, C.P. Rodgers, engaged in the epic flight from the Atlantic to Pasadena, showered the entire parade dropping rose petals.

It was in 1987 that President Ronald Reagan signed legislation making the rose America’s National Flower.

The genus Rosa belongs to a large family called Rosaceae, which includes other ornamental and food crops, such as, bridal wreath, loquat, peach, nectarine, cherry, apricot, almond, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry.

There are many classes of roses within two major categories: the spring flowering old European roses such as the Gallicas, Damasks and Albas, and the modern roses, descendants from China, which are the repeat bloomers so popular today and include the Teas, Noisettes, Floribundas, Grandifloras and Miniatures.

Steeped in performance, few shrubs or perennial flowers are as reliable and outlast the ability of the rose, blooming readily the first year of planting and for much of the growing season, and roses come back year after year.

The fragrance of this beloved flower boasts to be the only fragrance that never fatigues the nose. Sun and warmth are necessary to release and heighten its reverie. Roses are not as fragrant on a cloudy day. Attar of roses, that exquisite oil has always been expensive. One reason is that it takes 500 kilograms of petals to produce 500 grams of attar. In Bulgaria containers of it were stored in vaults.

If you happen to be making an arrangement of roses, cut the stems in late afternoon. Re-cut them at an angle under tap water or in a bucket, then transfer into a vase with a lukewarm water solution containing a floral preservative, Listerine, or a home mix of ½ cup of sugar (food) and 2 tsp. Clorox (bacterial killer) per two gallons of water. Change the solution and re-cut the stems every three days. A Russian trick is to peel the outer skin up about half an inch from the cut to expose more of the conducting tissue to the solution. Best to do this after soaking.

This eternal flower has derived its own language. It began in Constantinople in the 1600s, made its way to England, then on to France where the book Le Langage des Fleurs, was printed with over 800 floral signs. Many were toned down due to their lusty and risqué nature, but their colors still send a timeless message:

Red = “I love you,” respect, congratulations; a red bud blushes, “You are young and beautiful.”

Yellow = joy, friendship, gladness, jealousy

Pink = “Please believe me,” sweetness; a pink Damask rose symbolizes beauty ever new

White = true love, innocence, reverence; a withered white rose says “You are unimpressionable,” or that the giver pines with despair

Lavender = enchantment, love at first sight; pale colors connote sociability and friendship

Dark Pink = thankfulness

Peach = get together, grateful, sincere

Orange = fascination

Red & white = unity; two roses joined together “tie the knot”

Black (usually a dark dark red) = farewell

Thus, the cherished rose is not merely a symbol of romance. It is the only living legacy capable of evoking universal and undying love.