The Great History of Roses

The Great History of Roses

“It was roses, roses all the way.”
– Robert Browning

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose; By any other name would smell as sweet.”
– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 scene 2

Roses have a long and colorful history. According to fossil evidence, the rose is 35 million years old. Today, there are over 30,000 varieties of roses and it has the most complicated family tree of any known flower species.

The cultivation of roses most likely began in Asia around 5000 years ago. They have been part of the human experience ever since and mentions of the flower are woven into a great many tales from the ancient world.

And there are so many beautiful stories that include roses through out the ages that we all can recognize.

Greek mythology tells us that it was Aphrodite who gave the rose its name, but it was the goddess of flowers, Chloris, who created it. One day while Chloris was cleaning in the forest she found the lifeless body of a beautiful nymph. To right this wrong Chloris enlisted the help of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who gave her beauty; then called upon Dionysus, the god of wine, who added nectar to give her a sweet scent. When it was their turn the three Graces gave Chloris charm, brightness and joy. Then Zephyr, the West Wind, blew away the clouds so that Apollo, the sun god, could shine and make the flower bloom. And so the Rose was…

In another story, an ancient Hindu legend, Brahma (the creator of the world) and Vishnu (the protector of the world) argued over whether the lotus was more beautiful than the rose. Vishnu backed the rose, while Brahma supported the lotus. But Brahma had never seen a rose before and when he did he immediately recanted. As a reward Brahma created a bride for Vishnu and called her Lakshmi — she was created from 108 large and 1008 small rose petals.

Several thousands of years later, on the other side of the world in Crete , there are Frescoes which date to c. 1700BC illustrating a rose with five-pedaled pink blooms. Discoveries of tombs in Egypt have revealed wreaths made with flowers, with roses among them. The wreath in the tomb of Hawara (discovered by the English archaeologist William Flinders Petrie) dates to about AD 170, and represents the oldest preserved record of a rose species still living.

Roses later became synonymous with the worst excesses of the Roman Empire when the peasants were reduced to growing roses instead of food crops in order to satisfy the demands of their rulers. The emperors filled their swimming baths and fountains with rose-water and sat on carpets of rose petals for their feasts and orgies. Roses were used as confetti at celebrations, for medicinal purposes, and as a source of perfume. Heliogabalus used to enjoy showering his guests with rose petals which tumbled down from the ceiling during the festivities.

During the fifteenth century, the factions fighting to control England used the rose as a symbol. The white rose represented York , and the red rose symbolized Lancaster . Not surprisingly, the conflict between these factions became known as the War of the Roses.

In the seventeenth century roses were in such high demand that roses and rose water were considered as legal tender. In this capacity they were used as barter in the markets as well as for any payments the common people had to make to royalty. Napoleon’s wife Josephine loved roses so much she established an extensive collection at Chateau de Malmaison, an estate seven miles west of Paris . This garden of more than 250 rose varieties became the setting for Pierre Joseph Redoute’s work as a botanical illustrator and it was here Redoute completed his watercolor collection “Les Rose,” which is still considered one of the finest records of botanical illustration.

Cultivated roses weren’t introduced into Europe until the late eighteenth century. These introductions came from China and were repeat bloomers, making them of great interest to hybridizers who no longer had to wait once a year for their roses to bloom.

From this introduction, experts today tend to divide all roses into two groups. There are “old roses” (those cultivated in Europe before 1800) and “modern roses” (those which began to be cultivated in England and France around the turn of the 19th century).

Until the beginning of the 19th century, all roses in Europe were shades of pink or white. Our romantic symbol of the red rose first came from China around 1800. Unusual green roses arrived a few decades later.

Bright yellow roses entered the palette around 1900. It was the Frenchman Joseph Permet-Ducher who is credited with the discovery. After more than 20 years of breeding roses in a search for a hardy yellow variety, he luck changed when one day he simply stumbled across a mutant yellow flower in a field. We have had yellow and orange roses ever since

The rose is a phenomenal plant and is rightly known as ‘the world’s favorite flower’. No other flower has ever experienced the same popularity that the rose has enjoyed in the last fifth years. In temperate climates, roses are more widely grown than any other ornamental plant, and as cut flowers they are forever in fashion.

It has been estimated that 150 million plants are purchased by gardeners worldwide every year, and sophisticated breeding programs have produced a plant that dominates the world’s cut flower market; the annual crop is calculated in tons. Roses have also made a tremendous contribution to the perfume industry.

Roses boast an ancient lineage, and they are intricately entwined in our history and culture.

As a motif, the rose has been and still is depicted in many national emblems. It has been adopted by countless political factions, and even by businesses and several international events.


Rose’s species have a natural distribution through out most parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Paleontologists inform us that they become established in the Tertiary Period, which began 70 million years ago. This means that the ancestors of the rose predate the evolution of humans

Europe and the Middle East – The Dawn of Rose Breeding

Well before the Christian Era, the transportation of useful plants had played an essential part in the expansion of civilizations. The sprawling Roman Empire together with the excursions of Alexander the Great in Asia introduced many species never seen before in the Middle East and Europe . The dog rose ( Rosa canina), for example, was long thought to be a native of Britain , but was in fact brought there by the Romans.

By about AD 1200 the first five groups of domesticated roses had already begun to evolve in cultivation: Albas, Centifolias, Damasks, Gallicas and Scots Roses.

The Far East – the Birthplace of the Modern Garden Rose

Although rose growing enjoured high popularity in the gardens of Europe for many hundreds of years, it was not until the end of the eighteenth century, with the discovery of R. chinensis in China , that a major step forward was achieved. The revolutionary characteristic of this rose is its ability to flower repeatedly from early summer to late autumn.

Some commentators have used the term ‘perpetual flowering’ but this can be misinterpreted and used too literally. ‘Parson’s Pink China’, ‘Slater’s Crimson China’’, Hume’s Blush Tea-scented China’ and Parks’ Yellow Tea-scented China’ – the first cultivated varieties – opened up a new vista of roses with a modern classical shape, a true crimson color with a very pale hint of the early yellows and a repeat –flowering performance. The Far East became the birthplace of the Modern Garden Rose, and the rest is history.

East Meets West

The introduction of roses from the Far East coincided rather neatly with the advent of modern breeding techniques. Although the sexual function of the flower, in particular the function of the anthers and stigma had been revealed in the seventeenth century, this discovery was not used in practical plant breeding for another two hundred years before this time, ‘primitive’ rose breeders would place two distinct varieties in pots together when both were in full bloom; they knew that there was a reasonable chance that the plants would cross-breed and produce seedlings with shared characteristics of the two parents.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, hybridists, primarily French amateurs, began a planned breeding program with very gratifying results. This was quickly followed up with some enthusiasm by rose-growing devotees all around the world. Soon, rose breeding without first planning the parentage became unthinkable.

The subsequent g=progeny produced were identified by groups usually names after their town or country of origin, the hybridist and, in some cases, a wealthy patron. Thus, collective terms such as Bourbons, Noisettes, Hybrid Perpetuals and Portlands came into existence with varying degrees of success. Eventually, the collective term Hybrid Teas was coined; 1867 is the date usually quoted when this modern group became a recognizable entity. Since that time, Hybrid Teas (also known as Large-flowered Roses), have progressed from strength to strength.

The Last Fifty Years

The early 1950s was a decisive time in the history of the rose. Gardening for leisure, rather than for food, became increasingly popular, and this coincided with the release of a new rose variety called ‘Peace’. It is difficult to convey the impact this rose had on gardeners-simply put, everybody was growing it! ‘Peace’ almost single-handedly advanced the popularity of the rose out of all proportion to any other garden plant.

In the last decade there have been many new schools of thought on the role of the rose in the garden. No longer are we subjected to endless formal flowerbeds solely devoted to this single genus. It is not that gardeners have lost their appreciation of these superb blooms, rather it is that they have discovered how wonderful roses can look when grown informally among other plants such as clematis, honeysuckles, delphiniums, lavender, spring bulbs and geraniums.

Although disease still rears its ugly head on certain occasion, the rose has become a much more adaptable plant; varieties are available that can be grown as shrubs, climbers, ground covers or in pots. Nowadays, the rose has a place in every garden, even the smallest back yard, and it is telling that the Patio Rose ‘Sweet Dream’ is one of the best-selling roses today.


As with most plants that have long been closely associated with the history of people, the rose has become deeply ingrained in our culture and beliefs. The Romans, who originally cultivated the rose as a medicinal plant, also used the blooms to enhance their festivities.

The Greeks, however, accepted the rose as a complement to the progress of their culture. Whenever a secret meeting was held, the Greeks used roses to decorate the ceilings of their conference rooms. This indicated that everything discussed was confidential, which is the origin of the phrase sub rosa.

In fifteenth century England , roses were chosen to represent the two rival royal factions: the white rose of the House of York and the red rose of the House of Lancaster. The heraldic Tudor Rose emerged as the emblem of royalty. More recently, roses have been used as motifs to further the aspirations of political parties and national sporting teams.

Evolution of the Rose

Throughout the history of civilization, no other flower has been so immortalized and integrated into daily life as the rose. From poetry to music, from festivities to wars, Mother’s Day to St Valentine’s Day, and birth to death, the rose has held a unique role. There are over 4000 roses listed in this monograph, and they are testimony enough to convince even the ultimate skeptic that roses have a rich tapestry of evolution stretching way back in time. Just how the genus Rosa managed to, and continues to, evolve into one of the world’s favorite flowers is an interesting horticultural puzzle. To fully appreciate the development of roses up to the present day, a brief exploration of the early history of roses before 1800 is needed.

Roses in Antiquity

Fossil remains found on a slate deposit in Colorado indicates that roses estimated 40 million years ago in North America . Other important fossil findings through the Northern Hemisphere have confirmed the very ancient existence of roses growing as far north as Alaska and Norway and as far south as Mexico . No Wild Roses have been found to grow below the equator, although roses now thrive in the Southern Hemisphere thanks to the deliberate intervention of civilization.

Where or when the genus Rosa originated is unknown in spite of the wealth of fossil studies. In theory, the early Wild Roses were most likely cultivated for their hips, which have some nutritional properties, as were their close relatives, the cherries, plums and apples. Most of these early species roses were five-petalled, pink or white with some yellows from China . As civilizations developed trade, accidental crosses of there early species started the evolutionary process as they were grown along side each other.

Mention of roses appeared frequently in the written records of early civilizations, such as those of the Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans. In 500 BC, Confucius wrote about the roses growing in the Imperial Rose Garden of the Chinese Emperor, Who also had an extensive library of books about roses. It is from such writings that we can glean a picture of rose distribution and cultivation.

The oldest rose we can identify today is Rosa gallica , which gives very fragrant flowers of deep pink to crimson followed by brick red, sub-globose or turbine hops. The exact geographical origin of R. gallica is unknown, but there are references to it by the Persians in the twelfth century BC; they regarded it as a strong symbol of love and commitment. The next identifiable rose was the very fragrant R. damasccena, which appeared in descriptive texts around 900 BC. In 50 BC a northern African variant called R. damascena semperflorens, the’Autumn Damask’. Captivated the Romans for its ability to give two bloom cycles instead of just one. Traced back to the fifth century BC, it is believed to have resulted from a cross between R. gallica and T. moschata (the musk rose). Until the discovery and importation of China roses from the Orient in the late eighteenth century, R damascena semperflorens was the only repeat-bloomers known to the Western world.

Another rose of great historical importance was the Alba Rose, ‘White Rose of York’, the emblem of the great House of York during the fifteenth century Wars of the Roses. R. alba is probably a lot older, dating back to as early as the second century AD.

In early European times, the evolution of the rose had reached a well-defined, simple family tree, which had five distinctive Old Garden Rose classiciations: Gallica, Alba, Damask, Centifolia and Moss.

Roses in the New World

Of the 200 species of Wild Roses know worlkdwide, about 35 are considered indigenous to the Unites State , which makes the rose a American as apple pie. The first American species mentioned in European texts was R. virginiana; notable other species are R. Carolina, the ‘Pasture Rose’, R. setigera, the ‘Praire Rose’, R. California, R woodsii and R. palustris, the ‘Swamp Rose’. Several of these are named after their naturally selected habitat. Captain John Smith wrote about the Indians of the James River Valley who planted Wild Roses to adorn their village surroundings. In 1621, Edward Winslow, a founder of the Plymouth Colony, planted lots of fragrant white, red and Damask Roses.

Modern Roses

In 1867, the French breeder Guillot introduced a medium pink variety called ‘La France ’. This variety was considered unique in that it possessed the general habit of a Hygrid Perpetual (Mme Victor Verdier’, its seed parent) as well as the elegantly shaped buds and free-flowering character of a Tea Rose (Mme Bravy’, the pollen parent). Recognition that “La France ’ demonstrated a new group was delayed for almost thirty years of acrimonious discussion in the popular horticultural magazine of the era. Gardener’s Chronicle. Nevertheless, the first Hybrid Tea had been born! Although technical difficulties hindered the direct mimicking of Guillot’s work, practical experience over the following twenty years finally resolved the problems and rapid expansion of the Hybrid Tea class with different colors and foliage took place. Hybrid Teas, now known as Large-flowered Roses, quickly replaced Hybrid Perpetuals in popularity in gardens all over Europe and America . Planned breeding has now developed over 10,000 Hybrid Teas that demonstrate a wide range of color and blends and even stripes!

A striking specimen of a weeping stand form of the Polyantha Rose “The Fairy”.

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