Nicola here. Today I’m looking at roses, literally out of my study window and also as a historical symbol. It’s that time of the year in the UK when the rose is in full bloom. It’s a sign of summer and the sight of roses growing around a cottage door (or window) is one of the quintessential images of an English country village.
The rose is also a symbol of a lot of other things: A red rose is for romance, of course, whilst innocence or purity is symbolized by the white rose, friendship with yellow roses and passion with orange. I’m currently writing a book set in the 15th century during the period known now as “The Wars of the Roses” although this term wasn’t coined until the 19th century. The red and white roses were of course said to be the rival emblems of the aristocratic houses of York and Lancaster. In Shakespeare's play Henry VI rival nobles plucked them from bushes in the Temple Gardens, as depicted in this painting by Henry Payne. The different roses are the perfect embodiment of the antagonism each side had for the other, with the thorns and the red for the blood spilled in the conflict.
The rose is an ancient plant. Fossil evidence suggests they could be 35 million years old, and there are now 30 thousand different varieties. Before they were cultivated for commercial use, the wild rose was used for the production of rose oil and rosewater but the growth of roses commercially goes back to at least the Roman period when they were used to fill fountains and swimming baths and rose petal carpets were used to sit on at banquets. A sign of decadence and luxury, they were identified with the goddess of love.
In the Middle Ages the rose was the symbol of the Virgin Mary and in medieval art she is often depicted in a rose garden, a representation of the garden of Eden. Rose windows in cathedrals were an architectural way of displaying this religious iconography along with stone carvings of roses. In courtly love the rose came to represent the beloved, a symbol of earthly love and beauty. Elizabeth I rather cleverly married these two ideas together by taking the flower as her emblem to denote both her chastity and the idea of her being worthy of men's devotion.
The red rose of Lancaster is a Rosa Gallica, also known as Old Red Damask Rose and the Apothecary’s Rose. Even the names are atmospheric! It was possibly the first cultivated rose, originally growing wild in Central Asia. The red rose was adopted as a heraldic symbol by the Earl of Lancaster in the 13th century and together with the White Rose of York formed the famous Tudor Rose symbol that was Henry VII’s classic piece of heraldic propaganda when the two houses were finally united in marriage in 1486. Similarly the white rose of York, known as Rose Alba or Rose Argent, which may have been introduced into Britain by the Romans, became a heraldic symbol in the 14th century as the badge of Edmund of Langley, founder of the House of York.
The rise of a merchant class in the 16th and 17th centuries led to an expansion in the commercial
horticultural trade. This coincided with a time when roses started to be grown from seed rather than propagated from cuttings and hundreds of new rose cultivars were bred. In France the Empress Josephine fuelled the interest in the rose industry by collecting all available roses she could get her hands on and encouraging the breeding and hybridising of new ones at her chateau of Malmaison. The Chinese were also developing new types of roses at this time and around 1750 introduced four new cultivars that became the famous “China roses.”
I remember very vividly as a child the excitement when my grandfather, who was a keen gardener, grew a blue rose. Blue roses are in fact absent in nature and the “Blue Moon” variety he grew was a rather beautiful lilac colour and had only been invented in the 1960s in the year I was born. The blue rose has a special place in folklore; it’s said that the holder of the blue rose will have their wishes granted.
For centuries the rose has been renowned for its medicinal qualities. Rose petals have antiseptic and anti-inflammatory qualities and can help with the treatment of colds and flu. I remember as a child adoring the rosehip syrup I was given and being quite annoyed when my mother told me it was for babies and I was too old to drink it anymore! Rose hips can also be made into jelly, jam and tea, and rose water can be used to flavour sweets such as nougat and Turkish delight. Rose syrup is an ingredient in ice cream and who can forget the rose cream dark chocolates in the old-fashioned flower-flavoured assortments along with violet creams?
Then there is the rose perfume, which is another thing I associate with my grandparents, specifically the scents in my grandmother’s wardrobe, which were lavender and rose. Attar of roses – rose oil – is made by distilling the steam from the crushed petals of roses. For a while rose perfume had a reputation for being old-fashioned but apparently it is now making a comeback as a sexy and exotic fragrance!
Are you a fan of the scent of roses? Do you have a favourite colour of rose or a favourite type? Or are your summer garden flowers something quite different?