A holy maiden of Bethlehem “blamed with wrong and slandered” was doomed to die by fire. She asked the Lord to help her. The fire was immediately quenched, the burning brands became red roses and the unlit brands white roses. Thus, the rose became the flower of martyrs.
In the language of flowers, it says “love,” “charm” and “grace.” It has been inextricably linked with religious imagery and romantic love. The Virgin Mary’s rose is white, representing her purity. Those associated with love goddesses and courtesans are red, representing quite something else.
Geoffrey Chaucer sets his poem “Parliament of Fowls” on St. Valentine’s Day. In it, Feb. 14 is the day the birds seek their mates. This morphed into our present observance of it as the day when love is celebrated. Today’s rose growers owe a lot to that poem.
Dioscorides, in his great “De Materia Medica” of the first century, offered the rose as a remedy for everything from sore eyes to spitting blood. He included recipes for rose oil, rose wine and even a deodorant pomander that women wore as a necklace.
Nicholas Culpeper, that proponent of astrological gardening, prescribed rose compounds for any number of ailments. He also alleged that each was ruled by a different entity: Red by Jupiter; Damask by Venus; White by the moon; and Centifolia by the King of France.
Roses have a long association with those in power.
We’re well acquainted with the Wars of the Roses: Lancastrians bore the red rose, Yorkists the white. I’m afraid that was all written years after the English Civil War by revisionist spin doctors. Henry Tudor’s emblem was in fact a red dragon, Richard III’s a white boar.
Not only the British have politicized the rose. When Jennifer Potter, author of “The Rose,” visited the White House Rose Garden during George W. Bush’s administration, five of the 10 rose varieties had Republican namesakes: “Pat Nixon,” “Barbara Bush,” “Laura Bush,” “Ronald Reagan” and “Nancy Reagan.”
Those honoring Democrats, “Lady Bird Johnson,” “John F. Kennedy,” and “Rosalyn Carter” among them, had been uprooted. Hmm.
In the 1880s, the Vanderbilts invited guests to a lavish party, delighting them with 50,000 cut roses, some of which cost $1 per stem.
These ancient beauties are not only for the rich, however. The first president of Britain’s National Rose Society asserted that the best blooms are grown by working men and women.
King, slandered maiden, love goddess, president or peasant, it makes no difference. Roses are for all of us.
– A reference librarian, Lisa Karen Miller has been gardening and researching plant lore for many years. Have some plant lore to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.