Roses :The Flowers of Romance

Roses by Pierre-Joseph Redoute

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose; by any other name would smell as sweet”
-William Shakespeare.

Flowers speak a language of their own and we use them at various occasions to convey our feelings. A bouquet of red roses oozes love and romance and on Valentine’s Day, the official romantic day of the year, I could not resist but write about this world famous symbol of romance.

Fossil records have shown roses to be around 35 million years old!! This in relation to our own evolution seems quite early. Ancestors of Homo sapiens appeared around 15 million years ago. Cultivation of roses began probably in Chinese gardens around 5000 years ago. Roses gained popularity early on and have been participants in many aspects of our culture and religion. Roses have been found in wreaths of Egyptian tombs, Frescoes of the Minoan culture and in the age old mythological stories of Hindu religion. The Roman Empire was so much taken in by the beauty and fragrance of roses that the peasants were forced to cultivate roses instead of food crops. In the 15th century, rose was used as a symbol by factions fighting to control England. The White rose represented the Yorks and the red rose symbolized the Lancaster. The conflict fittingly came to be known as the “War of Rose”. What a contrast to the present day symbolism of this beautiful flower. Napoleon's wife Josephine was also known for her love of roses. She even established an extensive collection at Chateau de Malmaison which had more than 250 rose varieties. Cultivated roses were introduced to Europe in the late 18th century.

Based on geography, roses are placed in two groups: the European/Mediterranean group with their hybrids and the Oriental groups and their hybrids. The Gallicas, Albas, Damasks, Damask Perpetuals, Centifolias and Mosses are the European roses. The popular Oriental roses include the Chinas and the tea. These along with a few others comprise the roses of the old world. Unlike their European relatives, Oriental roses flowered repeatedly. This gave the hybridizers in Europe a great opportunity to come up with new varieties of roses. Today, we have more than 30, 000 different varieties of roses. The Modern day garden roses comprise a large group and many of these have been developed from the old garden roses. The popular modern day roses include Hybrid Tea, Polyantha, Floribunda, Grandiflora, Miniature, Climbing or rambling, English/David Austin and many landscape roses.

Till the 19th century, European roses were pink and white. The romantic red rose was brought in from China around 1800s. The credit for developing a yellow rose goes to a French rose breeder by the name of Joseph Permet-Ducher who discovered a yellow mutant after 20 years of rose breeding. Now we have a transgenic blue rose producing plant obtained after researchers transferred the delphinidin producing gene from petunias to roses in 2004.

Roses have not only been valued for their beauty but also for their fragrance. Rose perfumes are made from rose oil or attar which is a mixture of essential oils obtained from distillation of crushed rose petals. Mostly the old world roses such as Damask and Centifolia are used by the Perfume industry. The main production of perfumes is in the Rose Valley near Kazanluk in Bulgaria. Highly pure Rose perfumes are generally expensive since very large numbers of rose flowers (around 2000 flowers for a gram of rose oil) are needed to produce the perfume.
Rose belongs to the family Rosaceae which also includes the popular fruits likepears, peaches and apples. Robert Frost has so nicely put this piece of information and his bafflement in these lines:
The rose is a rose
And always was a rose.
But now the theory goes
That the apple’s a rose,
And the pear is, and so’s,
The Plum, I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose?
You, of course, are a rose—
But were always a rose

The botanical Passion flowers (Passiflora) look like this: