The rose is a woody perennial flowering plant of the genus Rosa, in the family Rosaceae. Also known as the “queen of flowers”, it dates back to at least twenty three million years ago.
Most species are native to the area that now corresponds to Southwest China, with smaller numbers native to Europe, North America, and northwestern Africa.
There are over three hundred species, as well as tens of thousands of cultivars. Ornamental roses have been cultivated for millennia, the earliest of which dates back to at least 500 BC. The long cultural history of the rose has led to it often being used as a symbol of love, power, beauty, royalty, sensuality, and opulence by various folk cultures and traditions.
The ancient Egyptians associated roses with the goddess Isis, who not only was a love goddess, but also played a role in helping the dead enter the afterlife.
As the rose would bloom, die, and then bloom again, for the Egyptians it symbolized the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth to the afterlife, which made it a sacred flower. They included rose petals in tombs and during the mummification process.
Some Native American tribes believed that wild roses protected the living from harmful spirits. They also believed roses kept people healthy. Hence, they would put wild roses around babies’ beds to protect them. Additionally, they stitched rose motifs in clothing, blankets, and artwork. The Native Americans also used wild roses, including rose hips, in food and medicine.
In ancient Greece, the rose was closely associated with the goddess Aphrodite, making it a symbol of beauty and passion. It also was associated with secrecy, because in Greek and later Roman mythology, Cupid gave a rose to Harpocrates (the Hellenistic god of silence) so that he would not reveal the secrets of Venus. This gave birth to the term “sub rosa”, which meant “beneath the rose” and was used when something was done in secret. This was inherited in later Christian symbolism, where roses were carved on confessionals to signify that the conversations would remain secret.
During the time of the Roman Empire, the rose came to be so adored that each May a festival known as Rosalia was held. Romans were obsessed with roses, using them in their cuisines, cosmetic products and as ornaments (painting by Alma Tadema titled "The roses of Heliogabalus").
Following the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the rose became identified with the Virgin Mary. It was also used in heraldry, badges, and coats of arms and was employed as a literary subject by many writers such as Shakespeare, whose adage "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" from Romeo and Juliet, is commonly used to state that the names of things do not affect what they really are; and William Blake, who wrote the poem The Sick Rose, about how intense experience preys upon unpolluted innocence.
In the Rococo era, roses became a fashion statement in the French court, led by Madame Pompadour, Louis XV’s official mistress (as seen in this portrait by Francois Boucher).
Roses remained a popular subject for painters through the nineteenth century, both as the subject of still-life compositions (an example being Van Gogh’s A Vase of Roses) as well as part of a revival and idealization of the Ancient past and its luscious opulence. The rose's popularity continued to endure through the twentieth century, being an inspiration to dance artists like Vaslav Nijinsky, and painters like Georgia O'keeffe (pictured below) and Salvador Dalí (cover image).
The rose is the national flower of the U.S. and was designated as the official state flower of New York in 1955, and it continues to be a powerful symbol of romance, love, beauty, and courage all around the world.