The history and symbolism of the timeless rose

Of all the beautiful blooms in the world, the beloved rose has a more intimate relationship with the human race than any other. Archaeological finds confirm roses are among the earliest flowers to bloom on Earth, having first appeared in Asia before spreading wild across the entire Northern Hemisphere. “According to fossil evidence, roses are 35 million years old,” says Sharon McGukin, former president of the American Institute of Floral Designers and a floral décor specialist. “About 5,000 years ago, roses began to be cultivated in gardens, probably in China.”

By 500 B.C., hundreds of books about the flower were being kept in the emperor’s library, according to Chinese philosopher Confucius. Imperial love for the flower grew steadily and eventually reached near-dangerous levels. Due to the rose breeding habits of Han dynasty emperors, the blooms overtook so much of the nation’s arable land (as well as its water supply) that the country began to experience food shortages.

“Roses were also grown extensively in the Middle East during Roman times,” Sharon says. Egyptian queen Cleopatra was a known fancier of roses, using them in her attempt to romance (successfully, we might add) Roman general Mark Antony. Before visits from Antony, all fountains around Cleopatra’s palace were to be fully refreshed with rose water, and the queen’s personal chambers were to be filled ankle deep with rose petals.

Over a millennium later, a young playwright by the name of William Shakespeare penned the line “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Taken from his classic play Romeo and Juliet, the line is spoken by Juliet to remind Romeo that despite the two of them being members of opposing houses of rule, their love remains genuine and true. In 1485, Henry VII declared roses to be England’s national flower, and almost exactly 500 years later, President Ronald Reagan followed suit, naming the rose the national floral emblem of the U.S. during a press conference in — where else? — the White House Rose Garden.

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