The Meaning of Roses
By Odesa Begay
Read about the different meanings of roses, one of the world’s oldest and most popular flowers, across literature and world history.
- Full-blown pink rose: Engagement
- Half-blown pink rose: Love
- Japanese rose: Grace
- Pink rosebud: Admiration
- Moss rose: Superior merit
- Moss rosebud: Confession
- Musk rose: Charm
- Red rose: Deep modesty
- White rose: I am worthy of you
- White rosebud: A heart that is ignorant of love
- Yellow rose: The decrease of love on better acquaintance
- York and Lancaster rose: War
The rose is not only the world’s most popular flower, but it also may be one of its oldest. Evidence from the Florissant Fossil Beds in Colorado indicates that the rose is at least thirty-five million years old. The earliest-known written recordings of the flower have been found in the text of Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets dating back some five thousand years. The text describes boiling the flower to produce a fragrant water for some unknown purpose, yet it stresses using only very small quantities due to its preciousness.
In his ancient herbal book De Materia Medica, Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides wrote that roses possessed astringent qualities which only added to the appeal of the many varieties of rose. Additionally, any rose that had a strong scent or a large bloom was highly admired.
In Victorian England, the moss rose was an extremely popular variety in the garden because it grows in a wide array of colors and is relatively easy to cultivate. In fact, some gardening manuals suggest that there are very few ways to kill a moss rose. Introduced to England from the Netherlands during the sixteenth century, the flower’s moss-covered stem intrigued and enchanted gardeners, who were drawn to–and highly valued–its beauty and fragrance. In Henry Phillips’s Floral Emblems, he describes the moss rose as the rose “on which Flora has bestowed so many of her choicest gifts.” Considered at the time to be one of the best examples of what a rose should be, it’s not surprising that the moss rose came to signify “superior merit.” In other words, as a feature in a bouquet, the moss rose might suggest that the admirer considers the recipient to be superior above all others.
In addition to their species and color, roses were thought to have significance based on their stages of bloom. Cited as a resource for helping to craft the rose list in Flora’s Dictionary, The Memoirs of Signor Gaudentio di Lucca was an anonymously published work of fiction often attributed to Bishop George Berkeley, an Irish philosopher during the Age of Reason (1685-1815).
This was an important time in the development of European intellectualism and philosophy that overlapped the onset of the Victorian era and later influenced many Victorian attitudes. In this story, Mezzorama exists as a place described as a utopia. Here, the rose has symbolism depending on the state of its bloom. The rise and progress of love between a lover and his mistress is expressed by a rosebud as it goes from a closed to a fully opened state. First, admiration is expressed with a mostly closed rosebud. After making a closer acquaintance, the half-blown rose is presented. Finally, the full acceptance of love is represented by a full-blown rose, which is considered an engagement for life. In Floral Emblems, Phillips refers to full-blown roses as the “queen” or “pride of Flora.”
Regarding Victorian bouquets, wearing flowers as crowns on the head was considered an out-of-date pagan practice and therefore frowned upon. A flower as a small decoration on the hair or dress however, was a common custom. Roses were a favored decoration for brides and bridal parties, with the bride sometimes being provided with a bouquet consisting only of white roses and camellias.
Today, there are hundreds of species of roses, with thousands of hybrids being developed each year. They continue to be extremely popular gardening plants and are not only frequently included in weddings year-round, but in bouquets for all occasions, whether somber or celebratory. About half of today’s species originate from Asia, with the remaining half divided equally from North America and Europe, although extensive hybridization and crossbreeding makes it nearly impossible to identify their origins in most cases.
On their best side let’s see things:
You complain of seeing thorny roses;
I rejoice and give thanks to the gods
The thorns have roses.
–ALPHONSE KARR Lettres écrites de mon jardin (Letters written from my garden), 1853
The Tudor Rose
The red rose was the emblem for the English royal House of Lancaster, and the white, the emblem of Lancaster’s rival, the House of York. The War of the Roses (1455-1487), civil battle between the two Houses, when Henry VII (of the House of Tudor but fighting for the House of Lancaster), defeated Richard III of the House of York. Later, Henry VII married Elizabeth of York. To symbolize the unification of the houses, Henry created a hybrid from the red and white roses, what we know today as the Tudor rose, an emblem that applies to heraldic use only. In the Victorian language of flowers, the Tudor rose is represented by the red-and-white variegated York and Lancaster rose. Although the Tudor rose was created as a symbol of unity and Wirt believed that its beauty “prettily typified” this peace, she felt that the red-and-white variegated rose brought to mind thoughts of war nonetheless. The Tudor rose is still used in English heraldry to this day, representing England in a more general sense.
With King Henry VIII ascending to the throne upon his father’s death, the Tudor period was well under way. Henry, infamous for the dissolution of six marriages, was a man of great appetites. He liked receiving gifts depicting or relating to roses, especially those made of gold. During the exchange of gifts at the New Year in January 1532, he received from the Earl of Shrewsbury a nine-ounce gold flagon for rosewater and, from Goron Bartinis, a member of the court, a golden ring fashioned like a rose.
It has also been customary for Catholic popes to gift distinguished organizations, people, or members of royal families with golden roses. This is done as a simultaneous token of respect and a symbol of spiritual substance. In 1524, Henry received from a group of ambassadors to Pope Clement VII “a tree forged of fine gold, & wrought with branches, leaus, and floures resembling roses. This tree was set in a pot of gold which had three feet of antique fashion. The pot was of measure halfe a pint, in the uppermost rose was a faire saphire loupe persed, the bignesse of an acorne, the tree was of height halfe an English yard, and a foot in bredth.” A few of these golden roses given by popes still exist today, but what became of Henry’s magnificent tree is unknown.
While trying to impress her lover, Marc Antony, Cleopatra held extravagant festivals for several days when she went to visit him in the ancient Mediterranean city of Cilicia. According to American landscape architect Samuel B. Parsons’s 1908 Parsons on the Rose, on the fourth day of her visit she purchased a “talent worth” of roses, an amount that would roughly equal $1.25 million in modern estimates. She used them to carpet the floor of one of the halls at a depth of eighteen inches. Later in their relationship, when Marc Antony received the false news that Cleopatra had killed herself, he chose to do the same and impaled himself on his sword. As he was dying, he was taken to her and asked her to cover his tomb in roses.
Excerpted with permission from The Language of Flowers: A Fully Illustrated Compendium of Meaning, Literature, and Lore for the Modern Romantic by Odessa Begay (HarperCollins 2020).
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