The rose – a symbol of love and war

Lancaster and York. Left, rosa gallica; right, rosa alba
Lancaster and York. Left, rosa gallica; right, rosa alba

What an odd summer this is turning out to be, with a growing season trailing by three or four weeks.

Hawthorn blossomed late and June’s signature flowers, wild roses, are only now approaching their best.

Roses are associated with June because normally that’s when the wild species flower. The ones we see most often are dog roses, growing in mixed hedges or as thorny bushes. Their delicate, five-petalled flowers are pink or white with golden centres and a fresh, sweet scent.

Until modern rose varieties were developed the annual flush of colour and scent was fleeting, which is perhaps why roses crop up so rarely in our folk customs.

The cult of the rose was strong in Persia, Egypt and Greece, where the custom of strewing roses on graves originated. Romans wore rose garlands at feasts, used petals to scent their baths and presented warriors with wreaths of roses.

Our domestic ceiling “rose” can be traced to the Romans who suspended a real rose over the banqueting table. This signified that anything said there was to remain confidential, or “sub rosa”. In later centuries, ceiling roses carved from wood or moulded in plaster were installed in grand rooms, confessionals and council chambers, where they served the same function.

The Romans’ notorious excesses and the dedications to pagan goddesses of love made roses a symbol of vice, though only for a while. Christians claimed the flower, associating the red rose with the blood of Christ and the white rose with the purity of Mary.

Warring roses

The oldest cultivated rose is rosa gallica, which has single red flowers. It was grown in Roman temple gardens and appears in friezes at Pompeii. Almost as old is rosa alba, whose white, semi-double flowers are still used to produce the perfumed oil, attar of roses.

Because of its many uses, rosa gallica was known as the apothecary’s rose. Medieval herbalists believed it would “comfort the heart and strengthen the stomach”. An infusion of leaves and petals was used to treat sore eyes; we still prize rosewater for its soothing effect on skin.

In the fifteenth century these two old roses became caught up in a bloody struggle for the English throne. The House of York chose rosa alba as its emblem; Lancaster picked the red, rosa gallica.

Eventually the two houses were united by the marriage of Elizabeth of York to Henry Tudor. In a stroke of design genius, their red and white badges were combined to make the Tudor rose, a powerful symbol of unity that remains a royal emblem to this day.

As well as giving their name to a lengthy period of warfare, roses were a source of inspiration to medieval poets. Red roses symbolised love and beauty, a meaning that’s still understood, although it’s considered to be an old-fashioned notion. A bunch of red roses is so last century. And yet, we love to shower newly-weds with real rose petals, just as our ancestors did.