England's Rose
By Michelle J. Hoppe

England has always been known for its beautiful gardens. Whether it is the soil, the weather or the loving attention of the gardeners, flowers flourish. The best known of these is the rose, for not only is it a part of everyday life in England, it is a symbol of its royalty.

The rose has a history as old as recorded time, and perhaps even longer, as fossils have been discovered in parts of Asia, Europe and America. The rose has been held in the greatest esteem by many cultures because it provided a source of perfume, medicine and aesthetic pleasure for its users.

England, too, has always revered the rose. In Medieval times, the red rose was preferred for gardens and decoration. The favorite was most likely the Rosa gallica, which was introduced into England in the 13th century. It was also known as the apothecary's rose because of its medicinal qualities. The white rose of medieval England was the Rosa alba, or the York rose. The red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York imposed upon one another became the heraldic Tudor rose, which is a symbol for the royal household still today.

By Elizabethan times, roses were grown on a large scale like other crops. Ten thousand pounds of petals were needed to make one pound of oil, or attar, of roses. Because of this, only the wealthiest could afford to make their own attar. Country households made simple rose water and distilled only a small amount of the oil. Rose water was the favorite sweet water amongst Elizabethans, although they also made lavender and orange blossom waters.

Rose water had many functions. It was used as a perfume, was sprinkled on floors and linens, and was used to freshen clothes that couldn't be laundered easily. It was also used in cooking for flavoring. In wealthy households, people rinsed their hands in it after eating.

By the Georgian period, the rose was becoming more and more an ornamental flower. It was used in pleasure gardens, and was often the theme when decorating. Fabrics and porcelain alike depicted the popular cabbage and damask roses.

By the end of the 18th century, many new species were being introduced from China. These plants had more than one flowering period, so they could be easily crossed with other varieties. Roses could now bloom throughout the summer. As a result, the varieties multiplied greatly, growing from approximately 21 species in 1660 to over 500 by 1836.

The popularity of roses during the Regency period can be attributed to the Empress Josephine, Napoleon's wife. During her lifetime, she collected the largest number of different roses ever to be gathered in one place. She also encouraged the breeding of new types, adding to her collection.

City dwellers, without extensive gardens, bought roses. Street-sellers and markets sold the blossoms, sometimes tying them with lavender, hyssop and southernwood. People hung these sweet-scented bundles in cabinets to protect the linens from moths.

The Victorians had a love for all flowers, and the rose was no exception. Many horticultural societies formed in the first half of the nineteenth century, and with them, a growing interest in new hybrids. One of the favorite crossings was to produce a striped effect. The rose was now important enough to warrant its own place in the garden. Trellises and other framings were constructed to train the rambling roses.

Also during the Victorian era, the Language of Flowers developed. It was used to convey messages within the strict confines of society merely by the type and color of flower presented or used. The rose had many meanings depending upon its color and species. Red roses are used to convey passion, pink are for simplicity, white means innocence and yellow depicts jealousy. A rosebud signifies beauty or youth, while a withered rose means fading beauty or rejection of a suitor.

By Edwardian times, the fashion for wearing fresh flowers was universal. It could be a small sprig of violets pinned to a hat, or elaborate swags adorning an evening gown.

Over the centuries, roses were used for a variety of reasons, such as medicinal, cosmetic, and decorative. As a curative, it was used in poultices for boils, in tea for sore throats, and in water for a breath freshener. One could also chew the petals to combat bad breath. For cosmetics, it was used mainly as a fragrance, whether it was in ointments, facial cleansers or hand lotions. The rose was also used in food preparation. It was a popular flavoring for jams, jellies, wine and candy. Dried, roses were used in sachets and pomanders to lend a pleasant aroma to clothing and linens. When drying roses, one should collect them throughout the summer and separate them according to color. Once they have dried completely, they can be mixed with other rose petals.

There are two main types of roses--single blossoms and double blossoms. And from these there are many species-- Damask, Cabbage, Hybrid Tea, Provence, Floribunda, Climbing, etc., each with its own variations of color and shading. They all have one thing in common, however. They all have a trace of perfume, although some are more fragrant than others. They range in size from four inches to the thirty feet spread of a climber along a garden wall, truly impressive. As are all of England's roses. For not only are they a native plant, they are part of England's culture and heritage and will remain forever so.


For more on England's Roses, I suggest the following references:
Period Flowers: Designs for Today Inspired by Centuries of Floral Art by Jane Newdick, 1991 Crown Publishers, Inc.

A Victorian Grimoire by Patricia Telesco, 1994 Llewellyn Publications.

Personal Beauty by D.G. Benton, M.D. and G.H. Napheys, M.D., 1994 Applewood Books, reprinted from an 1870 edition.

Some of these books are available for purchase through our on-line bookstore.

Also see the Researching the Romance page of Literary Liaisons for more suggestions.

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Copyright 1999, M. Hoppe