A hand holding a red rose (c) diego ph

Plant stories: The rose

Roses are the true symbol of romance. It’s the UK’s favourite flower and the most popular flower ordered on valentine’s day. So why are we in love with roses?

History of the rose

Our relationship with the rose is believed to have started around 5,000 years ago, where the first documentation of rose cultivation was recorded in China. The species itself is around 35 million years old, so we were kind of late to the party.

The repeat flowering China rose, rosa chinesis, was introduced by the East India Company in the eighteenth century, to be followed by tea roses (hybrids from the plant nurseries of canton).

The first climbing musk rose R.moschata was originally from the Himalayas and the most intense red rose arrived when R.moyesii was discovered on the Tibetan border.

We can thank the damask rose R.damascena from the Middle East for the first extraction of the perfumed oils we know and love today.

Symbolism of the rose

My first memory of a rose in popular culture was reading Beauty and the Beast as a child. Belle asks her father for a single red rose on his way back from the market – one of my first lessons in understanding the gift of nature.


History has many references to the rose in Eastern poetry, such as the Persian poet Hafiz and Sufi poetry (‘How long is the life of a rose? The bud just smiles’).

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
– Romeo and Juliet

In perhaps the most romantic story of all – Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – Juliet argues that Romeo’s family name of Montague doesn’t matter, famously saying “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.


The rose has been used many times in oil paintings, mainly to symbolise feminism. Perhaps the most striking I’ve seen is Salvador Dali’s 1958 ‘Meditative Rose’. It’s a bit of a departure from his usual surreal and often dark subject matter, instead opting for a giant floating red rose hovering over a couple standing in a meadow.

The Tudor rose

In England the rose has a symbolic meaning from The War of the Roses in 1455- 1487. The House of York had the emblem of the white rose and The House of Lancaster had the emblem of the red rose. Henry Tudor (Lancaster family) was crowned King Henry VII after the battle of Bosworth and soon married Elizabeth of York, which united the two families. He created the Tudor Rose – containing both the white and red flower – to symbolize the end of a 32 year struggle.

How to grow a rose

Roses like to grow in moisture-retentive, fertile, well drained soil. They flower in the Summer, with many species repeat-flowering in Autumn. They love the sun but can cope with the shade (producing flowers).

Prune them annually and encourage new flowers by deadheading the plant. The plant will respond well to mulching and feeding. Take cuttings if you want to grow more.

Discover more…


Peonies and Pomegranates by Celia Fisher

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