Roses in Amy Corwin's gardenWhen I started growing roses fifteen years ago, I quickly became fascinated by Old Garden Roses. These older varieties seemed nearly perfect to me since they did not need all the chemicals and sprays modern Hybrid Teas require, and they are more suited to organic gardening. As I began to collect different varieties, I stumbled upon a rich pink rose called Autumn Damask. It’s deep fragrance and sumptuous quartered blooms were gorgeous. I fell in love with this hardy rose and it led me to discover just how much of our history is intertwined with roses, and oddly enough, where the phrase, “sub rosa” came from.

Since ancient times, roses were used among Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and others in their religious, public, and even their private lives. Ancient scholars like Theophrastus and Pliny wrote treatises about roses and the entire fourth chapter of Pliny’s 20th book on Natural History is devoted to the rose. No other flower receives such favored treatment.

What fascinated me most as I explored the history of roses was the possibility that my favorite rose, the Autumn Damask, may have been one of the roses Pliny wrote about. Both Virgil and Pliny referred to the roses of Paestum and described this rose variety as blooming semi-annually when most roses, particularly European varieties, only bloomed once a year. While some historians believe this variety of rose died out, others say it may be, or may be related to, the Autumn Damask rose still grown today in many gardens like mine. It is incredible to think that the luscious pink rose growing in my backyard may be related to the same roses beloved by Pliny and Virgil!

Quatre SaisonsAnd rose gardening really hasn’t changed all that much since Pliny enjoyed his roses of Paestum. Although the older roses were limited to a few spring/summer blooming varieties, they had a lot of tricks we still use today to get them to bloom off season.  Pliny wrote that in Carthage, Spain, the roses could be forced to bloom in the winter, and then the roses of Campania bloomed next, followed by those of Malta and lastly Paestum, which flowered in the spring and again in the fall.  This last species may be the one used by the gardeners in Rome during Seneca’s time to force in warm-greenhouses, or to retard blooming by withholding water at certain periods.

Roman greenhouses were heated by pipes filled with hot water and this technique allowed them to get their winter’s supply of roses locally instead of importing them from Egypt.  During the reign of Domitian, this process for forcing roses in winter was so successful that they looked down with scorn on anyone who continued to import roses from Egypt.

Such techniques allow the production of rose blooms year-around, and these blooms were used for as many purposes by our ancestors. Romans used them to surround the urns containing the ashes of the dead, similar to our use of roses at the graveside to remember our loved ones. In addition to religious uses, roses were important for social occasions, as well, just like we use them today when our beloved gives us a bouquet of red roses. In Rome, there is even a special feast held each year on May 23 to celebrate the rose, called Rosalia.

But Romans didn’t restrict their celebrations to that one day. Almost every social occasion demanded some of these exquisite flowers. Nero once spent more than four million sesterces, or one hundred thousand dollars (probably more now, due to inflation) in roses alone for one fete.  The roses were used to wreath crowns, for garlands, and to cover the tables, couches and the ground. Now that must have been a party to remember!

Some even took their love of roses a little too far. Heliogabalus used so many rose petals at his banquet that some of his guests smothered to death on their couches. Can you imagine suffocating on rose petals? I suppose there were worse ways to go…

In addition to simply lavishing rose petals around, some folks devised even more creative ways to use the flowers. Lucius Aurelius Verus had a couch made with four cushions consisting of very fine net filled with rose petals. I’d love to be able to grow enough roses to make cushions from the blooms to sit on during the summer. I can’t imagine anything more fragrantly luxurious.

Finally, as I was reading about the ancient roots of my favorite flower, I discovered the origin of the phrase “sub rosa” or literally “beneath the rose.” It seems that a rose suspended over a Roman banqueting couch (such as Heliogabalus’s rose-filled ones) indicated to guests that any conversation held there was confidential. The use of a suspended rose to ensure privacy was maintained well into the Middle Ages.

Isn’t it too bad that we haven’t kept that tradition? It would be so lovely if diplomats and businesses still hung roses over their tables and desks when they wished to discuss confidentialThe Necklace by Amy Corwin matters. It seems so much more civilized, and definitely more tasteful, than Maxwell Smart’s “cone of silence.”

This is only a small sample of how roses have enriched both our lives and the lives of our ancestors. I hope you enjoyed reading a tiny part of this lovely flower’s history, and I hope you’ll share stories about your favorite roses with us.

The Necklace by Amy Corwin

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