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Rose Bush

How Roses Became The Most Popular Flower in History

Just how did roses become so popular?

Roses. Rows and rows of roses are what you’re often met with when you enter most flower shops or floral departments. One of the most popular cut flowers in the floral industry, over the years, the fragrant, multi-petaled flower has become the popular choice for a wide variety of celebrations and cultural practices around the world. 

Roses of different colours mean different things, and roses are still the most popular choice for expressing affection for another human being. But where do roses come from? How did they rise to such fame in the floral trade? Why roses? Why not carnations (which are as pretty and more affordable)? 

This piece started out as a search to answer a simple question. Where do our roses come from? But we learned so much more.

Rose Bush

Roses are as old as civilization itself

Let’s start with two questions. Where do roses come from? And how did they become so darn popular? Well, documents show roses as on-trend as far back as 2000 BC, in what’s now recognized as Iraq. 

The Chinese started cultivating them in 500 BC and further studies show them being used in Rome and all over Europe. Roses were so popular you could even use them as legal currency in trade. Roses have been used in medicine, beauty products, perfume and decor for thousands of years. So it’s reasonable to say they’ve been working on their popularity with humans longer than any other flower in existence.

Roses in North America

Our North American love affair with roses derives from a European influence, when they crossed the sea and began the colonization of this continent. Europeans brought their traditions with them, which included the popularity of roses and rose gardens among the elite. 

The oldest public formal rose garden in North America is in Hartford, Connecticut, created in 1904 by Theodore Wirth. He envisioned eight large archways, each overflowing with a different rose variety. Drawing his inspiration from Italy and France, Wirth used their traditional rose gardens as a guide for his creation. Over one hundred years later, the eight archways still bloom every June. 

In Canada, the two oldest public rose displays are the rose gardens at The Butchart Gardens in Victoria, BC and in Stanley Park, in Vancouver, BC.

Rose Garden

Why are red roses a symbol of love?

The rose’s popularity for being a symbol of romance and passion has ancient roots. Nearly every culture and religion in the world associates the red rose with love, passion, and longing. Today we don’t think too deeply about why we associate roses with true love, but there’s a long list of myths and legends that brought about this common cultural practice. 

One such myth is that of Aphrodite, the ever-famous goddess of love. In Greek mythology, red roses grew from Aphrodite’s tears and the blood of her mortal lover Adonis, when he died in her arms. In another version, she pricks her foot on a white rose while rushing to Adonis’s side after a wild boar maimed him when hunting. The rose turns red from the blood, and becomes the first red rose to ever grow, remaining a symbol of Aphrodite’s love for Adonis. 

The myth of Aphrodite and the red rose is one of the flower’s most well-known myths. It’s also one of the clearest ties between our dear red rose and its significance in our floral industry today.

Aphrodite and Adonis sculpture

Roses Today

There are now 300 species of roses and 30,000 rose varieties in the world. Long-stemmed roses are the most common variety sold in florist shops, especially on Valentine’s Day. They’re a hybrid tea variety and while you can try to grow them in your garden, hybrid tea roses are renowned for being quite finicky. 

If there’s one country that can say it’s mastered the art of growing roses, it may surprise you to learn it’s Ecuador. While we often picture bountiful English gardens filled with rose bushes, Ecuador has perfected the practice of growing flowers. They are the third largest producer of cut flowers and 75% of those flowers are roses. 

Ecuador is a huge player in the floral trade. This is amazing, as the country hasn’t been in the game for very long — just since the 90s. Ecuador’s roses are recognized as some of the highest quality in the world. Florists prefer them over other roses because of their larger size, scent, and longevity (arrangements of Ecuadorean roses will last up to two weeks with proper care). 

What’s Ecuador’s secret? Well, unfortunately, it’s not one we can replicate at home. The country’s growing areas receive long hours of sunlight, thanks to their position at the equator, and the very high altitude at which they grow their roses are two major factors in producing such exquisite blooms. Most of Ecuador’s roses are grown at 2,800 to 3,000 metres above sea level in the Andes mountains. As a result, the roses take longer to grow, and this produces longer stems and healthier flowers. 

So, unless you live on a very tall mountain in South America, you may find it difficult to replicate the roses we see for sale in stores today.

White Roses
Pink Roses

Grow your own!

What types of roses can you grow at home, then? As with any plant, that will depend on your unique environment. 

If you live in Canada or somewhere in the more northern reaches of America, you’ll want to source varieties that are hardy and resilient. Climbing roses and shrub roses are easy bets, as they don’t need extensive care and will tolerate some neglect. 

Damask roses are very popular, for their very strong fragrance and easy-going care needs. Known as “old world roses”, they’ve been grown for as long as roses have been cultivated. 

Wild Nootka roses are a personal favourite of mine. They grow all over Vancouver Island and the southern gulf islands and start blooming in late May, continuing to bloom throughout early summer. They have a strong but delicate rose scent and very pretty five-petaled light pink flowers. The petals and the resulting rose hips are both edible and, when gathered and prepared correctly, can be quite delicious. In fact, if you ever get the chance to try rose flavoured gelato, I recommend it!

Portulaca Moss Rose
yellow petaled flower by elias sorey unsplash

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