One Sunny June afternoon several years ago, I stood on a Wicklow cliff overlooking the Irish Sea. All around me, mounds of wild roses covered the ground. No genetically crafted sterile blooms were these. Each delicate flower — and there were hundreds upon hundreds crowding the canes that tumbled in every direction — had but a few scarlet petals surrounding a central golden pompom. Dust motes danced on slanted sunbeams, a heady rose scent suffused the air, and I understood why the rose is called The Queen of Flowers.
The adage “A rose is a rose is a rose” implies that a thing is what it is — no little, no more. Whoever first made the statement would have been wiser to reference some other flower. A peony perhaps. Peonies, beautiful as they may be, are simply flowers. But a rose? Certainly roses are flowers, but they’re also symbols of emotion, emblems of distinction, allegories for secrecy, sources of perfume, origins of devotional objects, and, last but not least, food.
Roses are scattered like rabies through history. A Greek myth tells how the rose acquired its most unusual color. When the goddess Aphrodite pricked herself on a thorn while ministering to her mortal lover Adonis who had been mauled by a lion, droplets of her blood fell on rose petals, turning them forever red. Frescoes with rose images and architectural decorations modeled on roses dating from 1600 B.C. have been found on the Mediterranean isle of Crete and in the ruins of Assyrian and Babylonian temples dedicated to the love goddesses Innana and Astarte. Six-thousand-year-old coins imprinted with rose motifs have been discovered in Asian archaeological digs.
While early civilizations glorified the divine nature of roses, the Romans found real uses for the flower. Cleopatra carpeted her bedchamber with rose petals so that Marc Antony’s footsteps would perfume the air as he rushed to embrace her. That may be only legend, but roses played significant roles at Roman weddings, funerals, and military ceremonies, symbolizing love, the afterlife, and battlefield valor.
In Roman mythology Cupid bribed Harpocrates, the god of silence, with a rose to keep him from divulging Venus’ love affairs. When Roman officials met in council, a rose suspended from the ceiling indicated that the discussion was confidential. Such meetings were termed sub rosa (under the rose), a phrase still used to connote secrecy. Even now, ornate plaster rose medallions are affixed to the center of government office ceilings.
The Romans did not just use roses symbolically. Physicians added roses to medicinal concoctions, cooks transformed roses into edible treats, and roses figured prominently at feasts. Wealthy Romans freshened their homes with bowls of rose petals, bathed in rosewater, dabbed on rose oil perfume, quaffed rose wine, nibbled rose sweetmeats, and attended parties where they wore rose crowns and reclined on strewn rose petals. Some hosts showered guests with rose petals from overhead nets.
When Rome fell, the Christian Church condemned the rose’s association with debauchery and strove to turn the faithful against the flower. But the effort was pointless. People refused to reject the Queen of Flowers. Red roses became symbols for martyrs, and the white rose honored the Virgin Mary.
During the Dark Ages, monks prized the flower for its medicinal value, and by the Middle Ages, roses had won a place in religious architecture. Stained glass windows fashioned to resemble roses were installed in cathedrals across Europe. Even today at the Cathedral of Chartres, France, the great sunlit Rose Window illuminates the altar in shades of red symbolizing the blood Christ shed.
Like the monks, medieval nuns used roses as medicines, but they also found another use for the blossoms. Rose petals were crushed, cooked into a paste, fashioned into beads, and strung on cords. Strings of rose beads simplified counting prayers and when warmed by handling released their perfume into the air. The beads became known as `rosaries.’ Carmelite nuns still fashion rose bead rosaries to order; often the petals come from spent blossoms displayed at weddings and funerals. Less devotional women wore rose bead necklaces that supposedly remained scented for decades.
In Ireland, the rose has long been associated with fairies, the sprites that spirit mortals away to the mythical land of Tír Na Óg. According to W. B. Yeats (Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, 1893), fairies celebrated three festivals during the year: Samhain when they mourned the coming of winter, Bealtaine when they welcomed spring, and Midsummer when they were gayest and danced from dusk to dawn under the light of the moon. “Everything is capricious about them. Their chief occupations are feasting, fighting, making love and playing the most beautiful music,” wrote Yeats.
Despite their trickery and the caution mortals must use when dealing with them, having benevolent fairies living in one’s garden is considered good luck, and Irish gardeners plant stands of flowers to entice the sprites to take up residence. Chief among the plantings is the royal rose, which fairies favor for its sweet perfume, fashioning rose crowns for wearing and rose garlands to drape about their horses and chariots.
As Celtic myths merged with Christian teachings, May became the month to honor the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, who is called the Mystic Rose. May altars or shrines are put up in Irish homes to this day, and decorated with roses, both white and red, the former connoting the Queen of Heaven’s purity and the latter the Passion of her Divine Son.
Through the ages, inventive Irish cooks have devised numerous uses for roses. Fresh fruit splashed with rose-steeped white vinegar. Custards and cakes flavored with rosewater and decorated with candied rose petals. Punches with ice rings containing whole blossoms of the tiny Fairy Rose. Rose-scented sugar and honey. Rosehip syrup, rose wine, and sorbet. Teas, jellies, marmalades, conserves and tonics are made with rose hips, which contain 25 times more Vitamin C than citrus fruits.
Roses used in cooking should only come from organic gardens that have never been sprayed with insecticides. As commercial growers rarely sell untreated roses, it’s best to plant several varieties in your garden or patio containers. Nothing celebrates the coming of summer more sweetly than roses, and with your own organic blossoms you can enjoy the same treats preferred by the Fairie Host. Sláinte!
NOTE: The Texas Rose Rustlers is a group of rose enthusiasts who search for specimens of perfumed “old roses” in older communities. The website www.texas-rose-rustlers.com offers valuable cultivating information plus opportunities to trade with other rose lovers. ♦