Rose Rosa

Roses, the world’s most popular flower, come in just about every color imaginable and express a vast range of emotions. Gardeners obsess over them and even gas stations sell them. Break out the rose-colored reading glasses for a crash course in this iconic bloom.

“I’d rather have roses on my table than diamonds on my neck.”

— Emma Goldman

The Meanings of Roses

Roses are red, violets are blue? Not quite. Roses are also white, pink, cream, peach, purple, yellow, orange, black… wait, black? Yes, even black. 

There are entire books about the meanings of different roses, and what signals romance in one culture conveys sympathy in another. Consider this just a tasting course of centuries of symbolism.

Rose Meanings By Color

Red roses are the quintessential symbol of love. (Come on, millions of tattoos can’t be wrong.) They may be a bit of a cliché, but we’ve never met anyone who would turn down a gift of a red rose when it’s given by someone who makes their heart go pitter-pat.

White roses are for “a heart unacquainted with love,” according to Victorian lore. Whether that means the purity and innocence of youth, or the loneliness of a cold, icy heart is up to you to decide.

Red and white roses in a single bouquet signify unity, a nod to the emblems of the House of Lancaster and House of York. After a generation of civil war, the two families made peace through marriage and their emblems joined to become the Tudor Rose, a herald of England to this day.

There aren’t many situations that pink roses don’t fit. They can express everything from gratitude to admiration to encouragement to sympathy. Mix and match to your heart’s content.

The palest pink rose shows gentleness and poise. It’s also a touching way to express sympathy.

Light pink roses are all about joy and happiness. Think sugar and spice, bubble gum and cotton candy, young love and first kisses. Light pink roses are drama-free love, best friend love, “love ya like a sister” love. 

Want to congratulate someone? You can’t go wrong with bright pink roses. They’re a welcome pick-me-up for someone who isn’t feeling well, or for yourself when you’re in One of Those Moods. We also love them for a “thinking of you” bouquet—like Mother’s Day for a friend whose mom has passed away.

 

Say thank you with deep pink roses. These are a heartfelt way to express gratitude. Cream-colored roses are associated with thoughtfulness. Blushing peach roses say “modesty.” And salmon-colored roses say “desire.” [1]

Cream-colored roses are associated with thoughtfulness. 

Blushing peach roses say “modesty.” 

And salmon-colored roses say “desire.” [1]

Are we going too fast? Don’t worry, there’s no quiz at the end! Now, on to some of the more intriguing hues…

Want to say something a little magical? Purple roses express a sense of mystery and mysticism, perfect for that friend who is always consulting her astrological charts before making a move.

Yellow roses aren’t hard to come by, but you may want to think twice before including them in a bouquet. Victorians believed they signaled infidelity. That might have to do with a story about the prophet Mohammed who feared that his wife Aisha had been unfaithful. On the advice of the angel Gabriel, Mohammed told Aisha to drop her welcome-home gift of red roses into the river. If they changed color it would mean she had been untrue. Sure enough, the red washed out and left the blooms a pale yellow. Mohammed forgave Aisha, but yellow roses still have a tinge of deceit about them. Be careful who you give them to. [2]

Are you in the throes of a new crush? Quit stalking their Instagram account and send them some orange roses. They signal fascination and intrigue. (Then check Instagram right away. Why haven’t they posted a photo of the bouquet yet? Argh!)

There aren’t many natural varieties of green roses, but if you can find some of the pale cultivars such as Wimbledon or Green Tea, you can use them to send a message of growth, prosperity, and abundance… or one of envy.

Black roses are a bit of a cheat. Natural black flowers are actually a super dark, vamp-tastic purple. Truly black flowers have been artificially treated. Still, they’re incredibly dramatic and, like the color black in general, they can signal death and danger or sophistication and glamor.

And finally, the most elusive rose of all, the blue rose. In the words of ecologist Stephen Buchmann, these are “more unicorn than flower.” They don’t exist in nature because no species of rose has the right genes to produce blue pigment. Therefore, Buchmann writes, they’re “symbols of unrequited love, or a quest for the impossible.” You can find dyed blue roses at floral shops and you certainly shouldn’t hesitate to include them in a bouquet if the sentiment is right. Just know that they’ve had a little help from a creative florist.

The History of the Rose

Fossils tell us that roses have existed as long as 35 million years ago, and they’ve been cultivated around the world for at least 5,000 years. Today almost all of the 1.5 billion roses that are bought in the US each year come from Colombia or Ecuador. [3]

There are tea roses from China, Bourbon roses from France, and of course there’s the American Beauty variety. It’s the official flower of the District of Columbia as well as the name of a Grateful Dead album and an Academy Award–winning movie. 

Rose is the birth month flower of June, but its sales really peak in the US around Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.

The Rose Parade is an American New Year’s Day tradition in Pasadena, California. Since 1890, organizations have decorated themed parade floats using hundreds of thousands of roses. 

If that sounds excessive, the Romans have it beat. Legend tells that the emperor Nero would rain down tons of rose petals during banquets. Cleopatra is rumored to have wooed the Roman general Mark Antony in part by filling her palace with rose petals and announcing her arrival by ship with sails soaked in fragrant rose water.

As Cleopatra knew, roses are used for far more than just decoration. Rose hip tea is a great source of vitamin C. Rose water is an essential ingredient in lots of Middle Eastern pastries like baklava and halva. Rose oil is a crucial ingredient in some of the most lux fragrances in the world, from brands like Dior, Balenciaga, and Prada.

The unforgettable scent of roses is due to the fact that each flower might produce dozens of unique scent molecules, says ecologist Stephen Buchmann in his book, The Reason for Flowers. But rose breeders tend to focus on developing new colors or increasing bloom longevity, not creating new fragrance combinations, and so there are also completely unscented roses like the Leonidas.

From the early 20th-century standard, “My Wild Irish Rose” to Bon Jovi’s ballad “Bed of Roses,” there are almost as many rose-related songs as there are varieties of the flower. For melancholy country fans there’s George Jackson’s “A Good Year for the Roses” and for the melancholy metal head there’s Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”

Bobby Darin’s 1962 hit “Eighteen Yellow Roses” sounds like it might be the exception to the idea that roses represent infidelity, but listen closely to the lyrics. In the song, a father intercepts a flower delivery for his daughter from a boy whose note reads, “Though you belong to another I love you anyway.” Hmm… sounds like some romance was happening sub rosa.

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DID YOU KNOW?

Rose Fun Fact

The world’s oldest living rose is believed to be 1,000 years old. It grows on the wall of the Cathedral of Hildesheim in Germany and its presence is documented since A.D. 815. According to the legend, the rosebush symbolizes the prosperity of the city of Hildesheim; as long as it flourishes, Hildesheim will not decline. In 1945 allied bombers destroyed the cathedral, yet the bush survived. Its roots remained intact beneath the debris, and soon the bush was growing strong again. [4]

Biology of Roses

There are a couple hundred different varieties of roses and thousands of cultivars, from shrub roses to miniature roses to dwarf roses to ground-cover roses. Botanists are developing new types of roses all the time, chasing fuller, longer-lasting blooms in ever more striking hues.

Honestly, we’re kind of unsure where to even start talking about the biology of roses because there’s so much to say! So let’s focus on the hybrid tea rose, the world’s most popular variety in gardens and florist shops alike. There are still dozens and dozens of types of hybrid tea roses, but they share a lot of common characteristics.

Hybrid tea roses are a type of bush rose that develops single blooms on strong stems. They’re available in every color but black and blue, and they usually have that distinctive fragrance that makes roses so valuable in cosmetics and perfumes. 

They bloom over and over throughout peak season, so they’re great options for a cutting garden. Just be sure to pick a version that works well with your USDA plant hardiness zone and humidity levels.

One of the reasons hybrid tea roses are so popular is because of their long stems. But one of the reasons they’re not the most gorgeous shrub in the garden is because of their long stems. They can look kind of gawky, if we’re being honest. We’re not here to judge, but low-growing, super leafy plants will camouflage leggy rose bushes. 

Rose enthusiasts have a reputation for fussiness, and there’s some truth to the stereotype. If you’re the kind of person who likes to experiment and geek out about things like soil pH, propagation techniques, and winterizing strategies, you’ll have a hobby to keep you happy for years and plenty of fellow gardeners to talk shop with. 

If you want beautiful blooms with minimal fuss (um, sounds good to us!), chances are that a botanist somewhere has developed a hybrid rose for you, too. 

Talk to an expert at your local nursery or extension service before you get started. They’ll know what hybrids have the best shot at success in your climate and on your property. Just be honest about how much time and effort you’re willing to put into this project. Not everyone has a green thumb, and for us, there are florists.

And remember, one of the reasons that roses have such a long history and a vast vocabulary of meanings is because they take time, attention, and care to thrive. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince, “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” 

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DID YOU KNOW?

Rose Fun Fact

Do roses smell as sweet in outer space? In 2002, the mini rose “Overnight Scentsacion” spent ten days on the space shuttle Discovery, where researchers analyzed the effect of zero gravity on fragrance. The results of their molecular testing were used in the Shiseido perfume called Zen.

How to Care for Roses

There’s no big secret to keeping cut roses fresh, even for as long as two weeks. In fact, the roses you picked up might have been cut in Central America two months ago and stored in a temperature-controlled environment until they were shipped to the States.

Once you bring your roses home, remove leaves that would be below the waterline of your vase or container. Have the vase ready with a mixture of room temperature water and a packet of floral preservative. Use sharp pruners to cut the stems at an angle; scissors can mash the woody stems and make it hard for them to take up water. Even if your plan is to use the roses in an arrangement with other flowers, it’s good to keep them hydrated while you work.

If your roses have thick outside petals (florists call this the shipping leaf or guard petals because they protect the delicate inner petals), you can carefully take those off.

Some florists swear by a one-to-one mixture of Sprite or 7-Up and water to increase longevity. Some say you should add a couple of drops of bleach to the water. Some say that both of these tips are totally bunk. See what your own florist advises, or experiment until you figure out what seems to work best for you.

Some fruits and veggies give off ethylene gas as they ripen, and some are sensitive to ethylene. (That’s why you should keep ethylene producers like bananas and stone fruits away from ethylene-sensitive fruits like apples and potatoes.) Most flowers do best when kept away from ethylene producers, so banish the fruit bowl to a different corner of the house! 

If you have room in the fridge, or even a garage or basement that’s a few degrees cooler than your home, store them there overnight. That should help keep your roses looking fab for a few extra days. [5]

Beyond that, the usual advice about keeping cut flowers fresh applies to roses too: change the water and recut the stems every other day, and keep your roses away from direct sunlight will fade and dry out the blooms. 

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When to Give Roses as a Gift

The only good days to give roses are days that end in Y.  We don’t mean to be unhelpful, but the truth is that there is no bad occasion for roses! 

Red for romance, pink for friendship and gratitude, orange for “OMG I <3 U,” or yellow for “OMG we’re through.” Purple or black when you’re feeling dramatic; white when you’re feeling carefree. Rose petals in a flower girl’s basket at a wedding or tracing a path to a candlelit bedroom and a bottle of champagne. 

They’re a traditional 15th wedding anniversary gift, along with crystal. You can’t find a more no-brainer anniversary present than a huge bouquet of roses in a gorgeous crystal vase.

There’s no limit to the sentiments you can share with roses.

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