Why Are Roses the Most Famous Flower?

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June 5 2013 3:28 PM

Why Are Roses the Most Famous Flower?

We could just as easily have a White House Petunia Garden, right?

President Obama speaks about immigration from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington June 15, 2012.
President Obama speaks about immigration from the White House Rose Garden on June 15, 2012.

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President Obama took the unusual step of holding a formal event in the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday to announce three nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Roses are by far the most culturally significant flower in the West. Shakespeare wrote about the sweet smell of roses; we dream of sleeping in beds of roses; and we stop to smell the roses. Why are roses so much more famous than other flowers?

Because of their symbolic versatility. Roses have been so celebrated for so long—the Minoans grew and painted roses in the Bronze Age—that it’s difficult to pinpoint the source of their popularity. One possible explanation is that roses represent all things to all people. They represent virginity, and particularly the Virgin Mary. Medieval brides and grooms wore crowns of roses to represent their purity. In England, roses were laid on the graves of virgins. But roses also represent passion and romance: Lovers exchange roses as a prelude to intimacy. Roses symbolize suffering: Christian iconography uses the red rose as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s bodily suffering, as well as the blood of other saints such as Alban. Yet roses also symbolize the peace that awaits people in the next world. Old Christian texts describe paradise as strewn with roses.

Our ability to attribute so many meanings to a simple flower may come down to simple aesthetics. Writers from Sappho to Michael Pollan have waxed lyrical over the delicate blossoms. English writer Sarah Coles, commenting on the rose in a Renaissance painting, noted, “The symmetry of the rose’s circular pattern, enclosed yet expanding from the central boss through the ray of stamens to overlapping petals which reach outwards in waves which could embrace infinity, is a microcosm of the universe.”

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Roses do not feature in the Bible, even though wild roses did grow in the ancient Near East. The few mentions of roses in the King James Bible, such as “the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose,” are probably mistranslations. (Some newer translations replace “rose” with the less poetic but more accurate “crocus.”) Early Christians did not favor the use of flowers, incense, and statues in rituals. It wasn’t until half a century after Christ’s death that flowers came back into Western religious practice. At that time, there were competitors to the rose. In early medieval writings, lilies are mentioned almost as often as roses. It’s not clear why the popularity of the lily took a backseat to the surging rose.

Some cultures have myths explaining exactly how the rose earned its place at the top. According to a Persian poem, the lotus was the original queen of flowers, but it made the mistake of sleeping during the night. When the other flowers complained to Allah, he named the white rose queen. A Hindu legend has it that Vishnu had to convince Brahma of the rose’s superiority to the lotus. As a reward for changing his mind, Brahma created a bride for Vishnu out of hundreds of rose petals.

The rose’s rise to prominence at the White House isn’t quite so symbolically rich. During the 19th century, the building had a glass conservatory in which gardeners grew many different kinds of flowers, as well as fruit. (On the morning of his assassination, Abraham Lincoln picked lemons from the conservatory to give to visitors, but he confessed to having little interest in flowers.) When the conservatory was removed in 1902, Edith Roosevelt had a garden constructed. Amateur landscape architect Ellen Axson Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson, had the colonial garden converted to a dedicated rose garden in 1913.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.