The rose is a rose

The rose has been declared 2012’s Herb of the Year, by the International Herb Association. It meets all 3 criteria to deserve the title: Culinary, medicinal and ornamental.

Roses from my garden - yellow represents friendship or jealousy

With Valentine’s Day approaching, the ultimate representation of love – the rose will reign in full glory.  Come next week, some entrepreneurial students will be having a roaring s business of roses.


But why the rose? Not carnation? Or orchid or lilies?

Earl Lu's roses on rice-paper

My other noteworthy memory of the rose is when a colleague commissioned the late Dr Earl Lu to paint 100 roses, oriental calligraphy style  for each lovely day he was married to his wife Z.  How romantic. Roses forever.

My Earl Lu painting on rice paper, on the other hand, arrived in Taipei, in a thousand folds, to fit a tiny envelope.  Framed, L opined, it reminded him of bedsheets. I’m curious why Dr Lu chose roses as his signature touch.

The closest I’ve come to receive flowers from L were paintings of flowers by a 90 year old lady in India of the “Flame of the Forest”.

Otherwise, I’ve no personal encounter with roses.

It was on this note, to make up for lost “romantic” time, we planted some roses in the garden.   Truth be told, romance had nothing to do with it.  But the curiosity on whether roses could survive in the tropics.

I’m happy to report, that they survived quite well in the tropical sun, albeit under shade.  Being climbers, however, they needed heavy pruning, and become straggly after sometime. They are also prone to black sooty mould on the leaves – quite unsightly.  The secret to flowering is fertiliser. Sold in jars at nurseries or supermarkets called “Rose food”.

Roses from my garden

 Not being an accomplice to the rose mania around Valentine’s Day, I’m most inclined to trace how and when the association began. Could it be the work of industrious floral cultivators.  For instance, I was most disappointed to discover that the link between Santa Claus in jolly-red suit with presents in stockings at Christmas was none other than the ingenuity of the Coca Cola company.

Well…   The journey starts in Ancient Rome.

Origin of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is a feast day on 14 February, instituted around 496 AD by Pope Gelasius, in honor of a saint, named Valentinus of Ancient Rome.  He was made patron saint of love (eros, phileo and agape), marriage, engaged couples, bee keepers (?) and represented in pictures with birds and roses.

Valentine was executed on 14 February, 296 AD by Emperor Claudius II.  His crime? Well, Claudius had decided that single men would make better soldiers, so he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine chose to defy Claudius by continuing to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.  He was discovered and sentenced to death. According to legend, while awaiting his execution, Valentinus restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter.  Another legend claimed he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and penned her a farewell note, signing off, “From your Valentine.”  Hence, the tradition of sending love notes.

No sign yet, on why Valentine’s Day and roses…

Ancient Romans and Greek

And Roses?  Ancient Greek and Romans adored roses and have a legend surrounding the creation of a rose by the Goddess of love, Venus with Flora, Goddess of flowers.  Roman mythology assigned two values to roses:

(i) Love with Innocence and purity  – white roses

(ii) Love with passion and sexual gratification – red roses

This deeper association of color and flowers would reach further height in the 19th century.

Great was Roman desire for roses that when they conquered Egypt, they made the Egyptians pay tribute in roses.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way – and to put any logistics company to shame in the days before refrigeration had figured out how to get the roses to Rome, a 20 day journey, without them dying.

The Romans, cultivated the rose as a medicinal plant, and also used the blooms to enhance their festivities. Rose water was used in culinary extravaganzas as were rose perfume in Roman excesses. While the Greeks used roses to decorate the ceilings of their conference rooms, whenever secret meetings were held. This indicated that everything discussed was confidential, giving birth to the phrase sub Rosa.   Source:

Middle Ages

By the Middle Ages, the rose was adopted by the Christians as its symbol for the Virgin Mary and her love for human kind.  Originally called the Psalter, the Rosary, or rosarium in Latin, meaning a “crown of roses”, a intimate part of a Catholic’s prayer life, got its new name around this time, initiated by the voice of the people.  The imagery was one of placing on the heads of Jesus and Mary garlands of 150 white roses and sixteen red roses, roses that never wilt or lose their beauty. Source: Margaret Galitzin. French Roses were also recommended for medicinal treatment for depression and sadness.


So when did the giving of flowers and in particular, roses on Valentine’s Day begin?  Probably around the 19th Century, when cultivated roses with repeat flowering and the “crimson” color, which we associate with passion, was introduced from China. Prior to this period,  a red rose was actually the color of deep pink rather than the true red of China roses.

The language of flowers was developed to a level of art, and the sending of love messages through flowers and its affordability popularised the natural pairing of Valentine’s Day with roses.   Source: What better day than on the feast day of the patron saint of love.

A rose by any other name, smells as sweet. (Shakespeare)

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose,
And the pear is, and so’s
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only know
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose–
But were always a rose.  (Robert Frost)

There’s many a debate on what Frost meant. I take it to mean that even as the scientific definition of a rose genus family has now broadened to include the apple, pear etc.  The symbolism of a rose remains – that of love.  Queen of flowers.  To further extrapolate Frost saying, that “you” will always be – unique in the eyes of the beholder.

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