As I write this page, I am swimming in the sweet, spicy scent of the ruffled pink rose sitting in a vase of water on my desk.. Having recently been introduced to the serious art of wine tasting, I am educating my scent palate to register smells like tar and tobacco in wines. And I find the same acuity extends to flowers. Roses no longer just smell like roses; some are black cherry and others have the spiciness of carnations. This pink rose, however, is all rose: but on the peppery edge of rose.
The name rose simply means rose, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, although other sources derive it from Rhodes (where, apparently, roses grew) or from a Greek root meaning "red." The word for Rose in Avestan, the language of Zoroaster, is vareda and in Armenian it is vard; and we see this root in the name of the midsummer festival Vartavar, the Flaming of the Rose. The Persian word for rose is gul, which also means flower, and is close to ghul, the word for spirit. Rose water is called gulab, as is a beverage made from water and honey or syrup, from which (via Arabia julab) we get the julep in mint juleps.
I have found more confusion in flower lore than anywhere else in my research. Of course, part of the problem with flowers is that it's often hard to tell which plant is referred to by which name. But that seems hardly likely for roses. Still of the twelve books about flowers on my desk, every one tells a different (unattributed) story about the early references to roses.
What is clear is that the rose was cultivated by the Greeks. One source says Venus pricked herself on a thorn of a white rose and stained it red. Or that Cupid spilled red wine on it. But I can't find these stories in my usual source for Greek mythology, Robert Graves.
The Romans adored roses and used them liberally in festivities, so liberally it is said that at one party, the guests were actually smothered by rose petals falling from the ceiling. This is not the origin of the term sub rosa. That comes from the Roman practice of hanging a rose over a conference table, which was supposed to indicate that everything spoken there would be held in confidence. For many centuries, roses were carved or painted on the ceilings of dining chambers to indicate that the diners could talk freely.
Horace in the Odes said: "Nor let roses be wanting to our feast." The Sybarites slept on mattresses stuffed with rose petals. The rose garden of King Midas was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Apuleius in Metamorphoses, gives them as decoration to Venus, who after an evening of revelry is described "Heavy with wine and all her body bound about with flashing roses." Many legends aassociate the rose with Venus. It is her flower, par excellence.
For a while, because of the bad reputation roses had acquired under the Romans, Christians did not allow the rose in church, but eventually it was adopted into Christian iconography. Christ is shown crowned with rose thorns and Judas supposedly hanged himself from a rose tree. Mary is addressed with various rose titles, including Rose of Sharon, the Rose-bush, the Rose-garland, the Rose-garden, Wreath of Roses, Mystic Rose and Queen of the Most Holy Rose-garden.
To the Arabs, roses signify masculine beauty. It is said that the white rose sprang from the sweat of Mohammed on his journey to heaven.
In Germany, the rose is under the protection of the dwarfs or fairies and you must ask their permission before picking one, this is the mistake Beauty's father made when plucking the rose from the Beast's garden. In a reversal on this motif, other legends tell of people who were enchanted and turned into animals who regained their human form by eating a rose, for instance, Apuleius in the Golden Ass and St. Denis, the patron of France.
For many centuries in Greece, Rome and China, the rose was a funeral flower. In Switzerland, the cemetery is sometimes called the Rosengarten. In England it is customary to plant a rosebush on the grave of a lover who dies before the marriage, thus combining the themes of love and death. Seeing the petals of a rose fall is a sign of death for the Germans although it can be counteracted by burning some of the petals.
An Indian legend tells about a quarrel between Vishnu and Brhama about the most beautiful flower. Brahma insisted upon the lotus (the flower of July) until Vishnu showed him a rose.
A Brief History of Roses
Roses have been cultivated in Greece and China for over 3,000 years. The earliest rose is the dog rose (Rosa canina). Fossils of this species from 35 million years ago were found in Montana. I just smelt a dog rose as I strolled home in the midsummer sunshine and it has the most intense fragrance of any rose.
The next oldest rose is the rosa gallica (gallica officinalis), a symbol of the sun in the 12th century BCE. It has a rich cherry color and flowers the size of a field poppy. This was the rose used as a symbol of Lancaster during the War of the Roses. A striped Rosa Gallica called Rosa Mundi commemorates Henry II's mistress, Rosamund, hidden by him at Woodstock near Oxford, and murdered by jealous Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It is also known as the apothecary rose because it was used by herbal healers.
The next distinct rose type comes from 1000 BCE and grew at the Temple of Aphrodite at Samos. It has loose petals, voluptuous and scented, and was known as the damask rose in England, supposedly because it came from Damascus. Because of its wonderful scent, it was used primarily used to make rose water.
Another early rose is the sweet briar or eglantine (rosa rubiginosa), which is mentioned by Chaucer and also appears in The Song of Roland:
On white carpets those knights have sat them down,
At the game-boards to pass an idle hour
Checkers the old, for wisdom most renowned,
While fence the young and lusty bachelors
Beneath a pine in eglantine embowered.
translated by CS Moncrieff
I believe this is the rose in the rose hedge observed by Richard Jefferies, a naturalist, near a farm at Wick in Wiltshire:
Some of [the] briars stretch forth into the meadow, and then, bent down by their own weight, form an arch crowned with flowers. There is an old superstition about these arches of briar hung out along the hedge-row: magical cures of whooping-cough and some other disease of childhood can, it is believed, be effected by passing the child at sunrise under the briar facing the rising sun.
Chinese roses first arrived in Europe near the end of the 18th century. These were the tea-roses, possibly so-called because they were imported along with tea. In China they were often named for poetic concepts, like "Clear Shining after Rain," while in France, new varieities were usually named for men, wives and mistresses. When crossed with hybrid perpetuals, these roses produced most modern roses.
The rose is a member of the Rosacae which also includes strawberries and raspberries, apples and almonds, plums and apricots.
For a much more thorough discussion, see:
There are many holidays associated with roses, many of them in June. And in fact, June is national Rose Month (so declared in America in 1969).
Rose Monday is celebrated in Germany on the Monday before Lent begins, with parades, masked balls, parties, satirical speeches and other Carnival events.
Several saints with feast days in June are associated with roses. The yellow rose is the symbol of St. Nicomede whose feast day is June 1st. And the three-leaved rose is associated with St. Boniface on June 5. And on St. Barnaby’s day, June 11, it was customary in Great Britain to decorate churches and houses and even clergymen (who wore chaplets of roses while officiating)with Barnaby garlands of roses and sweet woodruff. Red roses are associated with St. George, whose feast day is April 23.
Ginzburg citing studies by Nilsson and Ranke says that the Christian festival of Pentecost derives from the Rosalia (a Roman ceremony honoring the dead, celebrated on May 10 and May 31). According to posts at several web sites that study ancient Roman religion, the standards of military units were brought out on these days and decorated with a garland of roses, presumably to honor soldiers from the unit who had died in combat.
The day before Pentecost is a day when many Christians visit and decorate the graves of their loved ones (and it may be the precursor of Memorial Day). And on Pentecost in Messina, according to Urlin, great quantities of roses wee dripped from the ceiling of the church during the singing of the famous Come Holy Spirit.
The Armenians have a festival called Vartavar or Flaming of the Rose. Originally a Midsummer festival, it is now celebrated at the same time as the Transfiguration, 98 days after Easter, but still involves the pagan customs inherited from the older holiday: decorating churches with roses, spraying each other with water and releasing doves.
The 16th century English herbalist, Gerard, recommended rose water for "the strengthening of the heart, and refreshing of the spirits and likewise for all things that require a gentle cooling. The same being put in junketting dishes, cakes, sauces and many other pleasant things, giveth a fine and delectable taste."
Jean Gordon in her book, Cooking with Roses, provides instructions for distilling rose water:
Gather about a pound of fresh rose petals [be sure they have not been sprayed] from fragrant roses. Fill an aluminum tea kettle half full of water, strew rose petals thickly over the surface. Close the kettle and set over a low heat. Attach a clean rubber hose to the spout of the kettle and place the other end in a glass jar on the floor. Arrange the rubber hose so part of it is submerged in a pan of cold water. The essence of the rose petals will be extracted by the heat and carried off with the steam generated by the water. The vapors, on passing through that part of the rubber hose which is under water, are condensed and run into the glass jar in the form of rose water. Be certain the temperature is low, the petals do not clog the spout and that there is no obstruction in the tub, as the pressure of the steam may force the lid from the kettle and scatter petals over the walls and ceiling of the kitchen. Aside from this danger, rose water is not really difficult to distill. The first attempt may take time and patience, but after that success is almost certain.
When using rose water in cooking, Gordon suggests adding it near the end as the flavor is delicate and easily lost during baking and boiling. Add rose water to cakes, to frosting, to cookies (especially those with a delicate flavor like shortbread or sugar cookies).
Arabs use rose water with honey and butter to glaze a roasting chicken. In Greece, it flavors candies and pastries. In Turkey, a bottle of rose water sits on the table and is sprinkled over food for flavor. This same sprinkler is called attardane in India.
Rose water has also been used for baptisms and to purify mosques and temples. The Romans used rose water in their fountains.
Eating & Drinking Roses
Why not design a rose meal? You could serve rose sandwiches (rose petals and cream cheese), scones with rose jam or rose butter and rose tea (made from adding a few dried petals to black tea when steeping in the pot). For dessert, baklava or rose-flavored shortbread cookies or a rose cake decorated with crystallized rose petals.
For beverages, serve rose punch or rose wine, and use roses for cups. Lucy Maria Boston gives parties where she asks each guest to choose a globular rose to drink from. "It is rather a dribbly business," she writes, "the roses leak, but utterly delicious; also long drawn out, the process can't be hurried." Shekinah Mountainwater suggests sprinkling rose petals in a cup of red wine or rose water. As you sip from it, the petals will caress your lips and the scent your nose.
Rose Blossom Punch
This punch recipe, which I believe comes from the Evelyn and Crabtree cookbook, features roses both visually (frozen in a block of ice) and with the flavor of rosewater.
3 pink unsprayed roses with about 6-inch stems, rinsed
8 cups dry white wine, chilled
1/2 cup kirsch
1 to 2 T rosewater
small pink unsprayed rose petals and leaves, rinsed, and patted dry
To make the decorative ice cube:
The day before you plan to serve the punch, thoroughly rinse a cardboard milk or juice carton. Cut off the top and trim the sides to 7 inches. Put the roses in the carton and fill it to within one inch of the top with boiled and cooled water. Freeze overnight or until solid.
To make the punch:
Combine wine, kirsch and rosewater in a punch bowl. Remove the cardboard from the rose-studded ice cube and place in the bowl. Float small rose petals and leaves on top. Serve in long-stemmed wineglasses.
The Gulistan, a collection of Persian wisdom, mentions a rose wine so strong that "a glass could make the sternest monarch merciful or make the sickliest mortal slumber amid his pains." The Siberians make a bright red sparkling wine from the leaves of the wild rose, called Shimpovka.
1 quart dried rose petals
4 quarts water
2 pounds sugar
1 1/4 oz yeast cake
Add 2 quarts of water to the rose petals and boil for 20 minutes. Cool. Add lemons and oranges sliced very thin, the sugar and yeast dissolved in warm water. Add 2 additional quarts of boiled water. Let stand 8 to 10 days, stirring 2 or 3 times daily. Drain and put in a jug, lightly corked, until through working. Strain and pour into sterilized bottles and cork.
Rose Petal Jam
Gordon got this recipe from the Turkish Information Office.
1/2 pound red rose petals
1/2 pound white rose petals
3 pounds sugar
juice of 1 lemon
Place the red rose petals in a large jar in alternating layers of petals and sugar until all the petals are used. Press and pack tight. Using a different jar, repeat this process with the white rose petals. Set aside the remaining sugar for later use. Pour 3/4 cup hot water into each jar and cover each with a piece of damp cloth. Let stand for 3 days.
Strain the juice from the jar of white petals; discard the petals. Take the remaining sugar and add enough water to dissolve it; boil in an enamel saucepan to make a heavy syrup. Add the juice and petals from the red-petal jar and the juice of the white-petal jar. Bring to a boil and simmer until the mixture reaches the consistency of honey. Add the lemon juice and stir. Cool the jam and ladle into screw-top jars.
Every country has a slightly different way of preparing this treat. In Greece, 1 pound of rose petals are kneaded with 1 pound of sugar. This mixture is left to stand for a day. The following day, it is put into a pot, along with 3 pounds sugar, the juice of 1/2 a lemon and 3 glasses of water and boiled until it becomes a thick syrup.
There is also a way of making an uncooked rose petal preserve or conserve which seems very appealing to me. In Persia it is called Gulkanda, from Gul (for Rose) and Kanda (the same word which gives us candy). In India, a similar concoction is called Goolakund.
1 pound rose petals
3 pounds sugar3 pounds sugar
Crush the rose petals. Place a layer of sugar in a large jar and alternate with the crush petals until you've used all the sugar. Close the jar tightly and leave in the hot sunshine several days until all the sugar is melted. Serve as a jam.
Since it may be hard to obtain a pound of rose petals, you can reduce the quantities and use a cup instead. You can also use brown sugar instead of white. This was called Rose Tobacco in Colonial days.
Old Rose Recipes
I love old recipes, both for the language and the technique. This one is over a hundred years old.
Wash rose petals and put them in a stone jar, sprinkling them with fine salt. Next day gather some more and repeat until the jar is almost filled. Keep the jar well covered at all times with a lid and also wrapped in a coarse cloth. When you plan to make rice pudding or cake, weight the butter you intend using and put it in the jar on top of the rose petals overnight. By the time you take it out, it will have absorbed a very fine rose flavor, superior to that of rose water. Rose petals may be kept in this way for a year, until they bloom again.
This recipe is even older. It comes from the 16th century English herbalist, Gerard.
Take Roses at your plesure, put them to boyle in faire water, having regard to the quantity; for if you have many Roses you may take more water; if fewere, the lesse water will serve: the which you shall boyle at the least three or foure houres, even as you would boile a piece of meate, untill in the eating they be very tender, at which time the Roses will lose their colour, that you would thinke your labour lost, and the thing spoiled. But proceed, for though the Roses have lost their colour, the water hath gotten the tincture thereof; then shall you adde unto one pound of Roses, foure pound of fine sugar in pure pouder, and so according to the rest of the Roses. Thus shall you let them boyule gently after the sugar is put therto, continually stirring it with a wooden Spatula untill it be raw conserve, as well for the vertues and goodnesse in taste, as also for the beautifull colour.
1 package phyllo dough
1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup sugar
1 t mace
1 cup ground almonds or chopped pistachios
rose water or Baklava Rose Syrup (see below)
Lay a paper-thin sheet of phyllo dough on a buttered cake or pie tin and spread with melted butter, using a brush. Add five or six additional sheets, buttering each, then spread a mixture of the sugar, mace and nuts on top. Add 5 or 6 more layers and repeat. Do this until the baklava is about 2 inches high. With a sharp knife, cut crisscross slits on the top, about 1-1/2 inches apart. Bake in a 250 oven for about 1 hour. After you have taken it out of the oven, sprinkle it with rose water or Baklava Rose Syrup. Serve it with black coffee.
Baklava Rose Syrup
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
juice & rind of 1/2 orange
1 T rose water
Mix together the water, sugar, orange juice and rind. Boil for 3 minutes, then add the rose water.
Candied Rose Petals
2 cups fragrant rose petals
1/2 pound sugar
1 cup powdered sugar
Boil the sugar in 2 cups of water until the syrup spins a thread. Set on ice to cool. When the syrup starts to crystallize, dip the petals in with wire tongs or tweezers, a few at a time. Then take out and spread on waxed paper. When they begin to dry, dust with powdered sugar on one side and then on the other. Store in airtight containers.
Crystallized Rose Petals
Beat the white of one egg to a foam. Dip a small pastry brush (or use your fingers) in egg white and brush well over the sides of the rose petals. Be certain that no surplus egg white remains on the petal but that both sides are moist. Shake granulated sugar on both sides and place on a tray to dry in the refrigerator.
Bury a small fragrant rose in a screw-top glass jar full of sugar. Set on a windowsill that gets sun for several weeks. The scent of the rose will permeate the sugar.
A story is told that the secret for making attar of roses was discovered by a princess at her wedding feast when she noticed that the rose petals floating in the water were leaving behind an oily residue as the sun made the water evaporate. This oily deposit was skimmed from the surface to make rose oil. Sixty thousand roses were required to make a single ounce of oil.
Tincture of Roses
Place the petals of fragrant roses, without pressing them, in a bottle. Pour some good spirits of wine over them. Then close the bottle and let it stand until required for use. It will keep for years and smells similar to attar of roses, which is much more expensive and difficult to make.
Attar of Roses
Fill a large glazed earthen jar with rose leaves, carefully separated from the cups; pour upon them spring water, just sufficient to cover them, and set the jar with its contents in the sun for two or three days, taking it under cover at night. At the end of the third or fourth day, small particles of yellow oil will be seen floating on the surface of the water. In the course of a week, these will have increased to a thin scum. The scum is attar of roses. Take it up with a little cotton tied at the end of a stick (sounds like a Q-tip to me) and squeeze it into a vial.
Rose Toilet Water
Press rose petals from the most naturally fragrant roses into a bottle. Add glycerin and keep tightly corked for four weeks. Strain or use directly from the bottle. A few drops added to rainwater make a fragrant rinse.
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Ward, Bobby J., A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth &Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 1997
On Roman festival of Rosalia: