A plant of poetry. Throughout history the rose has featured in literature and mythology from across the world, and has come to represent many things: love, war, purity and friendship among others. In a happy reflection of cultures coming together, it’s only in hybridising with the Chinese rose, that the English Rose came to flower for as long as it does now.
Flowers send signals to various creatures, but for a long time the rose has been used by human beings to signal to each other. Roses entwined the triumphal banners of Roman armies and Emperor Nero had swaggering banquets so jammed with blossoms that the scent was overwhelming.
The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra adorned herself with rose-scented olive oil as a tool for seduction and today, strewing rose petals around the bride and groom is a reminder of amorous delights in many cultures. [Associated with the Greek god of silence, roses were painted onto ceilings above Roman diners and hung over royal diplomatic meetings in the middle-ages, signifying secrecy. Today, the Scottish government bills off-the-record political gatherings as sub rosa.]
Roses have a particularly close connection with Islam. By tradition, roses sprang from beads of sweat of the prophet Mohammed and from the 16th century they were a favourite in gardens across the Mughal empire, which were modelled on Persian horticulture and design. They are still a focus of national pride in Iran, where they are celebrated in rose festivals and where, along with the USA, UK and ten other countries, it is the national flower.
the rose make-up
The tall, open bushes of the stunningly fragrant, pink Damask rose, grown in Bulgaria, Turkey and central Iran, are the main source of flavourings and scent. Rose water, produced in quantity by boiling petals in water and condensing the vapour, is used liberally in regional confectionery such as rahat lokum (Turkish delight) and the less cloying, pistachio-laden Iranian rahaat.
However, attar, the fabulously concentrated oil of roses coveted by perfumiers, requires herculean effort to produce. Seven thousand blooms gathered at their early-morning peak and distilled the same day yield just a teaspoonful of oil, yet worth a king’s ransom.
The engulfing scent and voluptuous splendour, especially of red roses, have woven them with love and romance. When the Scottish poet Robbie Burns wrote, “My love is like a red, red rose”, his simile would have been equally familiar in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India. White roses for purity and innocence; pink for trust and happiness; the meanings are similar in most cultures.
However, yellow roses which signify friendship and joy in Europe and North America are still sometimes associated with jealousy in East Asia. While the flavour of rose desserts teeters between transcendent bliss and the sensation of eating soap, there is no doubt that the world needs more of the love that red roses universally signify.
Want to delve deeper into the world of trees and plants?
Check out author Jon Drori's beautifully illustrated works, Around the World in 80 Trees and Around the World in 80 Plants - intertwining botany with history, culture and folklore. Both are available from all booksellers or via Jon’s website. Jon has very kindly offered a 25% discount with the voucher code 80JONDRORI.
Lick below to listen to original music by Tingying Dong, alongside spoken text by Jon Drori created in response to the Rose, Iconic Plant and commissioned especially for PoliNations. Narration by Jade Samuels. To listen to the music by itself. click the link further up the page.
Illustration by Lucille Clerc.
All Iconic Plants
A journeying plant. Although a common sight in British orchards and gardens today, the apple actually originated in Kazakhstan! Like so many goods before it, the plant journeyed to the UK via the Silk Road. The apple’s prevalence is even more surprising when you consider its inability to self-pollinate; since the seed of an apple won’t replicate its parent, the only way to replicate an apple is to graft a new one.
A plant of identity and protest. Historically, ‘pansy’ has been used as a derogatory term for gay men - one of several horticulturally derived slurs. Over time, the name has been reclaimed as a celebration of diversity and sexuality: throughout the 20th century numerous freethinking movements have used the term, including the drag ball scene of 1920s - 1930s New York, in which performers were referred to as ‘pansy performers’ because of their colourful clothing.
A plant of pragmatism. Long seen as a symbol of sorrow due to its drooping branches, the willow also tells a story of resilience, healing and strength. One of the few trees that can be bent without breaking, willow trees are known for their association with crafts and weaving, but they also have a long history of healing. The medicinal properties of willow bark, which contain a chemical used in aspirin, have been used for centuries.
A plant of resistance and tenacity. The ultimate survivor, Amaranth was first used by Aztecs in rituals involving food created from the plant. Subsequently outlawed by the Spanish conquerors the plant became a symbol of resistance against the invaders. It survived their repression and continues to be grown across the world today.
A plant of wellbeing. Throughout history, lavender has been used to soothe, calm and alleviate stress. Highly fashionable in the Victorian era and into the 20th century, the scent can evoke strong memories among the older generations in particular. The plant itself, and the oil derived from it, has multiple uses across perfume, cooking and herbal medicine. Its healing qualities are known to have been used as far back as Ancient Egypt!
An ancient plant. Ferns are one of the most ancient plants found across the globe and believe it or not played a vital part in the globalisation of the world as we know it! As a central ingredient in coal, which fuelled the industrial revolution, the humble fern had a key role to play in getting us to where we are today.
A plant of empire. While a quintessentially English drink nowadays, and well known for being grown in India, tea has its roots in the history of empire. Originally found and imported solely from China, the East India Company moved to prevent a Chinese monopoly on the product by smuggling the plant, and the secrets of its cultivation, out of China and into India. Soon, tea became established as a profitable export for landowners.
A plant of the economy. Originating in central Asia and Turkey, it was the introduction of the Tulip to Holland in the 17th century which subsequently caused the world’s first asset bubble. During this period of so-called ‘Tulip mania’, the plants became a luxury item: the price of bulbs soared until they peaked and subsequently came crashing down, leading to serious financial repercussions.