The history of cultivated roses goes back thousands of years. According to fossil evidence, rose plants have existed for approximately 35 million years old. The genus Rosa has some 150 species spread throughout the world.
Wild roses are hardy and adaptable plants which grow in conditions ranging from swampy to arid, and can tolerate extreme climates of the northern hemisphere. Alberta, a province of Canada where winter temperatures often reach -40 degrees, has as its provincial flower the wild rose, a small wild variety with dark pink blossoms and a delicate scent.
Domestic cultivation of roses began more than 5,000 years ago in China. Wreaths of Damask-like roses have been found in Egyptian tombs. Frescoes of the Minoan Crete culture show roses. Roses were cultivated extensively in the Middle East during Roman times, their petals used as confetti at celebrations, for medicinal purposes and perfume. Roman nobility kept large public rose gardens in the south of Rome, where they used hot-houses to "force" roses into bloom at desired times, and they also imported roses from Egypt. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the cultivation of roses spread throughout Europe.
European roses are classified as Albas, Centifolias, Damasks, Damask Perpetuals, Gallicas, and Mosses. Mainstream Oriental roses are Chinas and Tea Roses. The European varieties, with the exception of the Damask Perpetuals, have one season of bloom per year, while the Orientals bloom more or less continuously.
England is the country most associated with rose cultivation. The damp, mild climate combined with the perenially cloudy weather produces the best color in roses, which tend to have "bleached"colors in bright sunlight. Beautiful English women are often described as English roses.
Roses feature extensively in British historical symbolism, and many family coats of arms feature roses. In heraldry, the rose is the symbol of the seventh son, hope and joy. A red rose symbolizes grace nd beauty, a white rose, hope and faith.
In the Middle Ages, roses retained their use in both public and religious festivals, and were also kept in medicinal gardens. Their use in herbology as well as a demand for their fragance led to a cottage industry of rose-essence distillation, which still has economic importance in some areas of Europe such as Bulgaria.
The fifteenth century "War of the Roses" was so named because the York and Lancaster factions were symbolized by white and red roses respectively.
During the sixteenth century, roses and rose water were valued so highly that they were used as barter for goods.
With the rise of mercantilism during the Renaissance, horticultural commerce flourished. Due to their fleet of trading ships, the Dutch were leaders in the trade of tulips, hyacinths, carnations and of course roses.
The eighteenth century also saw a great advance in rose cultivation: the widespread growing of roses from seed rather than just the propagation of cuttings. The varieties of roses available quickly expanded from just a few dozen to one or two hundred. Also, a whole new group, the Centifolias, was created by Dutch plant breeders.
In the 1800's, Napoleon's wife Josephine kept a large rose garden at Chateau de Malmaison, an estate seven miles west of Paris. The botanical illustrator Pierre Joseph Redoute used this garden as the setting for his famous 1824 watercolor botanical painting collection "Les Roses". Josephine also provided imperial patronage to several French rose breeders, notably Dupont and Descemet, who developed hundreds of new cultivars out of the European rose groups.
The large, spectacular roses seen at flower shows today are derived from cultivars introduced from China to Europe in the eighteenth century. These plants were continuous bloomers, making them unsual and of great value to plant hybridizers. These roses were interbred with existing European roses to produce plants with both hardiness and long flowering season.
In the 1830's, horticulturists experimented intensely with interbreeding Oriental and European roses. Due to the fact that the trait of repeat-blooming is recessive, the first generation of progeny between single-bloom and repeat-bloom roses are all single-blooming. However, as these are crossed with each other and back to the original Orientals and Europeans, repeat-blooming hybrids emerge. By the 1840's numerous new varieties had been created, called "Hybrid Perpetuals" for their perpetual blooming. These cultivars came in all colors and forms, were all at least somewhat reblooming, and hardy enough to withstand the northern European climate. Interest in the original varieties of roses waned, except as a sentimental interest to heirloom rose fanciers. The gaudy new artificial hybrids are now held up as the flower-show standard of what a rose should look like.
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