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Rose Love & Secrets

by Mirijana Toyn, Consulting Rosarian, Connecticut Rose Society

This is a 2014 AOM article

I will be forever mystified why the ancients put Valentine’s day in the middle of February, a month encased in ice and devoid of outdoor flowers in much of the northern hemisphere. Soon millions of roses will be shipped from greenhouses and warmer climes to be sold at exorbitant prices to romantics all over the world. Yet before you visit your florist to place that order, you may want to brush up on your flower etiquette. ABOVE: Stock photo submitted by Mirjana Toyn.


The straight-laced Victorians developed an elaborate language of flowers to deliver their secret messages and expressions of love and admiration. Over the years, some of these meanings may have evolved and changed, but receiving a bouquet of smoldering, bright red roses leaves nobody in any doubt about the sender’s feelings. An engagement was expressed with two red roses tied together. Dark crimson roses, however, were reserved for mourning loved ones. Orange roses are, of course, relative newcomers and their bold color conveys both passion and desire. Ironically, yellow roses originally spoke of jealousy, but in modern times they denote friendship and joyfulness! I was surprised to find out that lavender roses symbolize not only mystery and enchantment, but also love at first sight. Platonic lovers should stick to the purity and innocence of white roses (although it can also mean silence and secrecy), while light pink roses show admiration and dark pink varieties express gratitude. This puts a whole new spin on the mixed color bouquets you may have received or sent in the past! Could ARS (American Rose Society) arrangements be full of unintended racy messages?

'Forgotten Dream': Red Roses symbolize love, photo by Rich Baer


Rose symbolism is multi-faceted and is ingrained in many cultures spanning the millennia. Our ceiling roses are echoes of a time when Romans placed a rose on the door of a room to remind everyone that anything said sub rosa was considered confidential. Roses were sacred to a multitude of goddesses from Isis in Egypt to Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus. In Islamic Sufism the rose represented the quest for divine love. Medieval Christians linked the five petals to the wounds of Christ, and rose windows in churches occasionally have five or ten segments representing the five petals and sepals respectively. The Virgin Mary was often depicted seated in a walled garden sitting under a bower of roses. Her symbol was a white rose and she was known as ‘the rose without a thorn’ alluding to her divine nature as the mother of Christ.


Many hermetic traditions like the Rosicrucians and Freemasions adopted the imagery of the rose. In alchemy, it stands for the Mystical Marriage of Opposites - the white rose is considered female and the red rose male. The single red rose represents the heart or one’s true self. Countless cities and countries claim the rose as their symbol and many coats of arms bear images of roses, the red and white Tudor rose being the most famous of them all. No single flower other than the rose has inspired such an enduring passion and complex symbolism in art, poetry and mythology.

Below: 'Moondance' - White roses symbolize purity and innocence, photo by Rich Baer

Yet, it wasn’t the hybrid teas that sparked this love of roses. Old garden roses have a lush, rubenesque beauty and sumptuous perfume that engage the senses. With the introduction of ‘La France’ in 1867 the stately grandes dames were gradually evicted from the flower beds. Like a young perky model that becomes the trophy wife, the hybrid tea displaced the more relaxed OGRs with their soft and muddled blooms. Pretty soon, form became the most important aspect of rose exhibiting and fragrance was deemed unimportant and thus gradually lost in the quest for the perfect silhouette.


Yet, as in fashion, everything that was old is eventually reinvented to become new again, and so old rose varieties are enjoying a renaissance of sorts. It seems that, like in French movies, there is room for the wife and the mistress after all.

"The red rose whispers of passion, And the white rose breathes of love; Oh, the red rose is a falcon, And the white rose is a dove. But I send you a cream-white rose bud With a flush on its petal tips; For the love that is purest and sweetest Has a kiss of desire on the lips."

A rose poem by John Boyle O'Rielly (1844-1890)


Article by Mirjana Toyn, February 2014 for the Connecticut Rose Society newsletter.

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