A writer’s guide to roses

I may be one of only three people on the planet who cares about this, but as a rose-a-holic, I can’t help noticing roses in stories, and a lot of historical fiction writers get their details wrong. It’s probably impossible to get everything right in a work of fiction (or even nonfiction), but details make your setting and keep readers immersed in the story, so it’s worth it to get as many details correct as possible.

Medieval roses are especially fascinating to me. Many of them have been lost over time, but there are half a dozen or so roses still grown today that also found homes in the gardens of medieval monks and Renaissance queens. Because roses don’t come true from seed, the only way we can keep a rose variety alive is by growing a cutting of the rose. This means if you’re growing a medieval rose in your garden, it’s not just a descendant of one of these ancient roses, it’s actually a part of it: a cutting of a cutting of a cutting, perhaps, of a rose once loved and tended by royalty or by silent monks in some secluded corner of the world.

York and Lancaster, a damask rose from the 1500s named for the factions in the War of the Roses because its flowers can be both white (York's symbol) and "red" (Lancaster's).
York and Lancaster, a damask rose from the 1500s named for the factions in the War of the Roses because its flowers can be both white (York’s symbol) and “red” (Lancaster’s).

The rose has been an incredibly popular plant going back far into human history. It provides fragrance, pleasant form, and edible hips and petals. But, the rose known to medieval Europeans was different in many ways from the roses commonly found in nurseries today. If you’re reading or writing about medieval roses, there are a few facts it’s helpful to keep in mind:

  • Almost all medieval roses bloomed only once per year. Usually, this was in late spring, though the white musk rose blooms in the fall. The Autumn Damask is a pink rose of uncertain history (it may have been in Italy and Spain through much of the Middle Ages, at least), which blooms more than once a year, but it still blooms the most in the spring, with a few scattered blooms later.
  • Medieval roses had a more limited color palate. Most were shades of pink, though some could be bold burgundy-purple, deep pink that was considered red, or creamy white. Some were striped pink and white. Yellow roses were rare, unheard of in many places, and came from wild plants in the east.
  • The smell of these medieval roses is stronger and not as “fruity” as most modern roses. What they lack in rebloom and color variety, they make up for in scent. And, given that the Middle Ages were a pretty stinky time, things that smelled nice were especially prized, especially when the dried rose petals kept their scent and could be used to hide nasty odors. Sweetbriar roses, frequently mentioned by Victorian authors, are huge bushes whose leaves smell like green apples.
  • They don’t look like your typical florist’s rose. The buds are fatter, the petals more packed into the flower.
  • The fruits of the rose, called hips, were valued much more than today. They were a source of vitamin C, especially in the winter, and were used, along with other parts of the rose, in many aspects of medieval medicine.
Tuscany Superb, the Velvet Rose
Tuscany Superb, the Velvet Rose

As with today, medieval roses were seen as symbols of love. Sometimes the white roses were considered symbols of divine love, while the deep pink or red roses were seen as symbols of earthly love, though in Christian symbolism, the red could also be used as a reminder of Christ’s blood. The red and white striped roses especially carried this association with divine love and divine blood. Rosaries, used by medieval Christians to count their prayers, were made of balled, dried rose petals. Because of their association with love, divinity, and good health, some cultures believed that roses could keep away evil.

Camaieux, a striped rose from the early 1800s
Camaieux, a striped rose from the early 1800s

It wasn’t until the introduction of reblooming tea and china roses from Asia in the late 1700s that the world of European roses changed, adding the color variety, continuous bloom, and picky growth habits that many people associate with the modern rose.

Old Blush Rose, grown in China for about 1,000 years.
Old Blush Rose, grown in China for about 1,000 years.

If you want to know more, I highly recommend The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book by (guess who?) Graham Stuart Thomas and In Search of Lost Roses by Thomas Christopher.

Botzaris, a swoon-worthy Victorian rose.
Botzaris, a swoon-worthy Victorian rose.

As a side note, roses don’t carry the gene for true blue, so if an undyed blue rose ever exists, it will be due to genetic manipulation (or magic, fantasy writers 🙂 ).

*All photos taken by me. Feel free to use them, but please give me credit as the source.

One thought on “A writer’s guide to roses

  1. Danette Hansen July 8, 2014 / 3:09 pm

    Great article. Keeping our facts right in historicals is key. And providing a quick reference goes a long way!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s