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The Colorful Meaning of Roses
Jul 1, 2002

God created thousands of flowers, and yet roses have remained a favorite throughout human history and have assumed very colorful meanings among different cultures. Why does the rose find an enduring place in our hearts? Maybe we retain the memory of a rose found in the garden of our soul. Perhaps unforgettable poems, as well of stories of love and virtue, are attached to the rose. Perhaps the quality of one perfect bloom fills and uplifts our spirit with the soft light of morning. Or, maybe its scent has so much strength that it just cannot be denied.

Even though garden cultivation of roses began some 5,000 years ago, possibly in China, the fossil record indicates that roses have existed for millions of years. Wherever roses are found, they become a symbol of something: love, beauty, royalty, death, war, and politics. Sometimes, they even represent famous names in history.

During the Roman Empire, roses were grown extensively in the Middle East. Those roses, the most fragrant in the world, were used to make perfume. Their strong scent also caused people to regard them as having a deep mystical significance. However, roses grown in China do not have such a scent. Perhaps this is one reason why roses are not nearly so beloved in China.

Roses seem to make their first literary appearance in the eighth century bce. In The Iliad, an epic poem of ancient Greece, Hectares body was anointed with rose oil. Roses are often mentioned in ancient Greek myths in a wide variety of different forms. For example, a white raised symbolized Aphrodites purity and innocence. Furthermore, her desire and passion for Adonis, her wounded love, was represented by a few drops of her blood changing a white rose into a red rose. In another myth, Zeus scattered roses across the land as a wedding gift to Eros and Psyche.

The Romans also embellished their myths with roses. They used roses at funerals as a sign of resurrection, for example, and Flora was the goddess of spring and flowers. Despite being credited with creating the rose, other Greek deities helped Flora give it its life, sweet scent, and beautiful shape.

Presumably, a correlation exists between ancient Greek and Roman mythology and Christianity with respect to roses. Harpcrates, who was bribed into secrecy with a white rose by Eros, became the god of silence. This was carried over into Christianity, for a rose was often carved onto a meeting rooms plastered ceilings to warn that the discussions were sub rosa (under the rose, or secret).

The rose and religion

Christians used the red rose as a symbol of Jesus passion, martyrdom, and resurrection, as well as for Marys motherhood and purity. Mary is mostly linked with the white rose. The roses design also implies the liturgy. For instance, Mary is surrounded with brilliant roses in this beautiful poem by Wordsworth (1807):

In trellised shed with clustering roses gay,
And, Mary! Oft beside our blazing fire,
When yeas of wedded life were as a day
Whose current answers to the hearts desire.(1)

Also, Mary is often reported as being accompanied by showers of fragrant rose petals. Many stained-glass window scenes of the Blessed Mother and other saints show them holding roses. Underlying all of this is the idea that fragrance is good.

In the seventh century, Prophet Muhammad is symbolized with a rose. It seems that every opening bloom points to another wonderful person in the garden of humanity. The roses reputation increased a thousandfold with the coming of the Prophet. His great personality illuminated the roses color, and his perfect morality is the source of its fragrant sense.

Farid ad-Din Attar (d. 1230), one of the greatest Sufi mystic poets of all time, wrote in his The Rose Garden:

In the rose bed, mystery glows.
The secret is hidden in the rose.(2)

Another Sufi mystic, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), notes that just as the rose consists of many petals held together, so a Sufis soul shows many different qualities. These qualities emit fragrance in the form of a spiritual personality. As the rose has a beautiful structure, the Sufi has a fine structure, manner, dealing with others, speech, action, and so on. Just as the roses beautiful perfume penetrates the entire room, the Sufi penetrates society and helps to heal its problems.

Furthermore, the Quran honors the red rose by mentioning only it out of all flowers: When the sky is torn apart, so it was (like) a red rose like ointment. Then which of your Lords favors will you deny? (55:37-38). The beauty of a single rose is just one small creation among all of Gods bestowed bounties. The rose has a distinct shape, and whoever created it and tore the sky apart, just like we might tear apart a red rose, created it so that we could understand that the rose was created for significant reasons.

In the Islamic tradition, wearing perfume is a food for the soul and the spirit. One hadith relates that one of the Prophets favorite things was good fragrance. That is why Muslims often wear pure essence of rosewater, especially before prayers. Rosewater is also the preferred soak for the miswak (a traditional toothbrush taken from the branches of a fibrous tree).

Possessing one of the most heavenly scents, a roses essence has several aromatherapeutic benefits as well. Valerie Worwood, in her The Complete Book of Aromatherapy, writes that a roses essence is a powerful and uplifting anti-depressant, aids in digestion, and soothes frayed nerves. These benefits can be enjoyed just by sprinkling some rose water or essence on your body, adding a few drops to your bathwater, or burning the scent in an incense burner in your home.

Associating roses with religion is as old as religion itself. How nice it would be if the veneration that all Jews, Christians, and Muslims have for the rose could make all of us understand that we are bound together with each other and many others in this very way! Moreover, these three monotheistic religions trace their origins to the Middle East, the ancestral home of modern roses.

The rose in other cultures

Many other cultures feature things related to the rose. For example, different sects within Hinduism worship deities through such household and temple offerings as rose attar (perfume). Ancient Persian legends speak of a nightingale that so dearly loved the white rose that it grasped it tightly. The thorns, which pierced its breast and caused its blood to fall on the rose, turned it red. Hence, one type of rose is known as the red damask. Interestingly, Rose is one of the most popular names for girls in many languages. The Turkish word gul, for instance, means rose and smile and has many popular derivations in Turkey.

Around the twelfth or thirteenth century, knights returning from the Crusades brought the rose home to Europe. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the rose was used as a symbol for the factions fighting to control England. The white rose symbolized York, and the red rose symbolized Lancaster. As a result, the conflict became known by historians as the War of the Roses. The red rose is still the emblem of England, since Lancaster won the war. Roses were in such high demand during the seventeenth century that royalty considered roses or rose water as legal tender. Both were often used as barter and for payment. Napoleons wife Josephine established an extensive collection of roses in western Paris during the 1800s.

A new interpretation

In the twentieth century, a splendid new interpretation of the rose and nightingale story was presented by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. His famous The Words contains an addendum to the discussion on the nightingale. The nightingales small wage is the delight it experiences from gazing on smiling, beautiful roses, and the pleasure it receives from conversing with them and pouring out its woes. In other words, its sorrowful song is not a complaint arising from animal grief; rather, it is the birds thanks for the gifts of the Most Merciful.

Moreover, according to Said Nursi, every sort of being--even stars--has a nightingale. But the most excellent and noble nightingale, whose voice was the most ringing, whose recitation was the most complete, whose thanks were the most universal, who brought all beings of the heavens and Earth in the universes garden to rapture through his poetry was Prophet Muhammad, the nightingale of the luminous Quran. Here, the rose is associated with divine knowledge and wisdom.


Today, people prefer to buy roses for special occasions as precious gifts. As Shakespeare said, there is a meaning kept in the rose that we have to understand, just as the rose keeps its scent within itself. On Valentines Day roses express our love, on Mothers Day they tell our mothers that we remember their mercy toward us, and on Teachers Day they show a students respect for his or her teachers.

Most modern-day roses can be traced back to this symbolic ancestry. The popularity of roses seems to rise and fall according to gardening trends of the time. Gardeners realize that roses fit the lifestyle of every century. With the rise of emphasis on spirituality in the twenty-first century, roses are once again enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

Roses have a special hold upon us and, even though it is hard to capture in words, there is something about roses that evokes a response beyond the virtue of great beauty. This article has presented some historical traces of roses in several civilizations. Perhaps you will associate them with a favorite meaning or figure. So, would you like to finish the following sonnet of Shakespeare in your own way?

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I ...?(3)
(the original says in her cheeks)


  2. Omar Ali-Shah, tr. The Rose Garden (Gulistan) of Saadi (Reno, NV: Tractus, 1997).
  3. From My Mistress Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun, Sonnet 130,