A Brief History of the Rose

Roses have been cultivated in gardens for centuries.  Gardeners have a long history of loving and growing this thorny perennial. Its sentimental appeal as a cut flower and in the garden has never wavered.

Roses in the Fossil Record

Our love of roses is rooted in several thousand years of admiration, cultivation, and hybridization. Fossil records show roses existed 30 million years ago in Europe, Asia, and North America. While these predecessors to today's Valentine's roses were less showy and floriferous, they were equally appreciated in many cultures through their long history.

Shrub Rose Carefree BeautyGreeks and Romans

In 600 B.C. the Greek poet, Sappho, wrote in a poem, "Ode to the Rose", that this flower was considered the "Queen of flowers". This sentiment has been expressed many times over the centuries. However, few cultures reveled in the admiration of roses like the Romans. In Roman homes, petals were used to carpet the floors, to fill bathwater, to drop as confetti at parties, and even to eat. A rose hanging from the ceiling of a civic meeting symbolized secrecy and the content of the meeting was to be kept confidential outside the walls.


Roses are thought to have first been cultivated in China, where they were grown in the imperial gardens of the Chou dynasty as described by Confucius (551-479 BC).  Many of the cultivated roses we grow today are hybrids and selections from species native to China.


One of the greatest rose gardens of all time was maintained by the Empress Josephine of France at her residence in Malmaison. At the time of her death in 1814, Empress Josephine's rose garden contained approximately 250 species and varieties of roses, representing every variety known at the time. Pierre-Joseph Redoute and Claude Antoine Thory have preserved the beauty of this famous rose garden in their paintings, Les Roses.

Introduction of Asian Species to Europe

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, rose breeding was revolutionized with the introduction of Rosa chinensis to Europe. This and other Chinese roses were capable of blooming repeatedly. European roses bloomed for short periods only once a year. The introductions from Asia also brought new flower colors, such as yellow, to adoring Europeans. These Asian roses were bred with European roses to develop a new class of roses, the hybrid teas and by the late 19th century a rainbow of repeat blooming roses were created. Shortly thereafter, the hybrid-tea rose became the widely grown type of rose.

Today, hybrid-tea roses still hold the distinction as being the most popular rose in the world. They have also been the most widely sold Valentine's Day flower for decades.

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Last reviewed:
January 2023