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The History of the Apothecary Rose

By Edited Nov 16, 2015 3 3

Close up of Apothecary Rose (Rosa gallica officinalis)

An Ancient Rose Species

The Apothecary Rose (Rosa gallica officinalis) is a beautiful rose with an ancient past. 

The oldest of all European medieval roses, it is considered to be the longest cultivated rose in human history. 

Depicted in the art and culture of ancient civilizations, the Apothecary Rose featured in early Minoan wall frescoes, as early as 1500-1600BC.

Commonly called the 'Red Provins Rose' and 'Provence Rose' in times of ancient Rome, it was used to lavishly decorate and adorn sumptuous banquets, feasts and other poignant occasions. To the Romans, "the rose was a sign of pleasure, the companion of mirth and wine, but it was also used at their funerals." (Grieve, p. 684)


Photo of Apothecary Rose (Rosa gallica officinalis)

The Story Of A Medieval Rose

The Apothecary Rose was an emblem of love, wisdom and the spirit in medieval times. As like the white Madonna lily and Marigold, it, too was a symbol of the Virgin Mary. Admired for its scent and adored for its beauty, the bright pink-redness of its petals signified the shedding of Christ's blood and Mary's sorrow.

Much of life in the Middle Ages was influenced by the Christian church, and as a result, flower symbolism was established as a form of religious devotion.

In images and paintings of the Blessed Virgin Mary, "her plant associates were flowers: delicate, passive, perfumed receptacles for reproduction." (Bennett, p. 73)

In her essence, the sacred figure of the Virgin Mary represented a spiritual feminine ideal that was compassionate and lovingly connected to the Earth and healing plants.

Species known to have positive medicinal attributes and natural healing powers were planted in gardens especially named in her honor.

These gardens were labeled as 'Mary gardens' and were found in a number of monasteries during the Middle Ages. Containing a mixed array of Marian plants, many had "the epithet 'Our Lady's, an extension, in some cases of the pre-Christian epithet 'Lady's', that either stood for all women or honoured a woman long forgotten." (Bennett, p. 78-79)

As a revered medieval flower, the Apothecary Rose (Rosa gallica officinalis) featured in many of these 'Mary gardens', and still does, in locations such as Woods Hole Mary Garden on Cape Cod – the oldest public 'Mary garden' in the USA.


Close up of Rosa gallica officinalis (Apothecary Rose)

A Rose Of Old Herbals

Aside from Marian symbolism, the flowers of the Apothecary Rose were prized for their medicinal properties and featured in many old curative remedies. Botanical descriptions and medical notes regarding R. gallica officinalis feature in some of the great herbals, such as 'Gerard's Herball' (1597), and Culpeper's 'The English Physician' (1652) and his 'Complete Herbal' (1653). 

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) referred to R. gallica officinalis as the 'Red Rose' and wrote that it is "well known to all, and deserves all the praise which is given to it in physic. The conserve of the red buds, before the flower quite opens, where are the more restringent, is of excellent use in consumptive cases, especially in spitting blood."


". . . the Rose doth deserve the chief and prime place among all floures whatsoever." 
– John Gerard


In contrast, John Gerard (1545-1612), focuses more on the appearance of the rose itself. "The leaves are like, yet of a worse dusty colour: The floures grow on the top of the branches, consisting of many leaves of a perfect red colour: the fruit is likewise red when it is ripe: the root is wooddy."

Documented in medical literature, "Red Rose petals are official in nearly all Pharmacopeias. Though formerly employed for their mild astringency and tonic value, they are to-day used almost solely to impart their pleasant odour to pharmaceutical preparations." (Grieve, p. 688)


Flowering Rosa gallica officinalis plant

Old Rose Beauty

Even with the advancement of the 21st Century, it is still possible to buy, and plant this old species of rose in our gardens. Many rose growers sell Rosa gallica officinalis bushes – either bare-rooted during winter months, or potted anytime throughout the year. You can order these roses online or purchase them from specialist plant nurseries.

The Apothecary Rose itself is a small to medium-sized shrub that is native to central and southern Europe. It prefers a site with full sun or partial shade, and flowers in early summer. It has dull green foliage, and bold pink flowers that are luscious and delicately fragrant. With very few prickles along its stems, the Apothecary Rose is a blessing to anyone who likes to garden.

Other available varieties of Rosa gallica include the dramatic, pink-and-white striped 'Rosa Mundi' (Rosa gallica veriscolor); the dark, dusky purple-reds of 'Tuscany', 'Tuscany Superb', 'Cardinal de Richelieu', and 'Charles de Milles'; and the soft, subtle pinks of 'Complicata', 'Duchesse de Montebello' and 'Président de Séze'. 

Whether interplanted with MarigoldEnglish Lavenderlilies or other cottage flowers, R. gallica officinalis, and its relative types, lend an air of sanctuary and sensuality to the garden environment. Once cultivated in the convents and monasteries of medieval Europe, it is a rose that continues to grow in its legacy in the gardens of today. 

Harking back to the medieval age, the Apothecary Rose is as historic as you can get. 


 

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Comments

Nov 29, 2012 12:35am
askformore
Thumbs up for your great article! Thank you for telling the story of the old roses. Great information and photos!
Nov 29, 2012 12:56am
wordspeller
Thanks for your comment. I am in awe of the three varieties of Gallica roses flowering in my garden at the moment, that I just had to write an article about them. There is definitely some truth in the saying 'write what you love'!
Dec 1, 2012 4:33pm
Imprimatur
Very interesting and enjoyable article. It is interesting to see the symbolic thread of the flower, running through history.
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Bibliography

  1. Gerard, J. Gerard's Herball – The History of Plants. New York: Crescent Books, 1985.
  2. Bennett, J. Lilies of the Hearth. Ontario: Camden House, 1991.
  3. Culpeper, N. Culpeper's Complete Herbal and English Physician. London: Greenwich Editions, 2003.
  4. McIntyre, A. The Complete Floral Healer. Rydalmere: Hodder Headline Australia Pty Limited, 1996.
  5. Grieve, M. A Modern Herbal. West Molesey: Merchant Book Company Ltd, 1973.
  6. Stokes Jr, J. S. "Mary Gardens Historical Perspective." John S. Stokes Jr.. 28/11/2012 <Web >

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