“What A Lovely Thing a Rose Is”

Who can resist the beguiling way roses poke their blooms over fences or peek through openings to have a look at you. And YOU can’t resist walking over to have a closer look, to touch and to smell.

Der Rosenfreund (the rose admirer) by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885) Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Why are roses so captivating? I often ask this question to people.

Is it the fragrance, I ask? The answer is always a definite “yes!”

Is it the silky petals? Yes, again!

What else?

How does one explain the magical transformation of a rustic shack into an elegant structure by the simple addition of a rose bush, even without  fragrance? All other flora surrounding the rose bush become mere accompaniments, like ladies or gentlemen in waiting.

The magic of roses turns a shack into a place of refinement. Photo by Dorothy Garabedian.

The only possible explanation I can think of is that, “A rose is a rose is a rose….”  Simply put: the rose is naturally noble.  Somewhere along the way it acquired the title of Queen of Flowers and for millennia the rose has never relinquished her aristocratic title.

Rose “Beverly” (photo by Dorothy Garabedian)

Walking along paths and quiet streets in my village, I see many rose bushes – and other people walking. Like me, they succumb to the magnetism of the wooing roses.  They stop, they look, they smell.

I like seeing the expressions on people’s faces when they sniff a fragrant rose. For a moment they are in a sublime place.

But is there more to their attraction than fragrant, silky petals – or nobility? I would say yes.

Roses are intelligent, complicated,  challenging.

Roses are charismatic and classy.

Roses entice.

Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conquistador and creator one of the world’s largest empires of the ancient world, was a rose devotee and had many rose gardens.  It is believed that Alexander is responsible for introducing Egypt to the cultivation of roses.

Gold Coin of Alexander The Great, Gulbenkian Museum Lisbon. (photo: dvgarabedian)

After Alexander’s death one of his generals, Ptolemy, went to Egypt and formed a Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt for many centuries. A few hundred years later one of his descendants, Cleopatra VII – who liked to dabble in alchemy – became ruler of Egypt. In what is probably the most famous enticement scene in history, here is how Cleopatra used rose magic to enormous advantage.

The year is late Spring, 41 BC.  The place is Tarsus on the Mediterranean Sea and she, a highly successful female monarch of a wealthy country, is arriving with her glittering flotilla to meet for the first time Mark Antony, co-ruler of the mighty Roman Empire. He had invited her.  She had lots of wealth and he needed lots of funding for his war campaign against Parthia (Persia). She came with her “I want” list too. It would be a high-stakes meeting.  Several competing currents were swirling around them so success for both was absolutely critical.

As it turned out, Cleopatra clearly overtook Marc Antony in their competing rounds of banqueting. An event planner extraordinaire, Cleopatra busted her entertainment budget planning everything in minute detail so that all parts would unfold seamlessly and perfectly timed – like a rose unfolding its petals.

Chroniclers of the time were at a loss for words to describe the splendor of Cleopatra’s dramatic entry and sumptuous hospitality. They even had difficulty describing her. She was not a stunning beauty but in her mesmerizing presence people found her irresistibly charming. She had extraordinary charisma. Her voice was melodious and she was extremely bright, highly educated (speaking about a dozen languages), witty and inventive.

For her arrival in Tarsus she first prepped the senses. Hundreds of enthralled townsfolk lining the embankment were in awe, their mouths and eyes wide open at the sights, sounds and smells drifting towards them.

Cleopatra’s barge (public domain)

Smell came first. Whiffs of rose fragrance wafted through the soft air to the shore. One of Cleopatra’s favorite effects was to drench the purple sails of her barges in rose oil.

Sound came next. The scintillating silver oars swishing in the sun provided a subtle rhythm while musicians played on deck. Vast puffs of incense were time-released along the way further enhancing the heady olfactory effects.

Finally, a blinding vision. Imagine the spectacle of seeing the barges rocking lazily towards the shore amid musical background and perfumed air.   Cleopatra slowly comes into focus under a shimmering gold canopy. She is exquisitely draped in luxurious fabrics and generously decorated from head to toe with winding ropes of gorgeous pearls, gold and precious stones and most certainly well oiled in unguents and soothing rose oil. She is reclining on luxurious cushions, her attendants softly fanning her.  What a sight! This is not a description of a Hollywood film. It really happened! But it’s just the beginning.

Mark Antony, as host, extended a dinner invitation to Cleopatra. She, although a client queen of Rome, was a ruling monarch so she sent him a note in turn saying it would better if she invited him to dinner – with his entourage.

Rose-oil drenched sails of Cleopatra’s barge as she meets Marc Antony. (Henri Pierre Picou 1899). public domain.

Each gave a series of banquets in turn.

Roman Banquet (1896) by Joseph Coomans (photo: public domain)

Mark Anthony tried to out-do the charismatic Cleopatra but she was far ahead of him in the hospitality and event staging business. After each banquet she increased the temperature until finally, for the fourth and last dinner on a very warm summer evening, Mark Antony, to come into her presence, had to walk down a long hall wading through a knee-high sea of highly fragrant rose petals. I think you know the rest of the story….

Marc Antony and Cleopatra with son Caesarion. (as Venus and Cupid), Pompeii. Public domain.

After reading about this historical episode in rose history, you may be  smelling roses already. Now fast forward two thousand years and imagine yourself in a small village entirely devoted to roses.

There is such place about a 40 minute drive north of Frankfurt, Germany and this year, 2018, it celebrates its 150th anniversary as the oldest and largest of Germany’s “rose towns” called Steinfurth next to Bad Nauheim, a famous spa town.

In the 1800s a rose rennaissance had emerged in Europe, particularly in France thanks to Empress Josephine’s passionate interest in roses and gardens.

England also was in the forefront of this renewed rose interest and in 1868 a German man named Heinrich Schultheis traveled to England to learn more about rose cultivation. Returning to Germany be became a pioneer in rose cultivation. He found that the area called the Wetterau had an ideal climate and soil for rose production. Soon he was training others in rose cultivation and by 1900 sixty families had spawned their own operations.

By 1930 there were 200 operations producing 15 million roses shipped all over the world before disruptions of two world wars. By 1970 there were again 210 operations producing 14 million Roses for worldwide consumption. Today there are fewer than a dozen, but very busy, operations. The Schultheis family is still operating with its 5th generation. Of course, the rose town would not be complete without a rose festival, a rose parade and a rose queen.

Of the town’s four main nurseries, Rosenpark Dräger has by far the most spectacular displays in a beautifully laid out park with fields of roses as far as the eye can see.  Visitors can sit outside in little alcoves surrounded by rose bushes for afternoon tea. In a large hall a boutique offers a vast selection of everything having to do with roses. At one end is the tea room. English High Tea is featured on Wednesday afternoons.

Rosenpark Dräger
Wednesday High Tea at Rosenpark Dräger
Boutique at Rosenpark Dräger
Terrace of Rosenpark Dräger 

The entire town of Steinfurth revolves around roses

In a historical, half-timbered house, a delightful highlight of Steinfurth is the Rose Museum. From classical to kitch the focus of the museum is on the universality of the rose. The original collection was acquired in the 1970s from Steinfurth’s grand dame of roses, Rita Steinhauer. The museum’s passionate director sees that the collection is continually refreshed with new acquisitions as well as rotating exhibits. The museum is also a venue for different kinds of cultural programs.

Rose Museum, Steinfurth, Germany 

A tea room and gift shop enhance the museum visit.  A local pastry chef creates heavenly cakes and torts exclusively for the Rose Museum Tea Room. What better way to finish off this plunge into rose culture than with a sublime rose cake and rose petal tea.

Rose Petal Tea

“Won’t you come into the garden? I would like my roses to see you.”   (Richard Sheridan)  

Photo by Dorothy Garabedian at Rosen Park Dräger, Bad-Nauheim-Steinfurth.


The Rose Museum – www.rosenmuseum.com

Rosenpark-Dräger – http://www.rosenpark-draeger.de

Rosenhof-Schultheis – http://www.rosenhof-schultheis.de

World Federation of Rose Societies – www.worldrose.org

Rose Magazine – www.rosemagazine.com

Further Reading: Cleopatra, A Life, by Stacy Schiff, ISBN 9780753539952.

All other photos: Dorothy Garabedian

“What a lovely thing a rose is.” – R.C. Doyle

“Philatelie” – Photo by Dorothy Garabedian

2 thoughts on ““What A Lovely Thing a Rose Is”

  1. Congratulations Dorothy,

    You did it again with a beautiful blog on roses, asking as to “Why are roses so captivating?”

    My answer is very simple. Where else can anyone find such beautifully formed petals, none looking alike in form but always looking differently just like the snow flakes, in many varied colors, each petal looking different as if they were painted by the strokes of different painters, and the varied fragrances to satisfy millions of us, yet every stem of them full of sharp thorns to hurt any of us so painfully that we curse them, or like the ones in my garden but not in the neighbor’s garden, being destroyed by the unforeseen bugs in the middle of the summer just before their full growth.
    So much beauty to be enjoyed, so much to cry about their dying!

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