One fine day a lady named Chloris found a dead nymph lying in a field, or maybe it was the woods. Now, if you or I found a dead nymph we would call the police and an ambulance and make a terrible fuss. But Chloris couldn't care less about all that. Her first thought was that it would be nice to turn the nymph into a flower. See, Chloris was the goddess of flowers, and this was her favorite nymph.
The question was, what flower? The nymph was too beautiful to be a daisy or a dandelion. So Chloris went to the other gods for contributions.
Dionysus, the god of wine, donated nectar. Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, gave some of that. The Three Graces liberally handed out their elegance and, well, grace. And so on.
Pretty soon Chloris had her new flower.
All the gods and goddesses thought it was so terrific they crowned it the queen of flowers.
They called it . . . the rose.
This nation is within 36 votes, in the House of Representatives, of adopting the rose as its national flower.
"The Senate passed the bill last July," said Heather Kelly, who works for Roses Inc., the Commercial Rose Growers Association. "Lindy Boggs of Louisiana is sponsoring it in the House, and we have 200 votes lined up.
The vote comes up by the first of June, and we hope to have 218 by then."
That is the magic number, of course, for getting a bill through the House, and if passed it would end a controversy that goes back at least 30 years. The late senator Everett Dirksen led the battle to make the marigold the national flower. California interests backed the Shasta daisy, and other states favored everything from the corn tassel to the sunflower.
But the rose was always right up there. Americans buy 625 million of them a year, 64 million on Valentine's Day alone, and another 50 million today for Mother's Day. They are grown in all 50 states, and the biggest grower, daisies notwithstanding, is California, followed by Pennsylvania and Indiana.
"We've arranged to have the rose be the official flower of the Statue of Liberty reopening ceremonies," said Kelly. "We're even naming a rose for the occasion. The Lady Liberty. It's white with a greenish cast."
To no one's astonishment, she strongly recommends buying American-grown roses (you have an 80 percent chance of doing that very thing) because they probably haven't traveled as far as those from Israel or Colombia.
According to the Encyclopedia Americana, the rose is "a prickly shrub."
It can be anything from a six-inch miniature bush to a 10-foot tree. Wild, the blossoms usually have five petals, white, pink or red. Cultivated roses may sport double blossoms, and their colors can be remarkably subtle: lovely soft washes of pink or cream or mauve or orange and bright rims of red or yellow or white or coral or apricot or almost any color.
Except blue. There are no pure blue roses. That's what it says in the book.
"Roses may be grouped in beds or scattered in a perennial border. They may be used as accent shrubs, hedges and foundation plantings, or for edging flower beds. Climbing varieties will cover walls, fences and steep banks. A selection of roses can provide six months or more of bloom. No other flower gives as much return in beauty for the effort . . . "
One noted gardening expert insists there is such a thing as "rose fits," in which you start digging up the sidewalk and dismantling the back porch so you can plant more roses.
In fact the rose has worked its way into the human consciousness so deeply it will probably never be rooted out. Look at the rose window, which began simply as a circular window in Romanesque architecture. Returning crusaders remembered the fancy round windows they had seen in the Holy Land, and before you knew it we had Chartres. Humbler flowers have been given the name of rose in hopes of dressing them up. The rose of Jericho is a desert bloom of the mustard family. The rose of Sharon is a kind of hibiscus, or else a Saint Johnswort.
The Rose Bowl grew out of Pasadena's Tournament of Roses, which is not a surprise. There is rosewood, rosemary, rose mallow, Roseville pottery from Ohio, the rosefish, rose' wine and roseola infantum, otherwise known as German measles.
And the rose slug, which eats only rose leaves.
And the "Spectre de la Rose," and "Der Rosenkavalier," and "The Rose Tattoo," and "To a Wild Rose," and "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and any number of poems, songs, paintings and assorted other artistic tributes, beginning with a 3,700-year-old mural at Knossos. And the rosary, whose beads originally were made of rolled-up rose petals. The Catholic rosary has 165 beads, the Mohammedan 108, the Buddhist 99.
You know about the Wars of the Roses, that knightly power struggle between the House of York (white) and the House of Lancaster (red). Unfortunately for the storybooks of our childhood, the Lancaster people insist they never revered a rose, and the Yorkists say they had all sorts of other symbols.
Anyway, that was the war that ended with Richard III calling for horseshoe nails at Bosworth Field. It's a long story.
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has collected 110 pretty sayings about roses, from "Against the blown rose may they stop their nose/ That kneel'd unto the buds" to "To work a wonder, God would have her shown/ At once, a bud, and yet a rose full-blown."
In America, most cut roses are bought by men, and most men buy red roses. The favorite red rose is a deep, velvety number called Samantha.
You can make a cut rose last as long as 10 days if you take care of it. Hold the stem under water and cut l; inch off the end while still under water. The stem is a siphon, you see, and if you get an air bubble in there the capillary action is blocked.
If the rose droops, simply lay it full length in a tub of water and gently straighten it out. After an hour or two in the tub it should be as good as new. And keep it in a cool place -- not on the TV set, not by a heater or draft or in direct sunlight. At night, take it to the bedroom, which presumably will be cool. Or store it in the refrigerator, but not in the freezer.
There are a lot of stories about How the Rose Got Its Thorns, beginning with Cupid, who was irritated because a bee stung him when he was picking a rose. He removed the stings from all the bees he could find and threw them into the rosebush. But then, the symbolism of the rose and its thorn is so felicitous that it can illustrate all sorts of things about good and evil, beauty and the beast, etc.
Ann Mayhew, in "The Rose: Myth, Folklore and Legend," tells a complicated tale about Bacchus chasing a nymph (another nymph) into a bush and getting his magic spells mixed up, producing both flower and thorn.
Mayhew is full of information about rose legends, miracles and traditions. Did you realize that Sleeping Beauty (whose name was Briar Rose and whose prince had to fight his way through thickets of thorny bushes) is probably a cleaned-up version of the myths about imprisoned princesses, ranging from the Greek Andromeda to the Norse Brunhild, which in turn hint at some ancient custom of human sacrifice?
She even tells you how to make rosewater ("Gather roses two or three hours after sunrise on a fine day. Pull the petals apart and pound them in a mortar . . . ") and notes that rose perfume, quite possibly the all-time favorite scent of people, bees and cats (doesn't everyone's cat sneak onto the dining room table to delicately sniff the roses?), is best made from the cabbage rose and the damask rose.sk,2
It takes 20,000 roses to make an ounce of rose oil, she reports, but "the merest drop will continue to give out its perfume for many months . . . "
If you scratch this newspaper with your fingernail and think very, very hard, you might smell roses.