White Roses: Meaning, Symbolism, and Proper Occasions

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Written by Hailey Pruett

Updated: August 22, 2023

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In total, there are around 15 different colors of roses. Each one has acquired its own meaning and symbolism over time. White roses are especially popular for a variety of occasions due to their elegant and timeless beauty. But what exactly is the white rose’s meaning, history, or symbolism? Below, we’ll explore the history of white roses, their distinctive color, and their varying meanings.

How Many Colors and Types of Roses Are There?

A vibrant range of around 15 unique colors of roses exists, from pure white to solid black and just about every shade in between. Scientifically, a rose is any one of around 300 species within the Rosa genus of perennial flowering plants. “Perennial” simply means it grows for more than two years, while “flowering” means it regularly bears fruits and flowers. The rose’s fruit is the rosehip, but most modern garden roses do not produce them. This is because they have been modified over time to have very tightly-arranged petals that make them impossible to pollinate.

These many species are superficially similar but can grow and be cultivated in a wide variety of ways, with some growing as shrubs and others having long, winding vines lined with sharp, prickly spines. Most varieties are native to Asia, with the majority of today’s common garden roses stemming from 18th-century China. However, a handful of others are native to areas like Europe, the Americas, and even northern Africa

Because they are fairly hardy, easy to maintain even for novice gardeners, and not terribly difficult to hybridize, people have developed thousands of unique hybrids and cultivars of roses over the years. We’ll get more into the exact history of roses themselves as well as the history of white roses’ symbolism below. Still, many varieties of roses have been popular for decorative and ceremonial purposes since the 12th century BC in ancient Greece.

A closeup of a vibrant cream-white rose

A closeup of a vibrant cream-white rose

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What Do White Roses Symbolize? A Brief History

Today, the white rose primarily symbolizes concepts like purity, innocence, new beginnings, loyalty, unity, peace, and love. But white roses didn’t always have this pure, serene symbolism or reputation. As far as historians can tell, it actually all started in ancient Greece.

As we mentioned above, the rose has a rich and varied cultural background dating back to ancient times. Originally, Greeks closely associated the rose’s beauty with the goddess Aphrodite, who similarly called to mind concepts like love, lust, fertility, desire, and passion. Curiously, according to second-century AD Greek lore, the very first rose was white until Aphrodite herself cut her finger on one of the roses’ thorns, turning it red with her blood.

In the coming centuries, as Christianity began to spread throughout Rome and the surrounding areas, people started associating roses with the Virgin Mary. This further contributed to the rose’s association with ideas of purity and innocence, especially the white rose. Rosary prayers and rosary beads also became common around this time. 

By the middle ages, roses had become a cultural mainstay throughout Europe for various ceremonies and applications. Later, impressionist painters and architects heavily featured them in their works and designs in the 1800s. White roses were especially common in these artistic applications due to their aesthetically pleasing and neutral hue.

Later, white roses came to be associated with weddings around this time. This was mainly due to Queen Victoria walking down the aisle with an all-white rose bouquet in 1840. From that point on, the white rose’s symbolism of purity, new beginnings, and, of course, love was truly solidified. By 1986, President Ronald Reagan even designated the rose as the United States’ official floral emblem or symbol.

Proper Occasions for Using White Roses

Now that we have a better idea of the white rose’s symbolism, history, cultural associations, and background, let’s take a look at some proper occasions for using these elegant, fragrant, and timeless flowers.

The first main occasion ideal for the white rose is, as you might have guessed, weddings and other love and engagement-related ceremonies. Thanks to Queen Victoria, the white rose’s popularity for this purpose absolutely skyrocketed in the mid-19th century. So if you can’t decide what colors or flowers to use for your bridal bouquet, you can’t go wrong with this classic option.

Another less-popular but still fairly common use for the white rose is sympathy and honoring those who have passed on. Pale and more muted hues, in general, are ideal for this purpose. However, the white rose, in particular, is an especially thoughtful way to show you care for someone who’s struggling due to a recent loss, whether it’s the death of a pet, family member, friend, or even partner.

Additionally, because of the white rose’s association with new beginnings, it can be a great gift for someone close to you in your life who’s embarking on a new journey. This fresh start could be anything from purchasing a new home, leasing a new car, or even just taking on a new job. White roses are also excellent housewarming gifts. They can symbolize cleansing and moving on to a new chapter in life in general.

In short, white roses have a wide range of applications. Gifting them can be a great way to show you care, whether your recipient is going through a tough time or celebrating a new start. But if you want to use them for a more traditional purpose, a bridal bouquet is the way to go!

Thanks to Queen Victoria, the white rose’s popularity for bridal bouquets absolutely skyrocketed in the mid-19th century.

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About the Author

Hailey "Lex" Pruett is a nonbinary writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering reptiles and amphibians. They have over five years of professional content writing experience. Additionally, they grew up on a hobby farm and have volunteered at animal shelters to gain further experience in animal care. A longtime resident of Knoxville, Tennessee, Hailey has owned and cared extensively for a wide variety of animals in their lifetime, including cats, dogs, lizards, turtles, frogs and toads, fish, chickens, ducks, horses, llamas, rabbits, goats, and more!

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