The rose is one of the world's most popular and treasured plants. With more than 30,000 varieties, it is also one of the most symbolic flowers. The Virgin Mary has been called the "Mystic Rose." Ancient Greeks and Romans attached various symbolic meanings to roses. In addition to the various meanings given to rose colors and whole roses, rose petals and the number of petals on particular roses have also taken on symbolic meanings.
Roses have been associated with Isis, Aphrodite, and Venus. An early reference to rose petals involves Cleopatra's first meeting with Marc Antony. She had the floor of the room covered with rose petals. Rose petals are associated with the birth of the Indian goddess Lakshmi, claimed to be the most beautiful woman in India. She was supposedly born from 108 large and 1,008 small rose petals. The painting Birth of Venus by Botticelli has roses blowing in the breeze as wind from the gods push Venus to the shore.
The number of petals on a rose have come to symbolize different things. The wild rose has five petals, signifying the wounds of Christ. A rose with seven petals signifies seven directions of space, seven degrees of perfection, and seven planets (when it was believed there were seven planets in the solar system). A rose with eight petals signifies regeneration.
The phrase "a bed of roses" originated in the Christopher Marlowe poem, "The Passionate Shepherd To His Love," published posthumously in 1599. Among other things, the shepherd promises not just a single bed of roses, but multiple beds. "And I will make thee beds of roses, and a thousand fragrant posies." "A bed of roses" symbolizes an easy or pleasant situation.
The wedding flower girl dates back to at least medieval England. A flower girl would come before the bride and sprinkle rose petals in a path to the church, symbolizing happiness. Flower girls perform the same function in modern ceremonies but cover a shorter distance. Rose petals are tossed down the church aisle to signify a happy and colorful last walk as a single woman.
Despite statements to the contrary, rosary beads were not originally made from rose petals. On her website Paternoster Row, medieval historian and prayer bead authority Chris Laning shows references that rose petal rosaries began to appear in the 1920s. Also, the word "rosary" did not originally mean "rose petals." Laning states it originally meant "rose garden" or "rose wreath."