"I may be shy, but Love gives me the courage to tell you that, ever since the day I first saw you, it’s always been May, and in May the world is beautiful and bursting with colours, but on the trees you can still only see flowers, which will sooner or later become fruits, and then what will you do? You’re waiting, licking your lips.” The words of Jovanotti in “Serenata Rap” give us the perfect description of May and what it means.

May is the last month of spring, and the fifth of the year. It is the month of rebirth, of fertility, of love; the month when nature puts on its finest show of bloom and pollination. It’s not a coincidence that May is the “Marian” month, the month devoted to the Virgin Mary, and that Mother’s Day falls within its dates. Everything is fat, healthy, teeming with aromas and colours – no surprise, then, that the name “May” comes from Maia, the Roman goddess of abundance and a symbol of the great giver, Mother Earth. 

For flower lovers, May is the closest thing to earthly paradise. The poppies unfurl, the fields turn yellow with the flowers of mustard and turnip. Here in Tuscany, almost everything is a riot of violet, be it the irises, the surfinias, the hyacinths, the roses...the list goes on, and we would risk boring you if we listed all the flowers (and allergies) that rear their heads in May. But we’ll linger for a little while on the rose, that extraordinary family of flora that has been cultivated and commented on since at least the Classical era. It oddly fell out of favour during the Middle Ages, only to come storming back in the Renaissance. Its ascent continues uninhibited to this day. Maybe this is why the word rosa is one of the few Italian words taken straight from Latin, rather than merely deriving from it. Those of us who studied Latin will remember rosa, rosam, rosae, rosae, rosa from the first declension. We all learned it by heart, drilled the melody of it into our memory. A thousand stories, symbols, anecdotes and curiosities swirl around the rose. There are poems, books and films dedicated to this flower. Everybody loves it, especially in May, when it is at its most truly alive.

But first, let’s do our homework. We’re talking about the rosaceae, a modern label that includes some 150 species. Oh yes, roses can take practically any form: bushes, trees, climbers, creepers, runners. And the flowers? Well, they come in just about every colour: some are two-tone, even three-tone, and they always give off that heady rosey smell. They might be solitary or in clusters; they might be small, large, double-headed, and that’s before we start talking about the shape of them. Once the flower, then the fruit. Yes, roses do bear fruit: rosehips, as those in the know call them. They’re a type of berry, and even find an occasional place in the kitchen, for herbal teas and jams and the like. After all, we’ve all tried dog rose jelly, haven’t we?  Every rose has its thorn, they say. Lies, all lies: there are some species that don’t prick, though I must admit that I much prefer the idea of the spines, guarding the precious flower within. But the symbolism of the rose goes far beyond the thorns; in fact, it virtually never ends. Perhaps it’s the colour that defines it best: red roses stand for hot-blooded, carnal passion, and gentlemen of times gone by would traditionally gift a bunch of six red roses to their paramours. When the bunch contained not six but twelve flowers, it was cause for celebration, for twelve roses meant a marriage proposal.

When white, roses symbolise rather different things – candour, purity, spiritual love – and when yellow, there’s jealousy in the air! Many people love the oldest rose species; for my part, I adore the dog rose, to the point of actually growing them myself. A lot of my friends are drawn to the sublime Chinese rose, while for others, Bourbon and Damask roses are the flower of choice. But de gustibus non disputandum est: there’s a rose to suit every taste. You can have this or that smell, this or that hue, this or that shape. At its heart, the rose is a synonym for beauty, and of the fleetingness of a life that must be lived, savoured with all the senses. Yes, roses bloom in May, but some of them make it into summer too, only then to age and wither. But they’re no less beautiful with lines and wrinkles; indeed, you can find some dried roses that are graceful, delicate masterpieces of beauty. Eventually they fall and die, but not before their spines have done battle with countless enemies, aphids chief among them. But almost always, they manage to rise again: every year, like an Arabian phoenix, their eternal beauty returns.