The rose is a universal flower. It stands for medieval romance as well as modern lovers; with its dramatic combination of beauty and fragrance. It reminds us of war and peace, of Greece and Rome and the pagans and Christians.
‘Roses impose a tranquility of peace’ and they are ‘an evocative symbol of life, the earth, civilization and the beauty of creation’*
Rosa Chinensis, the China rose and the tea rose, Rosa Odorata, form the basis for most of today’s modern hybrid roses.
Rosa Chinensis arrived in Europe during the early years of the eighteenth century and Rosa Odorata in the early nineteenth century.
Both were already old in Chinese history and art and had been developed for centuries before their descendants reached European shores.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century at the Chateau Malmaison nearby to Paris Empress Josephine (1763-1814) employed botanical painter Pierre-Josephe Redouté (1759-1840) to record her plant collection.
Previously a painter of flowers to two Queens under the Ancien Regime, with Empress Josephine’s direction Redouté became known as the ‘man who painted roses’.
Among the roses Redouté recorded were the four so-called China roses from which most modern roses descend.
They were Parks Yellow tea-scented China, Hume’s Blush tea-scented China, Parson’s Pink China and, Slater’s Crimson China and known collectively as the ‘Stud Chinas’.
Redouté’s finest achievement is generally considered to be the publication of his masterly work Les Roses (1817). As a general rule China roses flower almost continuously on smallish bushes.
Their flowers are loose and informal, although often nicely pointed in the bud. In temperate climates they are virtually evergreen, although frost tender in colder areas.
Most French roses bloom for a comparatively short period. Their beauty is fleeting, but they always charm.
During Empress Josephine’s lifetime the Chatéau Malmaison was a showpiece for many kinds of exotic plants and animals from around the world. In all over 200 varieties of roses were planted between 1804 and 1814.
They have been categorized: one hundred and seven were forms of Rosa gallica, thirty two were Centifolias, eight were Damasks seven were Albas, twenty were China’s and the remaining number came from a wide varieties of different species, including the petite pimpinellifolia.
The menagerie included a kangaroo, an ostrich, and a trained orang-outang that wore a coat and skirt, curtsied and ate at a table. But it was the roses that were Josephine’s first and foremost interest.
Thanks to her efforts the techniques developed at Malmaison formed a foundation that has since been improved, simplified and added on to so that today home gardeners can grow spectacular show roses without the resources of an Empress.
The roses at Malmaison included the lovely Souvenir de la Malmaison, a rose that came into existence long after the days of the Empress Josephine.
It is a Bourbon rose, whose blooms are large, the palest flesh pink, deepening to the centre but pale when they open.
Tradition has it the first Bourbon rose was a chance seedling that sprang up amongst a mixed hedge of R. Chinensis and “Autumn Damask” on the then, Isle of Bourbon, early in the nineteenth century.
The bush is low and twiggy, under one metre high and it is sprinkled with blooms for most of the year. The class itself is vigorous, comparatively hardy and can be relied on for an autumn flush of blooms, which differed from the blooms in Josephine’s time.
Since gardens became the province of all people, the rose has been grown in gardens from the suburban villa to the country cottage orneé.
In history it was grown in the royal palaces of the Near and Middle East, on all the royal estates in Europe and England and profusely in the gardens of the Mughal Emperors of India long before they attracted notice in the President’s garden at the White House in America.
In fact the rose appeared on earth long before man. A fossil imprint of a rose leaf estimated to be about 35 – 40 million years old was reputedly unearthed in Colorado. This fossil rose leaf was sold at Auction in 2010. by The Green River Formation.
It provides a rare look into the flora and fauna of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah from over 35 million years ago. Many ancestors of today’s plants can be found as well preserved fossils in the ancient lake basins throughout the region. This fine specimen with excellent venation is a leaf from the Rosaceae family; possibly an ancestor of today’s rose species. The leaf measures 5½ x 4 inches and is well centered on a limestone matrix measuring 13 x 9½ inches.
Botanists believe roses evolved as early as 60 million years ago, probably in Asia, and then spread across the world. It is also believed many of the islands of the Mediterranean were once densely covered with roses. And, then there was the so-called Rose Red City, Petra in Jordan…
Match me such marvel,
Save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city – half as old as time
Botanically the genus is first cousin to such well-known plants as prunus (plums) malus (apples) rubus (berries, such as blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries) cotoneaster and spirea (May) sorbus (rowan).
Despite the wide range of species available surprisingly few have been used in modern breeding. Other species are either incompatible for breeding with our moderns, or else their virtues are completely overwhelmed by a dominant disadvantage, such as excessive thorniness or, susceptibility to disease.
The earliest written record of a rose appears on Sumerian tablets some five thousand years ago, with a sculpture of the same period depicting a golden ram caught in a thorn bush, on which blooms a rose. The first recorded painting of a rose was on the walls of the Palace of King Minos in Crete at Knossos.
This rose was later identified as a Damask rose.
The two earliest varieties of Rose were Rosa Gallica and the Damask Rose. The hardiness of Rosa Gallica is indisputable; the plants renewed their vigour by suckering freely in all directions. The rich coloring of this low-growing suckering rose, its fragrance, medicinal properties and general hardiness made it a treasured plant for centuries.
The wild prototype with its rich fiery flower, from which all Gallica roses derive, came from countries at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. They were rubra (red) and highly esteemed.
Described in very ancient texts as being semi-double in form, this was the rose of the Persian Magi and Median fire worshippers, who used it in in religious ceremonies twelve centuries before the Christ event.
Nearly all other varieties at this time were pale and pink, and there were extensive plantings of roses in ancient gardens.
Arab physicians used its dried petals for both its astringent and invigorating properties. The petals hold their scent to an amazing degree and fresh blooms were steeped in oil for the preparation of that fragrant volatile essence known as attar of roses.
The Persians considered the rose the most beautiful of flowers and called it gul, which became the generic term for flower. A rose garden is called a gulistan.
The history of the damask rose reads like the tales of the Arabian Nights.
For century’s writers, poets and artists sung its praises and extolled its beauty and fragrance.
The Phoenician saint who established Christianity in Persia carried the rose to Abyssinia where it became known as the Holy Rose or sancta and they still found in Abyssinian churchyards today.
Traders along the old caravan routes carried it to Kashmir, Afghanistan and India. In Asia Minor, following the expulsion of the Crusaders from Jerusalem in 1187, Sultan Saladin used 500 camel loads of rose water from Damask Roses to purify the Temple of Omar, which had been used as a Christian Church.
There is the story illustrated in Persian literature that centers on the rose. It is one of many poems and tales concerned with flowers.
The story goes that two rival physicians quarreled fiercely about the efficacy of poisons. They eventually agreed to put their theories to the test. The wiser of the two swallowed an antidote with the deadly pill given to him by his rival. He then picked a spray of roses and breathed a spell onto it. Before handing it to his opponent whom, greatly fearing the power of the spell, smelled the roses and fell dead from the terror.
The rose was the symbol of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. She chose it as her personal emblem, as did Dionysus, the Greek God of wine and revelry.
In the Iliad Greek author Homer described the shield of Achilles as decorated with roses. It also told the story about how Aphrodite came by night to anoint Hector’s body with rose oil before it was embalmed, after he had been slain by Achilles.
Sir John Chardin, when describing a rose bush he saw in Iran in the seventeenth century wrote,
‘It bore upon one, and the same branch roses of three colours. Some yellow, others yellow and white, and others yellow and red’.
The citizens of the island of Rhodes in the Mediterranean love roses. The name Rhodes comes from Rhodon, the Greek word for Rose.
They adopted the rose as their symbol and stamped it on the coinage of the realm. The coin from ancient Rhodes was minted around 325BC and the rose was recorded on over one hundred and two different coins until Rome conquered the island in the first century before the Christ event.
Thou art the smile of the gods,
The pure joy of mortal man,
All grace adorning
Romans were the most lavish celebrants of the rose. Their heroes were garlanded with roses, and the graves of soldiers decorated with roses at a service called Dies Rosationis. When the rose was out of season in Italy, the Romans unable to endure any absence of the flower, imported them from North Africa, as well as rose scent from Arabian and Indian merchants.
The Romans are attributed with introducing the rose to England. The venerable Bede, an Anglo Saxon scholar, theologian and historian possessed a copy of Pliny the Elder’s 160 volumes Historia naturalis of 77 AD. It has a chapter devoted to roses.
The Isle of Albion, as England was known in antiquity, might have been so called because of the white roses with which it abounded.
Rosa Alba is one of the first roses cultivated in England. Its growth habit is tall and upright, which in some cases exceeds eight feet, and so they are useful for background planting and informal hedging.
They have very distinctive gray-green foliage with plum overtones. It does not sucker as freely as some other roses used for stock purposes.
It requires to be pruned lightly, or not at all, if it is to develop its full beauty.
For smaller gardens it can be cut back to produce more compact growth however that will inhibit flowering so that you produce a smaller number of quality flowers, rather than a large profusion of blooms that virtually drip from the stem.
During the Middle Ages troubadours went from castle to castle singing tender love songs and stories, comparing lovely ladies to a rose. The civil wars fought in England in the name of Roses ended in 1485. The White Rose of York was probably Rosa Alba maxima and the Red Rose of Lancaster Rosa gallica maxima.
In 1553 at Hampton Court in the garden there were four hundred rose bushes. In England’s Heraldic tradition there are four different rose devices. The most usual is the rose with five petals and a bold boss of stamens, with the five sepal points showing between the petals.
If the sepals are emblazoned with a different colour than the petals, the rose is referred to as barbed. If the boss is different the rose is described as seeded.
The Tudor rose is double, with the white and red petals of the houses of York and Lancaster.
The rose of Edward IV is a rose with Rose en Soleil cognisance a sun’’ rays spreading beyond the petals. There is also the slipper rose, which when surmounted by the royal crown is the badge of England.
It has a short stalk with two leaves attached. Elizabeth 1 had a Tudor Rose with the legend, a rose without a thorn and there is the famous portrait of her adorned with roses.
Nicholas Hilliard (1537-1619) was one of the first English miniature painters. He excelled in romantic portraits such as that of the anonymous Elizabethan gallant standing pensively in a rose garden.
The rose was also associated with the Jacobite cause. Bonnie Prince Charlie is said to have worn one in his bonnet as he marched triumphantly to Derby.
They were also engraved on wine glasses made of lead crystal as a secret sign to those who were in sympathy to his cause.
Queen Anne, whose reign in which England and Scotland were united, had for emblem a rose and thistle growing from one stem and it figures on the king’s color of the second battalion of the Scots Guards until this day.
In the eighteenth century in England bans on decorative textiles from the orient created an obsession with chintz called ‘indiennes’ by the French.
The English actor David Garrick bemoaned the seizure of his wife’s rose chintz bed hangings. For the next one hundred years contraband chintzes were smuggled into Europe and chintz spies lurked everywhere. So there was much celebrating when in the 1850’s the ban was lifted and roses appeared everywhere again.
Captain William Langdon left his home in Somerset in England and sailed for Hobart Town.
A veteran of the Napoleonic wars, he applied successfully to Governor Sorell in 1823 for a grant of 1500 acres on the Clyde river and built a substantial house which he named Montacute for the English house of that name where his father had been rector.
He brought with him a red rose and while Montacute is now in ruins, much like Port Arthur in Tasmania which is now a wonderful country for growing roses, especially those of the China variety.
Cabbage and Moss roses descend from Rosa Gallica and other varieties of these shrub roses come from marriages between Rosa Gallica and the roses from China.
People, generally speaking, do not know what the ‘Moss’ refers to.
They get their name from a curious effect caused by a mutation, which enlarges the glands on the sepals and stalks of the blooms, giving a characteristic moss-like effect.
The development of the first hybrid tea rose in the mid nineteenth century was a notable triumph in rose breeding. Their colours, shapes and sizes vary enormously, sharing a heritage of superlative beauty.
The Queen Elizabeth is considered by many rose growers to be the finest of the floribunda hybrid tea roses. It is remarkably vigorous and disease free cultivar that bears small clusters of flowers on long, almost thornless stems.
Dainty Bess is one of a small number of hybrid teas whose buds open into five petalled blossoms like those of wild roses.
Some of the loveliest roses are the old-fashioned bush roses.
Of them architect Edwin Lutyen’s gardener friend Miss Gertrude Jekyll said ‘these were the roses that so often appear in the pictures of the Dutch flower painters; and in more recent years it was these flowers, now old fashioned, but always adorable, that, amid all the thousands of more modern kinds, held the admiration and inspired some of the most beautiful work of Fantin-Latour, whose genius and sympathy enabled him to show on his canvases, not only their intrinsic beauty and dignity, but also a sympathetic suggestion of their relation to human life and happiness’.
From the very beginning husband and wife gardening team Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West intended the garden they planted at Sissinghurst in Kent should be filled with roses.
They genuinely believed old-fashioned shrub roses gave them more in return for a given amount of labour and expense and they enjoyed their profusion, generosity of spirit of a plant that gave of flowers with great gusto. They loved their untidy, lavish performance with walls to frame their exuberance.
A rose between two thorns is likened to a gentle person between two plain, evil or ill-tempered ones.
And, a rose by any other name Romeo’s other half Juliet would tell us, would smell as sweet.
American writer Gertrude Stein observed…
‘a rose is a rose is a rose’….
‘Come live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasure prove
That hills and valleys, dales and fields
And all the craggy mountains yields
And I will make thee beds of roses
With a thousand fragrant posies
A cap of flowers and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle’
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011-2014
*According to French couturier Valentino