Roses: A Celebration: Thirty-Two Eminent Gardeners on Their Favorite Roseby Wayne Winterrowd
Thirty-three eminent gardeners on their favorite rose
Among the plant kingdom, Rosa is a relatively small genus, comprising only about one hundred species around the globe. But as these species intercross, they have given rise to as many as thirty thousand cultivars, making the rose perhaps the most various of all plants grown in gardens-and one of/i>/b>
Thirty-three eminent gardeners on their favorite rose
Among the plant kingdom, Rosa is a relatively small genus, comprising only about one hundred species around the globe. But as these species intercross, they have given rise to as many as thirty thousand cultivars, making the rose perhaps the most various of all plants grown in gardens-and one of the most treasured.
This one-of-a-kind collection gathers together thirty-three eminent gardeners and rosarians, including Graham Stuart Thomas, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas C. Cooper, Joe Eck, Michael Pollan, Anne Raver, Page Dickey, Thomas Christopher, David Austin, Peter Beales, Dan Hinkley, and Jamaica Kincaid. Each writes about a favored rose--Rosarie de l'Ha
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THE ROSE,"Alice M. Coates writes in her classic Garden Shrubs and Their Histories (1964),"is not a family whose history has been neglected." Beneath her blandness one senses a certain desperation, for the history of the rose has been traced hundreds of times. Learned lectures have been given, conjecture and dispute abound, and new genetic data shift long-established assumptions. Still, what we know of the origins of the rose remains almost as lost to time as are the facts of the Trojan War. To committed rosarians, this tangled history and its confusions are fairly familiar ground. But for those who are new to roses, or who have never thought much beyond their love of them, at least the bare outlines of a long and fascinating history might be traced.
It is certainly the case that other plants--Old World wheat or New World corn, for example--have exercised a far greater influence on humanity than has the rose. But among plants valued for beauty, the rose is unparalleled for its place in myth, symbol, literature, and human affection. As early as the twelfth century B.C., the Persians and the Medes carved representations of the typical, five-petaled single form of the flower as a religious emblem. If we put aside geologicalevidence, which indicates that roses were flourishing in some form or another long before our species made its appearance, this is our earliest knowledge of the flower. By the tenth century B.C., the Autumn Damask was growing on the island of Samos, where it was considered sacred to Aphrodite. Much later, it was known by the Romans as the Rose of Paestum because it grew in large numbers around the ancient temples of that fourth-century-B.C. city south of modern Naples; one temple, the Temple of Ceres, still stands. The Paestum Rose was celebrated by Virgil because of its ability to produce two flowerings, one in spring and a lesser one in autumn, making it the only repeat-flowering rose known in Europe until the introduction of the China rose in 1781.
The genus Rosa is not particularly large. It contains between 100 and 150 species, depending on how finely one wishes to split botanical hairs. But the genus is remarkable for several reasons.
First, its geographic distribution is remarkably broad. Though there are no roses native to South America, Australia, or New Zealand, the dispersal of the genus extends throughout the Northern Hemisphere, from China and Japan through Siberia, down to the Himalayas, and south to the Philippines. It continues from North Africa into Northern Europe, and across the Atlantic to continental North America, down to Mexico. The climatic range of the genus is enormous, stretching from almost arctic conditions to the mildest temperate zones. Such diversity reflects genetic material that is unusually capable of survival and adaptation to a wide (and ever-changing) range of climatic conditions, a heritage that comes to matter hugely in the dispersal of rose species and hybrids throughout the world.
In addition to wide dispersal throughout the Northern Hemisphere, most species within the genus Rosa freely intercross with one another when brought into proximity, resulting in many notable natural hybrids. The rose that grew at the temples of Paestum, for example, maintained species identity as Rosa damascena var. bifera until modern genetic research showed it to be a naturally occurring hybrid between Rosa gallica and R. moschata. It thus represents the first of thousands of cultivated roses containing the genetic makeup of two or more species or varieties. Another natural cross resulted in the celebrated Bourbon roses early in the nineteenth century. The first of these, 'Rose Edouard,' occurredon an island in the southern Indian Ocean, known once as the Ile de Bourbon and now as Reunion. It was a spontaneous hedgerow mating between the China rose 'Old Blush' and the Autumn Damask, and it was to figure hugely in subsequent rose breeding. Several Bourbons from that period are still much valued in gardens, notably the Empress Josephine's 'Souvenir de la Malmaison,' 'Louise Odier,' 'Mme Isaac Pereire,' and 'Zéphirine Drouhin.'
Until almost the end of the nineteenth century, however, most roses were either true species, the result of crosses by the hazard of proximity, or sports--the spontaneous mutation of flower shape, form, or color. That still left enough to grow, for, though John Gerard recorded only fourteen roses in his Herball (1597), the botanist John Parkinson--always the better gardener--writing in 1629, included twenty-four in his. Even with so relatively small a number, he could write that "the great variety of roses ... is much to be admired." He little knew.
By 1799, Mary Lawrance was able to publish A Collection of Roses from Nature, really the first of the great rose picture books, with ninety hand-colored etchings, and by the first decade of the nineteenth century, the Empress Josephine had accumulated so large a collection at Malmaison that she encouraged Pierre Joseph Redoute in the publication of his folio volumes, four in number, containing 170 plates. The Empress died in 1814, and so she never saw the publication of Redoute's work, which began in 1817 and continued to 1824. Still, his four folios represent perhaps the greatest work on roses ever published, and mark the beginning of the keen enthusiasm that has continued to our time.
It is important to realize, however, that scientific knowledge of the mechanics of breeding was not well established until Gregor Mendel undertook his work on heredity in the 1860s, after which the principles of hybridization through human intervention began to be understood. The Dutch had made a frenzy of crosses and selections in the seventeenth century, but it was not until around 1890 that a true explosion of rose varieties occurred, scarcely abating to the present day, and producing plants of such genetic complexity that the mind reels. Any hybrid bred before the end of the nineteenth century would contain the genes of several species. Rosa centifolia, for example, developed in Holland and known as Rose des Peintres because of its presence in so many seventeenth-centuryDutch floral paintings, displays the genetic material of Rosa gallica, R. phoenicia, R. moschata, R. canina, and R. X damascena. But when modern cytologists examine a recent hybrid--'Tropicana,' say, or 'Sterling Silver'--they may find evidence of a dozen species or more, and countless hybrids among them, reflecting what Hugh Johnson in The Principles of Gardening (1979) calls "a cocktail of inextricable complexity."
That brings us to the third remarkable fact about the genus Rosa. No other in the entire botanical kingdom reflects so long, so persistent, and so devoted an intervention by the hand of man. Written records of the cultivation of roses extend back more than five thousand years from the present, but there is ample though unwritten evidence of an even longer history, particularly in China and the ancient Middle East. One might suppose that the extraordinary beauty of the rose accounts for its elevation above all other flowers. However, the deliberate cultivation of flowering plants for their beauty appears to be only a periodic occurrence in Western history until the classical Roman period, when gardening as we in the West understand it began. (In China it is of older date, and the China roses--which would prove so important in nineteenth-century breeding for their characteristic of repeat blooming--already represented a complex but unrecorded series of crossings, intercrossings, and selections by the time of their arrival in Holland and England in the late eighteenth century.) In fact, no other plant of pronounced flower beauty was cultivated through the early Middle Ages, with the possible exception of the lily, the status of which was assured in monastery gardens because of its iconographic association with the Virgin Mary.
Roses, however, along with fruits and herbs, are among those few plants that possess both aesthetic and economic importance. It is a peculiarity of some roses, most particularly Rosa gallica var. officinalis, the Apothecary's Rose, that the fragrance of their petals endures long after they are dried, and a belief in the therapeutic properties of this fragrance exists from earliest human history down to the present time. The late Middle Ages practiced its own version of aromatherapy, equating pungency with efficaciousness in the treatment of disease. So the strong fragrance of some rose petals when harvested and dried was judged both healthful and delightful--no dichotomy in a world where the malodorousness ofpoor sanitation and the occurrence of ill health went hand in hand. Huge numbers of R. gallica officinalis plants were cultivated from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries around the city of Provins, southeast of Paris, and their petals were harvested and processed into pastes, oils, and unguents, producing a veritable pharmacopeia of remedies for all human surface ailments, including damaged skin, ulcers, wounds, amputations, and eye injury and disease.
An awareness of the rose as a medicinal plant was most likely brought home by the first Crusaders from North Africa and the Middle East, where knowledge of the therapeutic, culinary, and olfactory benefits of rose petals had been passed down from the ancient classical period. Without fixatives or complex chemical manipulation, few flowers lend themselves so well to preserving. Even before the Middle Ages, in Turkey and the Middle East, the process by which certain roses could be made into conserves, powders, or waters was well understood, resulting in products that were healthful in themselves and could also be used to flavor sweets and prepared dishes. The cream-filled pastries heavily scented with rose water that are sold in Greece and Sicily, and some sections of New York City, are a remnant of this practice. In Turkey, the scent is included in many dishes, both sweet and savory, to this day.
The ruggedness of the rose has also had something to do with its survival through history, including some of the darkest periods of the Middle Ages. To begin with, roses are shrubs, even though in some cases (such as Rosa filipes and its famous selection, 'Kiftsgate') they may make use of their wickedly hooked thorns to throw growth upward into any support, reaching heights of fifty feet or more. Their shrubby, deep-rooted character gives them an advantage over annuals, bulbs, or herbaceous plants, because they can withstand years of neglect in rough meadows, abandoned gardens, or other untended places. But roses also sprout suckers, new growth originating from below ground. In this way, most roses form wide thickets that expand annually from the mother plant, producing a dense shade that eliminates competitors.
Perhaps more than any other, this characteristic has suited roses wonderfully well, resulting in the spread of rose species and naturally occurring hybrids from ancient times to the present, wherever gardening has been practiced. Experiencedgardeners, confronted with a rose on its own roots that they want for their garden, will say, "Just give me a bit of root." They will cut off the top of the sucker, down to perhaps two inches, but preserve carefully the blackened, swollen bit between where the shoot grew above ground and its juncture to the mother plant, since there the life is. Roses travel well, and thousands of bits have thus been dug from ancient cities, ancestral houses, or family graveyards, protected from desiccation by nothing more than a little moist straw or cloth, and planted to grow again. Roses were transported in this way first across the ancient world, then on the packhorses of the Crusaders, later on ships bringing exotic species from China and the New World into Europe, and eventually on wagon trains that distributed old species and varieties throughout North America.
But roses have many other ways of reproducing than through the stolons that most of them naturally form. Cuttings also strike readily, and when properly protected can be transported long distances. More than one bundle of a choice species or family heirloom has crossed continents and oceans in damp straw, in oiled paper, in a plastic bag, or--as Vita Sackville-West once improvised when traveling in North Africa--stuck into a large potato. The great Southern garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence once noticed a particularly beautiful rose in a garden and asked its owner the name. "It is the Annasent rose," he replied. "We call it that because Anna sent it." In what form Miss Lawrence did not record, though it might have come as a rooted bit or a cutting and still survived after long travel.
Roses also set seed, which is abundantly produced in hips, an antique English word designating the fruit of the plant and sometimes, in old-fashioned texts, still written "heps." Though the seed is generally fertile, it is often extremely acidic, and therefore one of the most concentrated sources of vitamin C known. It will eventually be eaten by hungry birds when winter frosts have taken out the sourness, and then be widely dispersed. Glutinous hairs on the seeds of most roses stick to a bird's beak and can only be removed by being rubbed off on small twigs or branches, which assures an even wider dispersal than if all the seed passed through the bird's digestive system and was expelled in one place. If the rose is a species, such as the beach rose, Rosa rugosa, or the dreaded pasture rose, R. multiflora, sprouted seed will be true to its parent, producing either an identicalcopy or some variant encoded within its genetic makeup. An amble in late June or early July along the beach anywhere on Cape Cod or parts of the Maine coast, where the Asian species Rosa rugosa is widely naturalized, will thus reveal several shades of single pink roses, and some that are white, with--if one is very lucky--even a rare double-flowered form. An examination of thickets of R. mulriflora will also occasionally reveal a completely thornless plant, which rose growers treasure as grafting stock for its ease of handling, and which gardeners who like the appearance and strong scent of R. multiflora collect for growing on arbors or to run up into trees.
But if the rose is a hybrid, the result of pollenization by some random bee, the wind, or human agency, a new rose may occur--one that may be very desirable. Hybridists, both professional and amateur, make thousands of crosses a year, as does Nature itself, and no one can say how many splendid roses have been ignored or discarded because of fashion, or because the hybridizer was set on a clearer scarlet, a finer bud, or a hardier plant, or simply because no one stumbled upon them. Nevertheless, the number of rose varieties now in existence runs to many thousands, and, as Peter Schneider points out in his essay for this book, "Crossing any modern rose with any other modern rose [may] produce one of seventeen million different possible results." Though a few desirable roses are either naturally occurring hybrids or sports, most are raised from seed. Their numbers increase yearly, and are apt to do so as long as the fashions of the moment elevate one look, one color, one bud or flower formation over others. We may truly, then, echo Browning's much-quoted line and say that, for much of human history, "It is roses, roses all the way."
But the capacity to survive--by cutting, stolon, seed, climatic adaptability, or otherwise--though obviously important to any individual plant genus, may still not be of much value to humanity. Any persistent weed may possess as many tricks as does the rose, just to get by. "What is this ROSE," Graham Thomas asks in his great Rose Book (1994), "that enslaves gardeners? ... Why, in short, does everyone love a rose, and what does it offer that other flowers lack?" His reply to the question is scent. That might have served as a first answer, many centuries back, and serves still to many. But other flowers may smell as sweet. Consider thelily, whose scent is generally rich, and whose species are as numerous. Or the rhododendron, which may be had in a huge number of colors and forms, many possessing a fine fragrance of their own. And today many hybrids and modern teas either have a weak scent or are wholly lacking in that wonderful attribute, yet are still valued.
The qualities we have so far detailed--ruggedness, ease of transport, genetic diversity, susceptibility to manipulation by the hand of man, adaptability to a wide range of climatic conditions, economic use--eke out an answer to some degree. There is also, of course, the innate charm of the rose, whether as a pure, single flower of five petals or a much-doubled and -quartered opulent cup such as 'Mme Hardy' or 'Cuisse de Nymphe,' or even the perfect, high-centered bud of the florist's hybrid tea. Pretty flowers, all. But we must still look a little further.
No flower has achieved anything near the prominence of the rose in the human imagination--not as a real flower, but as an idea. From those twelfth-century Persian carvings onward, it was employed as a religious symbol. In earliest Greek religious history, it was associated with Aphrodite, and came to represent youthful purity. Later, to the Romans, it was the flower of Venus, and also of Bacchus, a symbol for luxury and indulgence, making up the chaplet worn by banqueters at feasts, their couches scattered with its petals. In the Middle Ages, the white rose became associated with the purity of the Virgin Mary, and, by extension, the red rose with Christ's Passion. By the Renaissance, the rose had again been associated with the beauties and pleasures of the world, showering Botticelli's newborn Venus with its petals, and showing up in the baroque and even classical periods as the bouquet clasped by a leering Bacchus, or draping the chaste bosom of Houdon's portrait bust of the Comtesse du Cayla. Seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painters saw in the rose, particularly the opulent centifolias, the very emblem of both the joys of life and its inevitable end. The rose then became the symbol of two warring English noble houses, the Yorks (red) and the Lancasters (white), and the name of an internecine war between them, which ended with the marriage of Henry of Lancaster, later Henry VII, to Elizabeth of York. To the Victorians, who could attach symbolic meaning to anything, roses were rich in significance, and so, in the Language of Flowers,red roses conveyed fidelity, a single yellow bloom jealousy, and endlessly on. The modern florist industry has grown rich on Valentine's Day with the sale of red roses, a bunched dozen of which is as obligatory a romantic pledge as a heart-shaped box of chocolates.
The interesting thing about human symbols is that they take on a life of their own, gaining strength with each expression, and sometimes becoming far distant from, or at least something other than, the thing they originally represented. The stylized acanthus leaves on Corinthian columns, for example, are instantly familiar to us, having been employed as architectural decoration for more than three thousand years, though few would recognize in them the Mediterranean woodland plant on which they were originally modeled. Similarly, by always seeming to be something more than itself, the rose has become far more than it was, or, indeed, in the minds of all but gardeners, more than it is. It has entered the English language in myriad and surprising ways. Michael Pollan, in his chapter on roses in Second Nature (1991), assembles this litany.
... the War of the Roses ... the crown of thorns ... rosy-fingered dawn ... sub rosa ... Rose is a rose is a rose ... the rosary ... the Rosicrucians ... The Romance of the Rose ... the Rose Bowl ... the bed of roses ... by any other name would smell as sweet ... Dante's yellow rose of Paradise ... when the fire and the rose are one ... the run for the roses ... toward the door we never opened / Into the rose garden . . . through rose-colored glasses ... Rosebud ... Tennyson's white rose of virginity . . .
He concludes by noting that the rose is a "symbol, it almost seems, of symbols."
To the writers assembled in this book, individual roses have also meant something other than, or more than, themselves. Many have valued a single rose, not only for what beauty it possesses, but also for how it came to matter to them. Anyone who cares for flowers will know that any flower, if it is remembered at all, can be a hook on which to hang both memory and desire, but the rose seems better for that than any other. Hence this book, which is made up of essays not so much about roses as about personal memories of them. Voices vary from essayto essay. Perspectives vary, and the roses themselves vary--though there is conversation among them, an echoing of attitudes, preferences, and the prejudices that are--like it or not--the mother of taste. At bottom, these essays have this in common: the conviction that almost anything deeply loved or valued, even a single rose, catches up the strands of history and memory--of how something counted in childhood or at some other point in our lives because of where we happened to be or what we were making or whom we were with, and how we felt at that moment.
Copyright © 2003 by Wayne Winterrowd
Meet the Author
Wayne Winterrowd is the author of three previous books on gardening, and a contributing editor of The Gardener. He also writes frequently for Horticulture magazine. He and his partner, Joe Eck, are cofounders of the garden design firm North Hill.
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