The simple flower shape, blush pink petals, and large clusters of flowers throughout the summer have made ‘Ballerina’ a favorite for decades.
Roses are more than prickly garden plants with exquisite flowers. They are much more than roots and leaves, stems and petals. They are the ultimate symbol of beauty, displaying perfection and romance. But beyond this, they are metaphors of society and us throughout history, as well as today.
Aristocracy and the Rose
In medieval Europe, roses in the garden were symbols of aristocracy. There were only a few elite ruling families of the day, and there were just a few elite rose families, too.
Any aristocrat of the day would tell you that peasants were not capable of appreciating beauty for its own sake. Peasants could not discern the hint of pink in the petal of a rose no more than they could discern the subtle scents of fruit and musk from wine.
After laboring in the fields all day, it is unlikely that a peasant would have had the time or energy to return home and cultivate a bed of roses. There were meals to prepare, and they did not like to get out in the night air for fear of contracting a disease.
Napoleon and Josephine’s Contribution
In the early part of the 19th century, roses and much of the world underwent a dramatic revolution. Turbulence was especially high in France where Napoleon was scrambling to the pinnacle of his government. Josephine apparently did not share her husband’s ambitions and grew weary of the pretentiousness of the courts, endless social events and her husband’s infidelities. She found refuge in Malmaison, her mansion nine miles west of Paris. From Malmaison, she devoted the remainder of her life to amassing the single largest collection of roses the world had ever seen.
In a few short years, her garden equaled her aspirations; roses grew side by side from China, Egypt, the Near East and anywhere Napoleon’s army marched. Though he was estranged from his beloved Josephine, he continued to support her garden habit by sending her living specimens. The genetically and geographically diverse roses were allowed to hybridize, and the new combinations still echo throughout our gardens to this day.
Introducing the Hybrid Tea
A second seminal event in rose history, perhaps the most important, happened a few decades after Josephine’s garden reached its zenith. In 1867, a French rose breeder crossed ‘Madame Victor Verdier’, a hybrid perpetual, with ‘Madame Bravy’, a tender tea rose. The result was the first hybrid tea aptly named ‘La France’.
The appearance of ‘La France’ began a lengthy love affair between hybrid tea roses and the gardening public. These new roses had a suite of favorable characteristics that the rising middle class loved. Their greatest attraction was cold hardiness combined with a remontant, or reblooming habit. They remain the most popular garden roses today.
The white petals of the Cherokee rose represent the tribal mother’s tears, and the golden center, the gold taken from their native lands when they were forced to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.
Native or Not?
Closer to home, roses played an important role during the Civil War. The Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigata) is a prickly-stemmed rambler that is graced with pretty, simple, single white flowers. It was commonly planted on the graves of fallen soldiers to assist families in grieving and in part to mark the site.
The Cherokee rose was long thought to be a native of the southern and eastern United States. Indeed, its range was similar to the geographical distribution of the tribe’s original location before they were forced along the Trail of Tears. But despite public opinion, it is an import from China. The mystery remains as to when it arrived, how it made the journey, and why it naturalized so rapidly.
Though the leaves show wear and tear from summer, nutritious rose hips are a great food for wildlife. This hip has already been sampled.
Black Sheep Of The Family
Though a few roses are native to North America, none have made the jump into the mainstream. Even the wildling you might encounter hiking through a field or forest is likely to be R. multiflora, a native of Japan. Introduced into this country as a durable and hardy rootstock for grafted roses, its vigor has served it well in its adopted home. Once sold as a living fence, R. multiflora is now known as an invasive plant and an outlaw in several states.
The Yellow Rose Of New York City
The “Yellow Rose of Texas” was made famous when it was compared to a beautiful woman in song. While the flowers are indeed yellow, it is not native nor is it from Texas. According to Thomas Christopher in In Search of Lost Roses, this rose is known today as ‘Harrison’s Yellow’ which originated as a chance seedling in New York City and proved to be extremely tough. The dense thorns repelled cattle and its drought and cold tolerance provided excellent survival skills. Turns out that it was the rose planted along the Oregon Trail across the west.
‘Summer Wind’ is an exceptional rose from famous rose breeder Griffith Buck. Buck roses are known for their hardiness, fragrance and beauty.
A Nation Divided
In our country today, roses are a metaphor of our divided society. Some rosarians are great fans of the hybrid teas while others are lovers of old-fashioned roses. Their philosophies are so dissimilar that we might use the red state-blue state analogies that simplify the demographics of presidential politics.
On one side of the aisle are gardeners who espouse old-fashioned roses, those roses that appeared before the first hybrid tea, ‘La France’. They seek the simpler structure of flowers and cherish the flat blooms with just a few delicately colored petals. For many admirers it is the scent of the old-fashioned flowers that is so attractive. From spicy to musky sweet, it is the fragrance that has galvanized their allegiance to these old roses.
The other side of the aisle embraces the hybrid teas. Repeat blooming is more highly prized to them than to expend a year’s flowers in one glorious blaze of color. They seek perfection in a single bud perched on a long stem. The latest garden center offering is exciting each spring and they likely will purchase a rose because it is named after a popular person. In recent years, big sellers have been ‘Dolly Parton’, ‘Reba McIntire’ and ‘Diana, Princess of Wales.’
Knock Out rose combines high disease resistance and prolific repeat blooming.
A miniature rose growing to a couple of feet tall, ‘Sweet Chariot’ features large, pink-purple flowers that smell like pepper. The fragrance is enhanced during the warmth of midday.
Centuries Of Cultivation
If roses in our gardens were indicative of society in the past, it remains true today. Consider the wildly popular hybrid tea rose, an amalgam of plant parts fused by humans to create a being far superior than the sum of its parts. Hybrid tea roses are composed of a rootstock and a beautiful grafted top portion.
The top of the rose produces its raison d’etre, the slender-tipped flower buds that open to reveal nature’s perfection. The buds appear in a brilliance of colors and demand our attention from across the garden or a crowded room.
Roses are beautiful garden plants, and yet, they are so much more. Though we have innocently cultivated them for centuries, they have been a barometer of social status and change. So, the next time you visit a friend’s garden or plant a rose in yours, remember, your choice has a long history of social prominence. Choose with your heart, and you may learn something about yourself, too.
A version of this article appeared in a May 2005 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Martin Stone, Ph.D.