Few of us escape the enticement of the Rosaceae family. You know there’s just something about a rose, whether you tuck a rose bush into your garden to enjoy its seasonal flush year after year or you purchase a dozen long-stemmed blooms to brighten a room for a single occasion.
Grown for their beauty and fragrance, roses faithfully come alive every spring throughout Solano County. In April and May, neighborhood gardens burst with their colorful delicate blooms. Climbers and hybrid teas, Grandifloras and Floribundas, English and carpet roses beckon from pots at local nurseries. More than 2,000 years ago, this plant of legend and romance was aptly named “queen of flowers” by the Greek poetess Sappho. Petals carpeted Roman floors and floated in bath water. In Kashmir, rose oil was extracted for perfume. But there’s so much more.
Here’s a brief look at rose history through the centuries:
Ancient to Medieval Roses
Fossilized wild roses were found in Europe – 35 million years old — meaning, they lived during the Tertiary Period between the dinosaurs’ demise and the recent Ice Age. Iraq boasts the first written reference to the rose in 3,000 B.C. Chinese historians say rose cultivation began 5,000 years ago.
Some experts claim roses grew among the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B.C.) for his Persian wife, Queen Amytis. In Egypt, embalmed rosebuds were discovered alongside mummies, rose paintings decorated pyramid tombs, and rose garlands were the flowers of choice for the funeral wreaths of the pharaohs. Supposedly, Cleopatra slept on a bed of roses.
During his conquests, Alexander the Great, a student of botany, introduced roses to the known world. By 900 B.C., wild rose bushes grew on hillsides throughout the Mediterranean and into Asia. The Greeks, who were first to grow roses in pots, traded them to the Romans as currency. Wealthy Romans grew them as confetti for celebrations and extracted the oil to preserve their skin.
With the Middle Ages came the cessation of cultural and artistic endeavors, including rose cultivation. Christian monks preserved and propagated the remaining plants, the apothecary’s rose (Rosa gallica) for holistic medicinal use. By the early 12th century, these monastic herbal gardens were thriving, and eventually wild roses reappeared in gardens at manor houses and castles throughout Europe.
In 1629, English gardeners noted 24 different roses. During the 15th century fight to control England, the rose became a political statement. The red rose (the above-mentioned apothecary’s rose) symbolized Lancaster and the white rose symbolized York. When this “War of the Roses” ended, the red and white Tudor rose became England’s symbol of national unity.
Colonial to Renaissance to Modern
The 16th century brought colonists to the New World. They planted more than 18 different types of English roses for medicinal use, according to William Penn’s book, “Book of Physic.” By 1737, the first nursery opened on Long Island and by the turn of the century, the new popular China rose (Rosa chinenis) with its mildew-resistant qualities made its debut in America.
In 1798, Empress Josephine, Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife, started a rose garden and established what is thought to be the first international rose collection to display not just rose blossoms but the plants. At the time of her death, more than 250 varieties grew at Chateau de Malmaison, an estate seven miles west of Paris. Botanical illustrator Pierre Joseph Redoute preserved these roses for posterity through his watercolors.
As art and culture again flourished, the rose inspired craftsmen and architects of Europe’s cathedrals and Gothic churches, as evidenced by the magnificent stained glass windows that adorn them. The Provence rose (Rosa centifoliai) from the Middle Ages appeared in Dutch still lifes along with the Damask rose (Rosa damascena), also known as the 100-petaled cabbage rose.
Over the years, as settlers pushed West on horseback in wagons and eventually by train, bare root roses rode along with them. Swamp roses, pasture roses and prairie roses dotted the American landscape. But it was hybridization in the late 18th century that ignited the rose explosion in the West.
In fact, most modern roses trace their ancestry back to China with the introduction of repeat-blooming roses and this ability to crossbreed a selected rose onto another rose’s root stock.
Now gardeners can choose color, size, bud shape, blooming habit and plant hardiness. Who can ask for more?
Further details on “Roses: Cultural Practices and Weed Control” are available at www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7465.html.
Launa Herrmann is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.