Roses have been cultivated, and adored, by gardeners since before Western history began. The very first record of their cultivation is some 5,000 years ago in the gardens of China. Whether they were grown for the kitchen or just for the pleasure of the emperors is not known. But their beauty and scent must have been recognised by all.In the intervening millennia countless gardeners have hybridised the rose to such an extent that it is now almost impossible to classify them into different species. However, their story is long and their legends are romantic.
The Gallica and Damask roses
Both Rosa gallica and R. damascena were probably brought into this country from the Middle East in the saddle-bags of the crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries. They were quickly taken up by the French apothecaries and perfumers, and grown widely in medieval Provence. The striped bud-sport, R. gallica ‘Rosa Mundi’ must have arisen naturally in those sun-soaked fields where some eagle-eyed worker spotted it, and, remarkably, took cuttings.
This rose is said to have been named after the mistress of King Henry II, the Fair Rosamund. In 1176 she died, some say at the direction of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her tombstone carries a long Latin inscription, which loosely translates as, ‘Here lies buried not Rosamund, but The Rose of the World’. And it continues, ‘once she smelt so sweet, but now, alas she does not smell sweet at all’.
The Empress Josephine
The romance of the rose continues with Napoleon’s Empress Josephine, who had a vast collection in her garden at Malmaison, many of which were painted by her protégé, Pierre Redouté. It is said that during the Napoleonic Wars ships transporting her roses were permitted to pass unscathed through the fighting.
During the 18th and 19th centuries travellers began to bring back roses from the Far East. They were transported in the holds of ships of the East India Company in ‘tea chests’, hence the name, ‘tea roses’. Chinese gardeners had been hybridising roses for centuries and produced flowers that repeated later in the season. It marked a revolution for western rose breeders. Then, when three yellow-flowered roses arrived: R. ‘Hume’s Blush’; R. ‘Parks’ ‘Yellow Tea-scented China’ and R. ‘Fortune’s Double Yellow’, the stage was set to produce our modern roses.
The 19th and 20th centuries
The Victorian age witnessed a passion for roses, which remained unabated into the mid-20th century. Ramblers and climbers covered the potting shed; hybrid teas were bred to create the perfect buttonhole; and floribundas were pruned to fill not just park beds, but entire gardens with red, pink, white, and yellow blooms.
But today’s gardeners want different roses. They are looking for scent. They like single roses that attract insects. They want to keep pruning to a minimum. Modern rose breeders are responding. David Austin has been crossing the ‘old’ roses with the modern to produce his race of English Roses. These are scented, they repeat-flower, and some of the most beautiful are single. They work well in mixed borders, underplanted with perennials, and have brought back the softer colours, the perfume and the romance to our English gardens.
Five Historic Roses
‘Great Maiden’s Blush’ – An ancient, perfumed, double flesh-pink rose, originally named ‘Cuisse de Nymph Séduisante’. The Victorians disliked the translation: ‘Thigh of the Passionate Nymph’ and changed the name.
‘Quatre Saisons’ (syn. ‘Autumn Damask’) – An ancient, loose, double pink, with highly scented flowers that retain their perfume in their dried petals and have a second flush.
R. mutabilis – Probably an old Chinese garden hybrid, it produces a continuous display of single apricot flowers, which fade deep pink like clouds of exotic butterflies.
‘Lady Hillingdon’ (1910) – A perfumed, deep apricot-yellow Tea Rose set off by deep sea-green foliage and plum-purple stems.
‘Graham Thomas’ (1983 – David Austin) – An old-style, double yellow, scented rose named after the late great plantsman.