Roses and the Rosebush
History of the Rose and the Rosebush
In the Northern Hemisphere, the story of the rose goes back to the beginning of time. Queen of the garden and rightly so, the rose is a jewel which gardeners have patiently shaped from generation to generation.
According to scientists, the first rose appeared almost 35 million years ago. Although not much is known of these first specimens, ancient texts show that already the queen of flowers was highly appreciated by the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. At the time, only one white variety was cultivated, mainly for medicinal purposes. According to historical witnesses, roses were also cultivated in China around 5,000 years ago. These flowers, which come from Central Asia, spread throughout the northern hemisphere without ever crossing the equator.
In the 12th and 13th Centuries, when the Crusades were setting hearts and passions alight, armed voyagers brought back from the Near East, new varieties like the mythical Damas rose, which enriched Provins in the Paris region, from the 12th Century on. This rose was originally planted on the island of Samos in honor of the godesse Aphrodite. It was later honored in Rome by Venus, the godesse of love. It was at this time that rose-growing began in France with gallica Officinalis (the Apothecary Rose). This variety brought back from the Holy Land was first grown for medicinal purposes before being appreciated for its beauty in the garden. Rose perfume was made from this variety in the Middle Ages.
In France, the most cultivated rosebushes were the Gallics, also called French Roses (Provins Rose, Charles de Mills, Tuscany) but white roses called Alba (Celeste, Jeanne d’Arc, Cuisse de Nymphe), Damas rosebushes (Felicité Hardy, Four Seasons, King’s Rose), Centfeuilles rosebushes ( Rosa Centifolia, Rose des Peintres, Petite de Hollande) and finally Moussus rosebushes (Common Moussu, Salet) were also grown. They all had common features: developed in big bushes, they often had a single and abundant flowering. Every heavily perfumed flower was composed of many petals varying from pure white to deep purple. Only the Damas rose reflowered. It is the origin of the first European reflowering roses.
In Lyon, in 1867, rose breeder Jean-Baptiste Guillot, created the first contemporary rose which we find in our gardens today. It was a climbing hybrid, produced from the hybridization of old roses (tea roses) and Chinese roses (climbing hybrids). It was naturally called “France”. This was a landmark in the history of rose-growing. Before this date, roses are called “ancient” in France, and after this date, they are considered “modern”.
The “France”, the first variety of a group known as tea hybrids, paved the way for roses which could flower from Spring to the first frosts. The development of hybrids also allowed rose breeders to start varying the color of their flowers. By crossbreeding a rose in 1875, Guillot’s son produced the “Paquerette”, the first of the Polyanthas variety. This variety of rosebush, with its small bouquets of flowers, is today still one of the biggest sellers throughout the world. The crossbreeding of France with the Polyanthas gave birth to the Floribunda, a rose familiar to today’s gardeners.
A few years later, again in Lyon, in the Parc de la Tête d’Or, Joseph Pernet-Ducher produced the first variety of rose with a yellow-orange color. He called this rose the “Soleil d’Or” and it was produced from a yellow botanic species and gave birth to yellow Tea Hybrids in the 20th. Century, which is still produced in gardens today. From the same nursery, orange and blue variants were produced soon after.
At the same period, the rose breeder from Orléans, Réné Barbier created the first Liane variety of roses which in turn produced the “Albertine” or “Albéric Barbier”. These varieties came from Japanese strains brought to America by the German botanist Wichura.
The most famous and most beautiful rose in the world is the yellow rose called “Madame Antoine Meilland”. It was produced in Antibes during the Second World War by Francis Meilland and remains to this day the world’s best-selling rose. This crossbreeding family, in business for six generations, is also responsible for (among others) the chocolate-colored “Leonidas”, and the “Black Baccara”, which is the world’s blackest rose. The last little marvel to be produced, in 2005, by Meilland is the Amalia”, arose with bi-colored petals, one side being brighter in color than the other.
In the 1960’s, new groups of roses were created in England. The most famous of them is the “Retro Roses”, created by Austin, who crossbred modern roses with very ancient strains. The specialty of these roses, sold as “English Roses”, is that they have modern, very resistant leaves and ancient rose flowers.