Perhaps there is no other flower that has been loved by people so much or has been as popular as the rose throughout history. In fact, roses have been in existence much before humans, who later grew their beautiful flowers, drew wonderful pictures of the flowers and even commemorated them in their lore and music. Believe it or not, the first trace of rose has been found in a fossil at Colorado’s Florissant Fossil Beds dating back to 40 million years! Some rose fossils discovered in Montana and Oregon also date back to about 35 million years, much before the humans came into existence. In addition, rose fossils have also been discovered in Yugoslavia and Germany. In fact, there is evidence that there was a time when roses grow in the wild in the extreme northern regions, such as Norway and Alaska. Southwards, this species was also found growing in the wild in Mexico as well as North Africa. However, it is interesting to note that thus far it could not be confirmed whether any rose grew in the wild below the equator.
It is believed that the rose has its origin in Central Asia and its estimated origin dates back to anything between 60 and 70 million years – the period known as the Eocene epoch. Gradually, it spread all over the Northern Hemisphere. Available documents show that various early civilizations, such as the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Greeks, the Romans and the Phoenicians not only appreciated roses but also cultivated them extensively as early as 5,000 years back.
Way back in 500 B.C., renowned ancient Chinese editor, politician and philosopher Confucius wrote about the roses grown in the Imperial Gardens and also mentioned that the Chinese emperor’s library contained several hundred books on roses. It is interesting to note that the gardeners who cultivated rose during the Han dynasty (207 B.C. to 220 A.D.) were so passionate with roses that their parks posed a threat for the agricultural lands, often encroaching upon the latter. This led the then Chinese emperor to issue orders to plow under some rose gardens.
Rosa gallica, which is also called the French rose, has been identified as the oldest rose that exists even to this day. There was a time when Rosa gallica bloomed in the wild all over central and southern Europe, in addition to Western Asia. Even today, this rose is found growing in these places. While the precise origin of Rosa gallica is yet to be ascertained, some hints of this plant were seen way back in the 12th century B.C. In those days, it was regarded to be a symbol of love by the Persians.
Roses in the Ancient World
Rosa damascena or the damask rose is a descendant of Rosa gallica. This particular rose is popular for its fragrance and since its first appearance in 900 B.C., it has been an integral part of the history of roses. In fact, sometime around 50 B.C., the Romans were thrilled with a North African rose variety named Rosa damascena semperflorens, also known as the “Autumn Damask”, which flowered twice every year. The Romans were actually not aware of this attribute of the “Autumn Damask” till then. This variety is thought to be a hybrid developed from Rosa gallica and Rosa moschata, also called the musk rose and said to have its origin in the fifth century B.C. In fact, people in the West were only familiar with this repeat blooming rose till the European traders actually discovered tea and the China roses several centuries later.
In the early days, Rosa Alba also called the “White Rose of York” was another important rose variety. Rosa alba became famous in the 15th century during the War of the Roses when the House of York made this rose its emblem. However, the origin of this rose with five petals dates back to the second century A.D. or maybe even earlier. It is believed that this rose has its origin in the Caucasus and was introduced to the West through Greece and Rome. It is thought that this rose variety as well as its relatives, which are known as albas, are descendants of some kind of a cross developed from Rosa corymbifera, Rosa canina, Rosa gallica and Rosa damascena.
It is interesting to note that the ancient Romans, Greeks and Phoenicians not only cultivated roses but also traded them. These communities acquired the roses while they traveled and conquered different places. They brought these roses home and cultivated them. Consequently, roses spread rapidly and extensively all through the Middle East and other places in the region of the Mediterranean.
It is known that sometime around 300 B.C., Theophrastus, a noted ancient Greek scientist as well as a writer, cataloged the roses grown during his time. According to his description of the roses, the different flowers had anything between just five to a hundred petals. In fact, he is said to be the first individual to offer a botanical description of roses. At that time, Alexander the Great was the ruler of Macedonia. He is also known to have grown roses in his garden and the credit for introducing cultivated rose varieties to Europe goes to him. In fact, it is believed that Alexander the Great may also be responsible for the spread and cultivation of roses in Egypt.
While excavating the tombs in Upper Egypt in 1888, noted English archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie discovered vestiges of a rose garland that people had used as a funeral wreath during the second century A.D. In fact, he also identified the rose remains as being that of Rosa x richardii, a hybrid developed by crossing Rosa gallica and Rosa Phoenicia. Commonly, this cross is also known as “St. John’s Rose” or “Holy Rose of Abyssinia”. Although the petals of the rose in the wreath had withered, they still had their pink hue and when the petals were immersed in water, they were almost restored to their natural condition. There are other researchers who discovered rose paintings on the walls of Thutmose IV’s tomb. According to history, Thutmose IV was the 8th Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt and he died in the 14th century B.C. Later, experts deciphered the references to the rose in hieroglyphics.
Almost all aristocrats in ancient Rome had rose gardens at their dwellings. In addition, people also took delight in spending their time in public rose gardens during the summer afternoons. According to available records, before the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., there was as many as 2,000 public rose gardens throughout the empire. In fact, the overload of public rose gardens in Rome led Horace, a noted poet and satirist of the time, to complain that the government was farsighted as it ought to have been used for orchards or wheat fields.
During the medieval period, following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Europeans were busy struggling to recover from the onslaught of various armies as well as raiders. As a result, it became very difficult to maintain rose gardens and only a few existed then. While the King of Franks Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great (742 A.D. – 814 A.D.) also grew roses on the grounds of his palace at Aix-Ia-Chapelle, it was mainly the monks who were responsible for keeping the roses alive. These monks grew roses as well as other plants for various purposes, including therapeutic uses. In fact, the monasteries belonging to the Benedictine order developed as botanical research centers.
With the stabilization of the social conditions, the situation was once again favorable for growing roses and many private rose gardens started appearing again. During the 12th and 13th centuries, soldiers who returned from their Crusades in the Middle East carried with them stories of ostentatious rose gardens and also some sample flowers. As traveling increased all over the world, merchants, scholars and diplomats started exchanging roses as well as other plants. As a result of all these, there was a renewed interest in roses.
In the early days, herbalists also provided evidence of their increasing knowledge regarding roses. In 1597, noted English herbalist John Gerard wrote in his book Herball that people of that time were familiar with 14 types of roses. Some years later, in 1629, the apothecary (pharmacist) to James I, John Parkinson noted that as many as 24 different types of roses were grown in his herbal garden called Paradisus. By the turn of the 1700’s, prominent artist Mary Lawrance not only identified about 90 different varieties of roses but also illustrated them in her book entitled “A Collection of Roses from Nature”.
Roses in the New World
Several different strains of roses appeared in North America. In fact, among the 200 different rose species that people across the globe are familiar with today, as many as 35 species are native to the United States alone. This has made the rose a native of North America much like the bald eagle, which also happens to be the emblem of the United States. The most prominent rose species native to the United States includes the Rosa virginiana, which was the first American rose species to be talked about in European literature. In addition, there are Rosa setigera, Rosa carolina, the “Prairie Rose”, the “Pasture Rose”, Rosa woodsii, Rosa californica, the “Swamp Rose” – named after its natural habitat, and Rosa palustris.
In his book, noted English soldier, explorer and author Captain John Smith mentions about the Indians inhabiting the James River Valley growing wild roses in their villages to beautify their locality. This is evident of the fact that even in the early days, the indigenous people in North America extensively cultivated the native roses as ornamental plants.
William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania, was a resident of Europe till the later part of the 1600’s. In his writings, Penn noted that roses were a great favorites in gardens during his time. In addition, roses also had a special place in the field of arts and sciences. While returning to America in 1699, Penn carried also 18 different rose bushes along with him. Later, he talked about the beauty as well as the therapeutic value of roses in his book titled “Book of Physic”. He wrote the book with a view to help the settlers in Pennsylvania to fulfil their medical requirements.
During his stay in Europe, Penn had certainly seen the exquisiteness of the cabbage rose (scientific name Rosa centifolia). This rose justified its botanical name as it has an incredible 100 petals. The petals of Rosa centifolia are so compactly arranged that they bear resemblance to small cabbages. There was a time when people believed that this rose belonged to ancient times because the Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder had also described a 100-petaled rose in his writings in the first century A.D. However, today many believe that the cabbage rose (Rosa centifolia) was perhaps developed by Dutch rose growers in the later part of the 17th century. Some other people are of the view that this rose was brought from Asia sometime in 1596. Irrespective of the history of Rosa centifolia, it is likely that the cabbage rose is a complex cross of several ancient roses, counting the gallicas, albas and damasks.
Rosa centifolia mucosa, which is also known as the moss rose, is a well-known mutation (sport) of Rosa centifolia (cabbage rose). The mutation or the moss rose was first seen way back in 1700 and many gardeners continue to grow this rose as well as hybridize it. This rose is called the moss rose because its flower buds and stems have minute, extremely fragrant hairs that bear resemblance to moss.
While European hybridizers were engaged in developing new variants of rose during this period, they mainly concentrated their introductions on a restricted gene pool. This is one reason why they failed to achieve novelty in most cases. Apart from this, the hybridizers of this period had a very poor understanding of the laws related to heredity, which eventually proved to be a handicap and it continued even after the German-speaking Moravian scientist Gregor Mendel undertook his experiments during the middle of the 1800’s. Apart from this, in the initial days, European breeders were very jealous and kept their methods a close secret. They were basically concerned that their rivals may use their methods to render them useless in business.
Roses from the Orient
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Europe witnessed a sort of revolution in growing as well as breeding roses. This was the time when increased trade with the East Asian countries helped to procure the Chinese rose (Rosa chinensis), which actually attracted the attention of rose growers in Europe. The first variety of Chinese rose that reached the West is the “Old Blush”, which was first introduced in Sweden way back in 1752 and to the remaining regions of Europe four decades later in 1793. On the other hand, the tea rose (Rosa x odorata) was introduced to the West sometime in 1808 or 1809. The tea rose derived its name from the fact that the aroma of its foliage bears resemblance to that of tea plants.
While the Chinese have been growing these rose varieties for several centuries, when China rose and tea rose were introduced to the West, they really had a phenomenal impact in these alien countries. These roses had a very significant attribute – they were capable of producing repeated blooms in one season – something that the rose growers were unaware of till then. As a result, these rose varieties turned out to be a sensation instantly.
Different from this repeat-blooming rose “Autumn Damask” that was known to the European growers and only bloomed briefly two times every year, the continual blooming roses imported from the Orient produced numerous flowers over a prolonged period during each growing season. Apart from the blooming abilities of these rose varieties from China, their foliage is nearly evergreen and the foliage of the tea rose is especially mildew resistant. When the European rose breeders acquired the Chinese roses, they were eager to cross them with the existing roses to develop newer varieties possessing the good traits of both parents. Therefore, it may safely be claimed that both China rose as well as the tea rose formed the basis for nearly all the roses we see in our times. However, it is unfortunate that most of these modern roses do not possess the cold hardiness, an important trait of the European roses, as the Chinese roses did not possess this quality.
Often the Chinese rose is also referred to as the Bengal rose, as it was initially exported from Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal in India, to the West. In fact, a large botanical garden was set up in Calcutta during the 18th century. Several varieties of roses procured by the Eastern Indian Company were grown in this famous botanical garden in the East. Sometime in 1789, a captain of the British Navy carried the flowers to England. A few years later, in 1793, the director of the East India Company Dr. William Roxburgh shipped additional rose specimens to various parts of Europe from Calcutta.
In the 18th century, trade in roses was very flourishing in the new British settlements in America. In fact, the first rose nursery in America was opened in Flushing, Long Island, by Robert Prince in 1737. This nursery began importing a large number of various types of rose plants, especially new varieties. In 1746, Robert Prince marketed as many as 1,600 different rose varieties, which was definitely among the largest rose collections in the world in those days. Available documents belonging to Prince reveal that in 1791 the U.S. President Thomas Jefferson placed an order for two centifolias, a “Rosa Mundi”, a “Common Moss”, a musk rose, an unidentified yellow variety of rose and also a China rose. As the China roses were available in Europe only in 1793, it is believed that the rose delivered to Jefferson was bought directly from Asia by a clipper ship that traveled across the Pacific via the Cape Horn.
A new class of roses called the Portlands came into existence sometime around 1800. Probably, this new class of rose was obtained by crossing “Autumn Damask” with Rosa gallica and the China rose. Deriving its name from the Duchess of Portland, this new rose variety was among the best quality garden rose hybrids that manifested the bond between the East and the West. Like their Chinese parent, the Portlands possessed the ability to bloom repeatedly in one growing season. The Portlands are also referred to as the damask perpetuals and people continued growing them till the variety called hybrid perpetual was eventually introduced nearly four decades later.
Josephine and Malmaison
Perhaps the contribution of Empress Josephine, Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, was the most in making the rose so popular in the early 1800’s. Being very passionate about roses, Empress Josephine actually began a “rose renaissance” by trying to grow all familiar varieties of roses in her personal garden located at Malmaison, close to Paris.
In 1798, Empress Josephine started developing her rose garden and, before she died after 16 years on in 1814 on her 51st birthday, the empress had already collected as many as 250 specimens of different roses. In order to encourage his wife’s hobby, Napoleon I directed all his captains to search for new roses in the lands they visited and bring them home for Empress Josephine. In fact, her passion for roses was so intense that even the English, who were at war with the French at that time, not only allowed roses meant for Josephine to cross the borders, but also granted permission to her chief gardener to freely travel throughout the Channel. The esteem of the English for Josephine’s love for roses is evident from this singular fact. As the repute of Empress Josephine’s rose garden reached different regions of Europe, it led to a growing interest among people to grow roses. Many enthusiasts even took up hybridizing the roses, which ultimately resulted in the birth of many of the present day roses.
The presence of the celebrated rose gardens at Malmaison proved to be beneficial for France, which not only emerged as a leading rose growing country but also started exporting large volumes of roses. By 1815, French rose growers cultivated as many as 2,000 different varieties of roses. This number increased rapidly to 5,000 varieties in just another decade. Prior to the Civil War, French growers exported their roses to New Orleans as well as other cities upstream the Mississippi River. In fact, gardeners in the south discovered that the soft China roses, as well as the tea roses, were most appropriate for growing in the warm climatic conditions prevailing in their region.
The Rise of the Hybrid Tea
In 1817, some people brought the Bourbon rose (scientific name Rosa x borboniana) to France from the Réunion Island (which was then known as Île de Bourbon) located close to Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. While the background of this rose is yet to be ascertained, it is believed to be a hybrid developed by crossing the “Autumn Damask” and Rosa chinensis. This belief gains ground from the fact that both these purported parents of Bourbon rose have been cultivated on the Réunion Island in the form of hedges. In the 19th century, the Bourbon rose turned out to be one of the most popular roses very quickly because the plant produced intermittent blooms. Similar to Portlands, this rose was also among the first to possess the best attributes of the Oriental and European roses. The Bourbon rose developed initially produced bright pink blooms. Unfortunately, now this rose is lost. However, we still have several hybrids developed from Bourbon rose and even to this day, this rose forms a major source of reds in most modern roses.
The hybrid China class is yet another product that has been created by crossing the Oriental and European roses. These plants are quite tall growing and rather unappealing plants that also did not bloom well repeatedly. As a result, they were never popular on their own virtues. Nevertheless, they are among the ancestors of several other varieties of roses including the polyanthas, perpetuals, hybrid teas and floribundas.
On the other side of the Atlantic, American breeders also made their contribution to the history of roses in the 19th century by introducing the noisette rose (scientific name Rosa noisettiana). Incidentally, this is the first rose that was actually hybridized by rose growers in America. They developed the noisette rose by crossing Rosa moschata, Rosa chinensis (China rose) and the musk rose. A rice grower in South Carolina named John Champneys hybridized the noisette rose in 1812. Champneys named his new creation “Champneys’ Pink Cluster”. Although Champneys developed the new rose, he did not have any interest whatsoever in marketing the new rose. As a result, he asked his neighbor Philippe Noisette to market the rose in return for a cut. On his part, Philippe despatched the rose to his brother Louis, who worked as a nurseryman in Paris. Louis crossed the low-growing “Champneys’ Pink Cluster” with other tall-growing roses to create a new tall rose, which he name “Blush Noisette” – a clear sign of an uncharitable snub to John Champneys, the hybridizer who originally developed the new rose.
Sometime in the middle of the 1800’s, a familiar seashore rose called Rosa rugosa was introduced to the West from Japan. As this rose is not capable of hybridizing well, it has made no significant contribution in creating newer roses or to the history of roses. Nevertheless, people have been holding the Rosa rugosa in high esteem for over a thousand years now for its single blooms, creased foliage as well as its ability to produce profuse hips, which are a wonderful natural source of vitamin C.
By 1837, breeders were already working to create modern roses. This was the time when most varieties of the Chinese roses had been introduced to Europe. It was in this year that the hybrid perpetual, an intricate French hybrid, was introduced by hybridizers. This hybrid perpetual was developed by crossing China rose, Bourbon rose, Autumn Damask, Portland, Cabbage rose, noisette rose and the hybrid tea. This new rose was very resilient and produced large and aromatic flowers. The initial hybrid perpetual varieties produced pink blooms. However, when they were again crossed with Bourbon roses, they were influenced by the red hue of the Bourbon roses.
The hybrid perpetuals continued to be one of the popular roses until the end of the 19th century, and after this, they were overshadowed by hybrid tea, which was undoubtedly a superior variety. However, the unfortunate part of all these is that majority of these roses does not exist anymore – they have now been lost. In fact, of over 3,000 different varieties of roses that were hybridized throughout this “golden era” of roses, which ranged from Empress Josephine’s gardens at Malmaison near France to the introduction as well as assimilation of roses acquired from the Orient, today you can only purchase just about 50 varieties that are still in existence.
The growth habit of the hybrid tea became more compact as a result of a cross between this rose variety and a hybrid perpetual. In addition, the hybrid tea also became additionally dependable compared to its hybrid perpetual parent, as it now inherited the continual blooming traits. Introduced in 1867, “La France” was the first hybrid tea. Eventually, the hybrid tea class was officially recognized by the National Rose Society of Great Britain in 1893. Ever since hybridizers have been working closely on the hybrid tea and succeeded in developing many significantly improved varieties of this class. As a result, roses in the hybrid tea class are among the most popular roses even in present times.
As far as rose breeding is concerned, the development of the hybrid tea ushered in a new age in this field. After the evolution of the hybrid tea, the various classes of roses that existed prior to 1867 were considered to be old garden roses. On the other hand, all new classes of roses developed after 1867 were known as modern roses.
After trying for 13 long years, Joseph Pernet-Ducher, a French hybridizer, introduced a new rose hybrid named “Soleil d’Or”, which was developed by crossing the “Persian Yellow” (scientific name Rosa foetida persiana) and a red hybrid perpetual rose. In 1837, the British envoy to Persia Sir Henry Willcock brought the “Persian Yellow” rose from Persia to England. The cross developed by Joseph Pernet-Ducher produced yellow blooms and possessed the aptitude to survive inter-breeding. Soon, Pernet-Ducher developed another hybrid and named it “Rayon d’Or” – a cross that produced golden yellow flowers. As a result of introducing these new varieties, an altogether new range of roses came into existence – something that was never seen before. Now the blooms of modern roses were available in a new assortment of colors, including gold, apricot, copper and salmon.
Soon, Joseph Pernet-Ducher earned the reputation of being the Wizard of Lyons – the town in east-central France where the hybridizer worked on the plants. For about 30 years of their initial existence, these roses were a part of an individual class known as the Pernetianas. Afterwards, these roses were included in the class that comprises the hybrid tea.
It is worth mentioning here that while the hybrid tea roses possessed the aptitude to resist cold weather conditions, they did not grow robustly, as their roots were thin and fragile. During the end of the 19th century, employees in several nurseries came to realize that they could make these roses grow better, provided they grafted them on the root stock of Rosa multiflora, which is a vigorously growing plant producing dull blooms.
In the early 1900s, Svend Poulsen, a renowned rose breeder in Denmark, produced many new hybrids by crossing polyanthas. Jean Sisley, a French nurseryman, developed a new class of roses in the later part of the 19th century that was called polyantha. This class of rose developed into low bushes densely covered with bunches of petite flowers that bloomed continually throughout the summer. Most hybridization done by Poulsen involved using rose species native to East Asia, like Rosa wichuraiana. These varieties passed on the winter hardiness trait to their off-springs.
During the 1920s, Poulsen developed the first floribundas by crossing the polyantha with a hybrid tea rose variety. In fact, he produced two varieties of floribundas – the red “Kirsten Poulsen” and the pink “Else Poulsen”. As the name of this class of rose suggests, the floribunda bloomed in profusion – an attribute that was passed on by its polyantha parent. At the same time, floribunda inherited its height as well as the long cutting stems from its tea parent hybrid.
Even as hybridizers developed the bush roses, a new variety – the climbers, was also coming into existence. The histories as well as the ancestries of climbers are a complicated one and, hence, tracing both is quite difficult. Several climbing roses were developed from ramblers and the “Crimson Rambler” was the first among them. In 1893, this rose variety was actually imported from Japan. The other hybrid climbing roses developed from Rosa wichuraiana include “Blaze”, “American Pillar”, “Dorothy Perkins”, “Dr. W. Van Fleet” and the “New Dawn”. In addition, the Bourbon roses, which are large growing plants, as well as the tall growing noisettes also impacted the climbers.
A number of other climber roses were developed from bush roses and they produced elongated, supple canes; while some other climbers descended from large shrub roses. In recent times, breeders have developed several climber roses from the tall, partially climbing shrub rose called the Rosa kordesii – many of these were evolved by crossing the Rosa wichuraiana with Rosa rugosa in 1952. About half a century later, breeders developed the hybrid musks – which comprise both large shrubs as well as small climbers, in the 1920’s by crossing Rosa multiflora ramblers with noisettes.
Wilhelm Kordes II, a noted German hybridizer in the 20th century who is credited with creating Rosa kordesii, also worked with Rosa spinosissima, a rose variety that has been in existence since or before the Middle Ages, to breed newer varieties of roses. He crossed the Rosa spinosissima with hybrid teas with a view to creating a finer rose class of present-day shrub roses known as kordesii shrubs, counting “Frülingsmorgen” and “Frülingsgold”. Roses belonging to this new class produce flowers that are winter resistant as well as requiring low maintenance. These plants are usually grown in public gardens and other areas as well as the length of the roads in Europe.
As the World War II broke out, the boom in rose hybridization witnessed a significant decline, especially in Europe. However, the trend witnessed an upswing again after the war ended. Regardless of propagating roses of an assortment of forms as well as colors, blooms having a color range of pure orange to orange-red were most sought after in those days. The floribunda “Independence”, which was introduced in 1951, is considered to be the first contemporary rose whose blooms belonged to the newly created orange-red range. The pigment pelargonidin was the most important aspect of this exceptional coloration. In fact, it is this pigment that is responsible for giving geraniums their scarlet hue. However, rose enthusiasts had to wait till 1960 to take delight in a hybrid tea having orange-red hue. This was the time when Rosen Tantau, a noted hybridizing firm in Germany, introduced the “Tropicana” – the hybrid tea rose with orange-red blooms.
Rose breeders developed an altogether new rose class with a view to putting up the rose named “Queen Elizabeth”. Also known as the Grandiflora, this class of rose was developed by crossing a floribunda with a hybrid tea variety. The blooms of the plants belonging to this new class of rose bore a close resemblance to those of the hybrid tea. On the other hand, the flowers appeared in clusters, are similar to the blooms of the floribunda.
Taking all classes of roses, including the 11,000 hybrid teas, presently there are over 30,000 varieties of roses. Nevertheless, several of these rose varieties, particularly the older rose varieties, are not sold anymore. In fact, they may only be seen growing in some private gardens. The numerous varieties of roses in existence often make it extremely difficult to classify or trace their background or history. Apart from those developed by breeders, there are many rose varieties that are considered to be natural hybrids. Therefore, it is very difficult to identify the parents of these natural hybrids. At the same time, several varieties are also commercial hybrids and the lineage of these plants has either been lost or obscured deliberately with a view to dissuading piracy. Despite this, several enthusiasts have succeeded in re-developing these commercial hybrids successfully.