The language of roses: romance, secrecy, and artistry

One of the most romantic images of Valentine's Day is a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses.

But romance and roses haven't always been linked. In Roman times, if a rose was hung from the ceiling during a political meeting, it meant everything that happened was secret and not to be disclosed. And that's where our term "sub rosa" (literally "beneath the rose") comes from.

Although archaeology tells us that roses were grown at least 30,000 years ago, the first artistic representation of a rose dates to Crete in 2100 BC, and the first literary reference to roses was by Homer in the Iliad about the 8th century BC.

The diversity of today's modern roses owes much to Empress Josephine, the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. She was so fascinated by the diversity of the rose family in various parts of the world that she had them collected and planted artistically at her French estate, Malmaison. In contrast to European roses, which produced flowers only once a year - in early summer - many of the roses in Josephine's collection of 250 different varieties bloomed over and over again. This sparked a new interest in rose breeding that continues to this day.

It was the Victorians who elevated the rose to its current romantic status. Their "language of flowers" decreed that a red rose meant "I love you," a yellow one, joy and gladness.

In contrast to ancient days, when roses were reserved for the elite, today they're for everyone - always topping polls of the most popular flower and the national floral symbol of the US.

For the same price that a florist will charge to deliver a dozen roses on Valentine's Day, a home gardener can purchase five or six rosebushes, which will produce armloads of beautiful blooms from late spring or early summer until fall.

Many of the roses planted in home landscapes this year hearken to the ones beloved by Josephine and the Victorians. After almost disappearing from commerce, moss roses, Gallicas, and Bourbons are readily available again.

Capitalizing on this trend, David Austin's line of English roses - modern roses that have the charm and look of old-fashioned blooms - have attracted gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic.

Making its American debut this year is a similar group called English Legend roses by Harkness Roses of England. The flowers resemble Austin's roses, but the plants are more compact, in the style of the Romantica roses, which originated in southern France.

Two of this year's Romantica introductions are Michelangelo - which has yellow blooms with a lemony fragrance - and pink-flowered Peter Mayle, named for the author of "A Year in Provence."

The French House of Meilland, which breeds Romanticas, has popularized the idea of roses as flowering shrubs - hardy and low-maintenance, planted and cared for in the landscape like any other blooming plant. Americans are taking to this idea of roses as year-round shrubs by growing Scarlet Meidiland, Carefree Sunshine, and Ruby Meidiland.

Continuing to find favor are the Flower Carpet roses, which expand the use of roses as colorful, carefree ground covers on hills, spilling over walls, and covering banks.

All this hasn't lessened the popularity of conventional hybrid teas, floribundas, and grandifloras, but gardeners are increasingly looking for the best qualities of old roses - disease-resistance and fragrance - in all of the roses they grow.

A good example is one of this year's winners of the All-America Rose Selections (AARS) awards. Sun Sprinkles is a spicy-smelling miniature rose that blooms early and often. Judges called the plant, which grows 18 to 24 inches tall, "remarkably disease resistant."

Sure to get lots of attention this year is Glowing Peace, an AARS winner that's descended from the famous Peace rose, which was introduced at the end of World War II.

In my garden last summer, Glowing Peace produced cantaloupe-colored flowers that seemed luminous compared to Peace's more subdued pastel shades. What I liked best, though, was the fall foliage - a rich shade of burgundy.

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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