Roses: New research raises questions about their history

A British author questions many things we think we know about the history of roses.

Courtesy of Lynn Hunt
The rose Souvenir de la Malmaison was named in memory of Empress Josephine's famous garden, but did that garden really exist? A British author says no.

As I wrote in a Christian Science Monitor article, I’ve been giving lectures on roses in general and David Austin English roses in particular for a number of years.

I talk about how familiar sayings relating to roses are woven into our daily lives -- from seeing the world through rose-colored glasses to promising someone a rose garden. Then I lay out a brief history, starting with the fact that rose fossils dating back 32 million years have been found right here in America.

It’s an entertaining overview of roses through the centuries, but I’ve just found out my history lesson might not be so accurate after all.

Debunking rose myths

Author and horticultural historian Jennifer Potter has just written a book about the history of the Queen of Flowers in world culture titled "The Rose" (not available in the United States until May).

During the five years Ms. Potter worked on the book, she visited fabulous gardens and traveled across the globe from Britain and the US to France and Iran. (Now there’s an assignment The Rose Whisperer would love!)

Along the way, she discovered that some of the historical facts we accept about roses might actually be myths.

For example, we’ve all heard about Empress Josephine’s legendary rose garden at her country home outside of Paris. According to Potter, Josephine never had a formal rose garden at Malmaison, although she did have some roses in her cutting garden and beside a stream.

Josephine was fond of roses, but apparently the plan for her famous garden was drawn up long after her death.

Rose ramblings during the Middle Ages

Potter also questions the idea that Crusaders brought back roses from the Holy Land. Her research indicates the glorious stories about men returning home bearing exotic flowers from mysterious locales simply aren’t true.

The tales sounded good, so they spread without question over the centuries.

In an article in the Telegraph, a British newspaper, Potter says she is convinced that “Persia's ancient garden culture and the later spread of Muslim rule as far as Moorish Spain had contributed more to the rose's westwards diffusion than any returning Christians.”

War-weary fighters may not have brought strange and beautiful plants back to England during the Middle Ages, but there is no doubt a famous father and son combination did so in the 17th century and that Potter wrote a book about them: "Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants."

The elder John Tradescant traveled throughout Europe, Russia, and northern Africa. John the younger made three trips to Virginia. Between the two, these botanists and collectors introduced all manner of plants including horse chestnuts, scarlet runner beans, geraniums, Virginia creeper, magnolias, phlox, poppies, and, of course, some new varieties of roses.

The David Austin English rose Tradescant grows in my garden today. It is a deep wine-crimson with Old World form and a delicious old-rose fragrance.

And when I move from Maryland to North Carolina, it will travel with me.

PSSST: Now that Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow, we know spring is on the way. Be on the lookout for the first forsythia blooms – that’s the time to start pruning your roses.


Lynn Hunt, the Rose Whisperer, blogs regularly at Diggin' It. She's an accredited horticultural judge and a Consulting Rosarian Emeritus for the American Rose Society. She has won dozens of awards for her writing in newspapers, magazines, and television. She grows roses and other plants in her garden on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. To read more by Lynn, click here.You can also follow her on Twitter.

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