Tag Archives: Roses

Perpetual Petals: A Brief History of Roses

A rose by any other name…might still be a rose! With thousands of varieties and hybrid varieties boasting a spectrum of colors and scents, it is no wonder roses have captivated gardeners and inspired artists for centuries.

According to fossil evidence, roses date back 70 million years in Asia and 35 million years in North America. Garden cultivation of roses began some 5,000 years ago, most likely in China. Native to the Northern Hemisphere, the genus Rosa has species spread from Alaska to Mexico and including northern Africa, Europe, and Asia. During the Roman period, roses were grown extensively in the Middle East and Mediterranean, where it was traded for celebration confetti, medicinal purposes, food, and perfume. Roses have arguably always been the most famous of all plants, but it was not until the Victorian era that rose cultivation and gardening reached an all-time peak.

Partially inspired by Empress Josephine Bonaparte’s extensive collection of 250 species, rose gardens grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, reaching its zenith in Victorian England and the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The oldest single plant horticultural society in America, the American Rose Society was founded during this time in 1892. Out of the nearly 3,000 varieties hybridized during this golden age, we have only about 100 left, and only about 50 varieties are commercially available today.

Rose variety “King’s Ransom”

The term, “rose,” however, is simply an umbrella term describing wild roses, original species of roses, hybrids, and all the other crosses that have occurred in the last few hundred years. Before deliberate hybridization by man, roses grown in cultivation were of two main types: selections of plants either from among natural species grown wild or from natural hybrids occurring due to the pollinating activities of a bee. By the late eighteenth century, artificial hybridization had became possible and only few of the really ancient wild roses were still grown. However, characteristics of these roses can be found in new cultivations. The most important groupings among the ancient roses were the Centifolias and Moss roses, Damasks, Gallicas, Portlands, Albas, Chinas, and the species.

One of the first hybridizations was the hybrid perpetual, which was introduced in France as ‘hybrid remontant’ in 1837and then later referred to as hybrid perpetual. Perpetual was a real misnomer since they bloom twice seasonally, which was still more produced by their genetic ancestors, the damasks, hybrid chinas and bourbons. Another sought after characteristic was their hardiness, which still exceeds the modern hybrid tea roses. Many of our modern roses trace their color and/or form to their hybrid perpetual ancestors.

Rose variety “Octoberfest”

In 1867, Guillot Fils, one of the many gardeners at Guillotière since its opening in 1690, introduced the first hybrid tea, “La France,” which can still be found today. The hybrid tea supplied the abundant, recurrent bloom that had been awaited for so many years in addition to a broader color range, although many petals and fragrance were sacrificed in the process.

The Rose Society considers this the dividing line between old garden roses, which are hybrids developed by cross pollinating, such as the alba, damasks and chinas which are known for their abundant aroma, and modern which include hybrid tea roses, floribundas and grandifloras, which produce many flowers. Today, hybrid teas make up most garden roses. These two groups differ from the oldest- the species roses that developed in nature without any human intervention and basis of all cultivated roses.

Even the Victorians had difficulty remembering all the rose varieties. Books such as The Flower Garden, or Break’s Book of Flowers, published in 1851 by Joseph Breck, simplify roses for the common reader. And excerpt from the book is below:

Rose variety “Neil Diamond”

“It may often be difficult to ascertain whether a Rose is a Damask, a Provence, or a Hybrid China; but there can be no difficult in ascertaining whether it is dwarf or climbing, whether it blooms once or more in the year and whether the leaves are rough as in the Remontants, (perpetual) or smooth as in the Bengals. We have, therefore, endeavored to simplify the old classification, and have placed all Roses under three principal heads:

  1. Those that make distinct and separated periods of bloom through the season, as the Remontant Roses
  2. Those that bloom continually, without any temporary cessation, as the Bourbon, China, etc
  3. Those that bloom only once in the season, as the French and others

Bird’s Eye view of the rose garden.

The first of these includes only the present Damask and Hybrid Perpetuals. Perpetual does not express their true character. The second general head we call Everblooming. This is divided into five classes:

  1. The Bourbon, which are easily known by their luxuriant growth, and think, large leathery leaves. These are, moreover, perfectly hardy.
  2. The China, which includes the present China, Tea, and Noisette Roses, which are now much confused, as there are many among the Teas which are not tea-scented, and among the Noisettes which do not bloom in clusters. There are, moreover, so much alike in their growth and habit, that it is better each should stand upon its own merits, and not on the characteristics of an imaginary class.
  3. Musk, known by its rather rough foliage.
  4. Macartney, known by its very rich, glossy foliage, almost evergreen
  5. Microphylla, easily distinguished by its peculiar foliage and straggling habit.

The third general head we divided into five classes:

  1. Garden roses. This includes all the present French, Provenance, Hybrid Provenance, Hybrid China, Hybrid Bourbon, White, and Damask Roses, many of which, under the old arrangement, differ more from others in their own class than from many in another class.
  2. Moss roses, all of which are easily distinguished.
  3. Brier Roses, which will include the Sweet Brier, Hybrid Sweet Brier, and Austrian Brier.
  4. The Scotch Rose
  5. Climbing Roses; which are again divided into all the distinctive subdivisions.”

A map indicating the location and varieties of roses at Campbell House (prepared by volunteers from the Greater St. Louis Rose Society)

For decades the jewel of the Museum’s gardens has been the rose bed. For almost 50 years the roses were carefully tended by former Campbell House curator Theron Ware and later by Leo and Katie Krobath, members of the Greater St. Louis Rose Society. This summer the Rose Society re-established its commitment to the Campbell House rose garden under the direction of volunteer Bruce Davis. The Rose Society replaced more than 25 damaged or dead plants with a collection of floribundas, grandifloras, and hybrid teas. There are now 50 roses thriving in the garden with evocative names like King’s Ransom, Yellow Brick Road and Sugar Moon.

Next time you visit, don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.

-Jenna, Graduate Research Assistant

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