Roses

When the Editor of the Atlantic was in Santa Barbara last year, he spent a delightful afternoon in the garden of DONALD CULROSS PEVTTIE listening to Mr. Peat tie’s account of his more famous rosebushes and of others, long planted, which today defy identification. Mr. Pealtie, one of our most articulate naturalists, has recently completed his monumental book, The Natural History of Western Trees, published by Houghton Mifflin.

by DONALD CULROSS PEATTIE

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By the garden gate blooms the flower loved by men more and longer than any other on earth. Old as India, old as China, the rose has gone westward and north and south to the Antipodes, borne in the hand of civilization. The earliest descriptions are of the double flower; wild roses are single, so it is clear that the double or garden rose must have been bred and loved by mankind front times more ancient than history. The newest hybrid in your garden is but the living generation of a flower whose history tangles with that of long-gone kings and lovely queens and bold explorers. Its perfume and form and color have carried it across the widest gulfs of language and culture.

I saw what it had come to mean to people whose ancestors knew nothing of it as I stood by the roadside in Mexico one day and watched approach a small, sad group bearing a child’s coffin. Before them walked an old woman, scattering rose petals from her brown Indian lingers, staring straight ahead of her and treading upon the petals with bare feet. When, hat in hand, I had seen the little procession pass, I stooped to pick up a few, and recognized with wonder from what rose they had been plucked. By their globed form, their rose-jar odor, I knew them for the old Centifolia, the hundred-leaved, called by Herodotus the “sixtyleaved rose” when he saw it growing in the garden of Midas — has it in thirty centuries gained forty petals? It is the rose whose petals were mingled with the ashes of the dead in burial urns of ancient Greece. They were thrown, too, after the bride in Roman days. Their odor, says the author of The Scented Garden, “is more than a scent; it is the beauty of life itself, of its sorrows as well as its joys.” That antique breath, still fresh today, has perfumed the history of the Western world.

Centifolia with its symbolism of fleeting beauty and of thorns for pain was dedicated to Venus and her son Cupid. The troubadours of the Middle Ages carried it and sang of it, and the blazing rose windows set in the great cathedrals glowed with its pattern and colors. It is the rose of Mary, mother of Christ, put in her hand as symbol of purity by painters of the past, or ardently scattered at her feet. And here, brought from Spain with the Conquest, it sweetened the dust to which a child of the ancient Aztecs now returned.

Whether you ask for it as Centifolia or Provence Rose or Cabbage Rose, Unique or Old Red or Fragrance, you will have little luck in finding it in most commercial nurseries. I tried to, and was met with such a stare as might have been expected had I gone to the White House and asked for Martha Washington. But in the garden of Mary Washington, mother of George, where my honeymoon was spent, at Fredericksburg in Virginia, Centifolias were gathered by our hostess as a farewell to my bride, for this ancient flower is treasured still in villages and country dooryards and on old plantations. In such places a prized bush will have, like a member of the family, a name of its own. It is called “Grandfather’s rose” or the “June rose” or the “wedding rose” — all for reasons now perhaps forgotten. In a sleepy gold-mining town of California one family bush bore the name of “Round the Horn rose,” telling its own story. Again, when its green sepals are all fringed and crested and fuzzy, you will hear it called the Moss rose, and prized the more. When a Centifolia opens its soft heart to early summer, it is as though there dwelt among us one of our own ancestors, but young and fresh as a girl still.

If you cannot find these beauties of the past in your nurseryman’s beds, it is because almost all his roses belong to the wonderful modern class called the Hybrid Teas. They are the fairy queens of Rosedom, pedigreed like race horses, which win the prizes at shows and are named for the great of earth. In 1890 there were fewer Hybrid Teas than fingers on your hand; today there are so many that already prize-winners of twenty-five years ago are forgotten and unobtainable. Vet in their green veins runs the sweet blood of Centifolia and many another of the European species of long ago. The prize-winning roses of today are not spontaneous productions of nature; they arc now planned inventions, some even patented, many of them secret with their breeders, who so met imes hand down their knowledge with their gift, from father to son.

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YET before the fall of man Nature had scattered l he roses of this world with a liberal hand all around the north temperate zone. There are about 250 wild species, all single, all five-petaled, or rarely four. In this country we have the Prairie rose, a natural climber related to the garden ramblers, and the Arkansas rose, the Virginia rose, the California rose; even Alaska has its Nootka rose, and in the desolate Fan a mint Mountains that overlook Death Valley there blooms for its brief hour the Mojave rose. In Europe there is a center of many wild roses in the valleys of the Alps, and the English poets are full of praise for the Eglantine, whose leaves are so fragrant after rain, for the spiny Scotch rose, ihe Dog rose of every hedgerow, and “the coming musk-rose full of dewy wine.”The richest store of all is found in China and India, but these marvelous Oriental roses were unknown to the Creeks and Romans and the men of the Middle Ages. They bloomed — the Bengal and China Monthly, the Tea and the Himalayan Musk, the Banksia and Multiflora — on the other side of the world.

The old queens who reigned before them in Europe up to the year 1790 were four. One was Centifolia; another Gallica, the French rose with blooms less round, whose perfume develops more in the dried petals of the rose jar than when fresh. A third was Alba, the white rose, now never seen save in cottage gardens or, where I found it, at the cellar hole of a vanished ranch house; whoever planted that bush may have called it Maiden’s Blush. And last, there was the Damask rose, named for Damascus, whence, says tradition, it was brought by the Crusaders. This is today the national flower of Persia, the source of the rose water with which the mosques of the Moslem world are sprinkled. Omar Khayyam grew it in his garden at Khorasan; it is planted on his grave, yet blooms forever freshest all through his Rubáiyát.

Of these four sisters, two stood once for enemies. As Alba was the white rose of Vork, so the Damask is said to have been the red rose of Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses of the fifteenth century. These ended when, after thirty years of bloodshed, England’s King Henry VII, of the House of Lancaster, in 1486 married Elizabeth, heiress of the House of Vork, and so founded the Tudor line. And the Tudor rose, particolored red and white, became the badge of England’s royal family.

In time, all four queen roses became crossed one with another—not by design, for no one then understood the nature of pollen, or even that flowers have sex, but by the wiser bees. So that several score of varieties were known in the days of powdered wigs and patches, when Queen Marie Antoinette sent for the great rose painter Redouté to make portraits of the beauties in her garden. It was in early summer that he must have come, for only then did all these roses bloom. Redouté, the Belgian gardener’s boy with the courtly manners and the stubby hands that could make a painted flower all but breathe forth scent, saw hundreds of his paintings blown away in the storm of the French Revolution. Vet he lived to become the drawing teacher of the Empress Josephine, and in the treasury of rare new plants that was her fabulous garden at Malmaison, he painted rose heads newly crowned with fame.

Some had come from afar. Napoleon let Josephine spend fortunes on these importations for her garden. And there were floral jewel boxes newly opened for her to rifle. For the first contact of European trade with the Orient brought back something, to a rosarian, more precious than silk or tea, ginger or camphor or petal-thin porcelain. As early as 1789. the first of the Far Eastern roses, the crimson Chinese Monthly, found its way to Western shores. It lacked the sweetness of many a rose, but it bloomed over and over the year through. And this fidelity had been in Europe the one virtue lacking to make the rose supreme. So, crossed with the old once-blooming roses, this bright Oriental made the first of the Hybrid Perpetuals — that grand new dynasty which now kept rose gardens flowering the summer long.

In 1793 England sent Lord Macartney to knock on the palace gates of the Chinese Emperor, asking that the Flowery Kingdom open to British trade. He bore home with him the Macartney rose, which my mother used to grow for its waxen white flowers and glittering evergreen foliage. From China, too, came the first rambler, in 1804, ancestor of the Seven Sisters that grew with the Macartney along the south fence of my boyhood home. Indeed, if anyone looks back, he is likely to remember that many of these historic roses flowered through his personal history.

As merchants and explorers penetrated ever more deeply into China’s vast unknown, quiet gardens at home bloomed with new faces. One named for Lady Banks, the great collector’s wife, astonished all by smelling not of rose but of sweet violet. It is a climber, earliest of them to flower. It was March when I knew the Banksia first, spilling in milk-white showers from the tallest pine in my Riviera garden. And I found it again in Tombstone, in the courtyard of the Rose tree Inn on Toughnut Street, where the boast is that this is the biggest rambler in the world. I wouldn’t argue, for by measurement that single trunk is 42 inches around, and the spreading arms have to be supported on thirty-two posts, for they shade no less than 2000 square feet of dusty Arizona. How it came here to bloom is less mysterious than how the Banksia traveled first from its native soil — in the Yangtze gorges, perhaps, where it trails in windy festoons from the awful cliffs. By junk spun desperately in those yellow rapids, by swaying caravan, by clipper ship under bellying white canvas, this violet-breathing vine must have come, to announce spring in gardens where the winter is mild.

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DID they grow Gold of Ophir in your old home garden? Robert Fortune found that rose on his first journey to China in 1843. Disguising himself as a coolie to enter the forbidden city of Soochow, haggling endlessly with politely bowing, wily growers, fighting off river pirates from his embattled junk, he got for us our forsythias, white wisterias, camellias, chrysanthemums, pompon daisies, peonies, autumn anemones, and this burning-hearted rose.

Gold of Ophir was a yellow Tea rose, one of the very first to reach Europe but by no means the last. Yellow and pink, red and white, Tea roses were slipping in, half-unnoticed, all but unappreciated, while for eighty years Europe and America went mad over the Hybrid Perpetuals — that blend of the pre-Josephine roses with the China Monthly. By the eighties of the last century, the great rose breeders felt that they had gone about as far as they could go in the creation of new roses. And indeed, when you consider such Hybrid Perpetuals as American Beauty on this side of the water and Her Majesty in England, it seems to us nowadays that the height of flamboyance had been reached. But here and there breeders had been crossing the Teas with the Hybrid Perpetuals, and by 1890 they realized that a whole new race of roses had been born — the Hybrid Teas.

It is the Tea rose that gives to the prize-winners of today their aristocratic, long, furled buds, the green sepals that flare so airily backward from the high-centered open blossom, the petals thick and satiny and curling back to show some subtle difference in shade. Above all, the Tea strain brought in a new fragrance, named, it is said, for a resemblance to fresh leaves on the growing tea bush in the lands from which these roses came.

The chemists tell us that many esters, alcohols, aldehydes, and acetates go to make up the perfume of the Tea rose. And these are combined in different degrees in the many varieties, so that the specialists identify t races of clove, lemon, orrisroot, violet, raspberry, marigold, and pine, in one variety or another. To most city folk today the sophisticated odors of the Teas are the scent of the rose. Only those of us w ho love old roses too know the “true” rose odor, out of which attar of roses is made for t he great perfumeries in France. When I lived there, in the heart of the flower country, I used to see the peasant women gathering the petals of the rose de mai — a Centifolia — into their aprons; sacks of them filled great trucks that left a trail of overwhelming sweetness upon a mile of air.

New roses of the Hybrid Teas are created, of course, by the pollination of one variety by another. One breeder says that out of a thousand seeds raised from one such crossing, all but 120 proved worthless. One by one these chosen few came to bloom, displayed their charms and their defects, were winterkilled or fell victims to disease; and after years of work, a single bush remained in the lists as a champion. Such a successful rose must, of course, be propagated by cuttings, since new pollinations, even with the same parents, would present entirely new results, so complex is the heredity hidden in these multiple hybrids. Thus it is that if fashion turns w himsically away from a rose, and its original stock is lost, its like cannot be produced again at will.

So, as lovely faces come, others vanish. Yet in your rose garden you may have belles of all eras, as I have in mine. Indeed, I chose my house in Santa Barbara, with its long-neglected garden, for the old roses that I found growing there. When first I walked the paths, long suckering shoots ruddy with thorns detained me; the arbors and the weathered fences, burdened with a scented freight of unpruned roses, looked to me, aslant under the weight, as if for help. Rose brambles hung upon the old stone walls; their green arcs roofed the liehened benches; ramblers had climbed even high in the boughs of the great live oaks, to let their blossoms fall like fountain spray. Old as these roses were, they were new to me then, but now I know them and their ancestry. That high-climbing pink rambler is Cécile Brunner, created out of the Chinese Multifloras by a descendant of one of Empress Josephine’s gardeners. The great soft pink heads that nod above a trellis are Belle of Portugal; her father was an Oriental giant, Rosa gigantea of India, and her mother was a queen among the earliest Teas, Reine Marie Henriette. Along the fence runs Maman Cochet, one of the pure Tea roses out of a great French house of breeders, and above my window Rêve d’or drops sleepy petals in a golden dream of her great days almost a century ago.

One more there is, the horticultural love of my life. This climber smothers an arbor in a glitter of fine foliage and of exquisite blooms larger than a rambler’s, more flat than globed, deeper pink at the heart of the many crumpled petals that smell as sweetly tart as an apple. That apple-skin scent, the tiny leaves, the shortness of the joints, the flatness of the flower, bespeak the blood of the briars—that vast, host of wild roses clambering over the world. Yet under my dissecting microscope I could see, by the deploy of the tiny stamens and pislils, the unmistakable signature of the Teas. None of my books showed anything like this hybrid; in vain I searched all the way back to the old horbals, bound in parchment, that the librarians surrendered to my hands with looks of anxiety.

I could not find anyone to ask whence came this gnarled vine that with each spring bewitched me. The old couple who in their last years made my garden are long since dead; their only child had died before them. The town’s rose specialist and its landscape gardener have come and shaken puzzled heads. I sent my mystery rose to experts in southern California; they could not name it. I sent it north to a famous grower of rare old roses; she did not know it. But she advised that I send it to the country’s grealest authority on roses, in Massachusetts. June was gone by then, and I had to wait another year for bloom; when my specimens arrived, the great authority was dead. His colleagues at the Arnold Arboretum opined that mine might be some rose long lost to cultivation, a treasure casually unearthed each spring in my old garden, when the pink sprays lift again to the light. So be it. My nameless rose is but one lingerer among the multitude of those that have come, had their bright hour, and gone, leaving the human heart stirred by their fragrance.