The Most Loved and Beautiful of Flowers

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Posted by @Mike on
Some know it as the Queen of Flowers; others call it by its family name, Rosaceae. But most of us know it, quite simply, as the rose. Whether grown in gardens, depicted in drawings, or praised in poetry, it is one of the most loved and beautiful of all flowers. This article briefly describes its history, explains its basic classifications, and provides descriptions and photographs of some of the most interesting and diverse specimens of the rose, the most beautiful of the flowering plants.


A short summary of a long history

The rose’s history is a fascinating one, and goes back much further than our obsession with the flower. Though mythology tells us it was born by the smile of Cupid, the first rose species actually originated in Asia some 65 million years ago. From there, other species of roses appeared across the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and North America.

But it was not until much later that early human civilizations began documenting their interest in roses. One of the first known written references is a 5,000-year-old clay tablet, made by ancient Sumerians who inhabited present-day Iraq. Two thousand years later, the ancient Greeks were known to paint pink roses in their palace frescos. Some 2,500 years after that, Confucius wrote that the Chinese emperor’s library had accumulated more than 600 books on rose culture.

As human civilizations evolved, the rose grew not only in botanical interest, but also in symbolic importance. Rose motifs have been used widely in paintings, tapestries, ceramics, heraldry, and even stained glass windows. Poets have lyricized the rose as an emblem of purity, innocence, and love. The plant has long been harvested for its fragrant oils (known as attar), and for its seed pods (known as hips).

Today, wild rose species grow in the Americas as far north as the Alaskan state, and as far south as Mexico. In Europe, they grow wild from the Nordic countries all the way down to the upper regions of the African continent. Yet, curiously, no wild rose species grow naturally below the equator.

Fortunately, as our love affair with the rose has grown, so has our ability to cultivate and commercialize it, so that we can enjoy roses no matter where we live. Yet, the image of the modern rose typically purchased at a florist is a far cry from the five-petaled rose painted by the ancient Cretes on their palace walls.

What accounts for this difference? In a word: hybridization.

Rose Classifications

To understand the history of roses is to understand how a relatively small number of original rose species, along with their progeny, cross-pollinated over the millennia to produce thousands of different varieties. Today, the petal count, bloom form, flower color, leaf shape, and plant habit of these different varieties vary so much that at times they scarcely resemble one another.

Some varieties grow no more than a foot in height, while others easily grow 20 feet tall and wide. Some have as few as five petals of a pastel color; others have well over 100 petals with contrasting stripes. Some have blooms that are relatively small and flat, while others are six inches across or deeply cupped. Some blooms are ovoid in shape, while others resemble a small head of cabbage. Some exude an intense fragrance, while others have none at all. Some plants bloom once per season, others bloom repeatedly. Most need five to six hours of direct daily sunlight to produce healthy flowers, but others can bloom beautifully in partial shade. Some can survive long frozen winters; others, not at all.

These differences result from both naturally occurring and artificially manipulated cross pollinations of different roses. Simply put, when the pollen of one plant fertilizes another, genetic variations can occur, just as they do among people. To keep track of these variations and the evolution of roses, they have been divided into three broad categories:

    * Species Roses

    * Old Garden Roses

    * Modern Roses

Species Roses

There is some debate among botanists about what exactly constitutes a species rose. Suffice it to say, they are the naturally occurring roses that first appeared millions of years ago, forming the genus, Rosa. Evidence suggests that there were between 100 and 200 original species roses, and many of them are still grown today. Most have five simple petals (a bloom form known as “single”), but a few have more than that (“semi-double” and “fully double” forms). Most species roses bloom just once per season, generally in the spring or early summer, depending on the climate. An example of a species rose that originated in North America is Rosa arkansana, ‘The Prairie Rose,’ shown here (grown and photographed by the author). Typically less than 18 inches tall, this short species produces flushes of blooms that give way to small, bright red hips.


An entirely different example of a species rose is Rosa banksiae lutea, known more commonly as ‘Yellow Lady Banks’ (grown by Zuzu, and photographed by Sue Brown).  A sprawling rose of enormous proportions, it can cover an arbor or even a towering oak tree with hundreds of cascading canes, filled with thousands of spring blooms. Unlike some other species roses grown in North America, it requires relatively warm climates, and is popularly grown in more temperate zones.


Other common examples of species roses include Rosa rugosa, Rosa gallica, Rosa mundi, and Mutabilis, to name just a few.

Old Garden Roses

Through the millennia, species roses evolved and hybridized into other forms that we now refer to as Old Garden Roses (OGRs). As a broad category, OGRs include up to 20 classes of roses that existed prior to 1867, when the first hybrid tea ushered in the era of cultivated Modern Roses. However, it’s important to note that varieties within the OGR classes continued to be cultivated after 1867. As a result, a rose’s class, rather than its date of introduction, may determine whether it is an Old or Modern rose.

The OGRs include such classes as Alba, Bourbon, Damask, Hybrid Perpetual, Moss, Noisette, Portland, and Tea, among others. No one knows for sure exactly where, when, or how each of these classes originated, but as Old World explorers and merchants established trade routes across the continents, these roses spread across the globe. In fact, rose breeding was revolutionized in the 18th and 19th centuries, when 'Rosa chinensis' was brought to Europe from China. The China rose’s characteristic of repeat blooming had never been seen in Europe, and led to the introduction of remontant roses in the Western Hemisphere.

OGRs are frequently, but not always, characterized by large, open, very full flowers, some having as many as 200 petals. They came to be featured in the paintings of the Dutch masters, and were grown by the likes of Emperor Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, at Malmaison. An exquisite example of the Bourbon class of OGRs is Madame Isaac Pereire’ (grown and photographed by the author). The Antique Rose Emporium catalog describes it in this way:

"Luscious, sumptuous, almost blousy beauty, runs one description of this well-known old rose. Named after the wife of a French banker, Madame Isaac Pereire has fat, cabbagey flowers of rich rose madder, with perhaps the strongest deep rose perfume extant. To see and smell a full-blown bush on an early April morning is a heady experience. A smaller but even more lovely fall display and scattered roses throughout the summer are extra rewards that come as the plant gets established."


A rather different example of an OGR is Rose de Rescht,’ which is variously classified as either a Portland or Damask perpetual (grown and photographed by the author). Its blooms repeat throughout the growing season, but are smaller and flatter than Madame Isaac Pereire’s, and not as fragrant. In the author’s Hudson Valley garden, its shrub-like growth habit is a densely foliated bush of some four feet in height, as opposed to Madame Isaac Pereire’s leggy, very upright growth of six or seven feet.


Other well-known varieties of Old Garden Roses include such favorites as Maiden’s Blush(Alba),Old Blush(Hybrid China),Cardinal de Richelieu(Hybrid Gallica), Baronne Prevost(Hybrid Perpetual), and ‘Sombreuil(Tea), to name but a few.

Modern Roses

In 1867, Jean-Baptiste Guillot le fils cultivated the first Hybrid Tea rose, presumably by happy accident. Although his creation, ‘La France,’ gave rise to the era of Modern Roses, the category is by no means limited to hybrid teas. It also includes a dozen other classes, including Floribunda, Grandiflora, Hybrid Musk, Hybrid Rugosa, Polyantha, Large Flowered Climber, Miniature, and Shrub roses, among others.

Despite these other classes, hybrid teas (HTs) probably are the best known Modern Roses. They make up the majority of florist roses and garden specimens that would commonly come to mind if “the man on the street” were asked to describe a rose. Their growth habit is often typified by relatively tall canes of four to six feet in height, with one or two blooms per stem. Due to their upright habit, they frequently appear in the back or middle of the border, unless they are intentionally maintained as shorter, denser plants.

The HT’s pointed, ovoid buds initially reveal closely packed layers of swirled petals, before opening into voluptuous flowers that typically range from three to five inches in diameter. Their blooms come in a wide range of colors that include shades of red, pink, mauve, copper, orange, yellow, cream, white, and nearly everything in between. Some are of a single shade, while others are multi-colored, striped, stippled, or tinged. Many garden-grown varieties produce a lovely fragrance, but commercially grown flowers may be nearly scentless.

The number of commercially available HT cultivars runs in the hundreds, if not the thousands, making the selection of one or a few favorites nearly impossible. But one of the best known, and best selling, of all hybrid teas is Peace (grown and photographed by the author). In many respects, its form, shape, habit, and substance represent the HT ideal. It was initially hybridized by Francis Meilland in 1935, as seedling #3-35-50. Despite the rise in European hostilities, it was introduced in 1942 in France under the name of ‘Madame A. Meilland,’ in Germany as ‘Gloria Dei,’ and in Italy as ‘Gioia.’ As World War II progressed, budwood of the rose was sent to America for safekeeping before the German invasion of France. When the war ended on the day that Berlin fell in 1945, the rose was given the name that has endured ever since: ‘Peace.’


Floribundas represent a class of Modern Roses that differ from hybrid teas in a number of respects.  Some floribundas are a little shorter and bushier than HTs, and they tend to bloom in clusters of multiple flowers per stem. A striking example is the apricot-colored cultivar ‘Singing in the Rain’ (grown and photographed by the author). In the author’s Zone 6b garden, it is one of the longest blooming roses, lasting well into the autumn, even blooming during the first snowfall of the season.


Shrub roses are a broad category of Modern Roses that defy easy generalization, but some of the most popular are the numerous “English” roses hybridized by David Austin. One could argue that they constitute a modern class of their own; moreover, a knowledgeable rosarian will tell you that even the Austin roses can be further divided into several subclassifications.

Two particularly fine examples of the English roses include Eglantyne and Golden Celebration (both grown and photographed by the author). Either of these can be raised as a shrub or as a short climber, depending on climate and preference. ‘Eglantyne’ is regarded as one of the most beautiful of the English varieties, featuring large but shallow, saucer-like blooms, with short but numerous pink petals, and an Old Rose fragrance. In contrast, the blooms of ‘Golden Celebration’ are deeply cupped, rounded, and feature a Tea fragrance when they first open.

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Eglantyne Golden Celebration


For Further Reading

The Species, Old Garden Roses, and Modern Roses featured in this brief article are just a few of the thousands of varieties that exist today. Countless books have been written on the subject of roses and their selection, cultivation, and care. For more information, the following publications are useful for further reading:

  • Complete Guide to Roses, by Ortho. Meredith Books, 2004.
  • Gardening with Old Roses, by John Scarman. HarperCollins, 1996.
  • Roses, by Better Homes and Gardens. Meredith Books, 2002.
  • The Companion to Roses, by John Fisher. Salem House Publishers, 1987.
  • The Complete Rose Book, by Peter McHoy. Hermes House, 2003.
  • The English Roses, by David Austin. Timber Press, 2009.
  • Ultimate Rose, edited by Beth Smiley and Ray Rogers. Dorling Kindersley, 2006.

About the Author

Michael Stewart lives in New York’s lower Hudson Valley, where he grows about 150 varieties of roses. His rendering of Amber Queen (shown at the beginning of this article) took Best in Show at the photography competition of the American Rose Society’s National Convention in the spring of 2011. His other photographs of flora and fauna can be found on his website here.


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