Friday, March 20, 2015

By Any Other Name: Historic Roses

by Margaret Porter

Gallica roses, J.S. Holtzbecher
Google Art Project
The rose is one of the oldest plants in cultivation. It appears on frescoes found in Crete. On cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia. For many thousands of years it has been grown in China. It turns up in Greek mythology--Aphrodite anointed herself with rose oil. Herodotus mentioned a 60-petalled rose, and Epicurus had a rose garden. In Roman times, roses were omnipresent, requiring large-scale cultivation to supply demand. They were most famously used at the festival marking the ascent of 14-year old Emperor Heliogabalus (AD 204-224), who repeatedly showered his guests with roses.

In Christianity the rose became emblematic of the Virgin Mary and is found in many Madonna paintings. In Medieval times roses were grown in monastic gardens. They feature in courtly poetry--Roman de la Rose in French and Geoffrey Chaucer's Middle English translation of it. Medicinal gardens contained roses. They were used for hedging and enclosures. And they show up in English heraldry, stained glass, statuary, and coinage.

The following categories would certainly be familiar to characters in our historical novels:

Species roses. England's native roses are rosa canina (the dog rose), which has a distinctive apple scent, eglantine (often mentioned by Shakespeare), and various Scotch or burnet roses. These are still found growing in hedgerows. Over time they moved into the garden to be cultivated and were used medicinally. They tend to be extremely thorny!

Rosa canina, dog rose

Double Blush Burnet, Scotch rose

Rosa gallica, Provins Rose. An ancient type from the Middle East and Europe, grown and described by Pliny the Elder. Officianalis came to be known in England as the Apothecary Rose, and is mentioned in Culpeper's Herbal. It was used in conserves, perfume, and medicines. The Red Rose of Provins was chosen to be the Rose of Lancaster. Its striped sport, Rosa mundi, supposedly bears the name of King Henry II's mistress Rosamund. Another popular form is the Velvet Rose, also mentioned by Gerard, dating from before 1596.

Rosa gallica officianalis, Apothecary Rose

Rosa gallica violacea, Old Velvet Rose, La Belle Sultane

Rosa gallica versicolor, Rosa mundi

Rosa alba. This rose grew in Greek & Roman gardens, and like other types eventually arrived in Britain. King Edward IV designated Alba semi-plena as the White Rose of York. A notable pink version is Great Maiden's Blush, dating from before the Renaissance, both fragrant and beautiful, and possibly the same rose Botticelli presents in The Birth of Venus and other paintings. Alba maxima gained fame as the Jacobite rose, connected by legend with Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald.

Rosa alba semi-plena, White Rose of York

Rosa alba incarnata, Maiden's Blush

Rosa damascena. Its most ancient form is Semperflorens, mentioned by Virgil and grown in Pompeii--for centuries this was the only known re-blooming rose in Europe. It was variously referred to as Autumn Damask, Four Seasons Rose, or Quatre Saisons. Long before the Crusades, when they found their way to England, damask roses grew in Persia and the Mediterranean. This type is still used for making attar of roses and other perfumes in the Middle East and Bulgaria. In the 18th century, Celsiana was a popular damask variety.

Quatre Saisons, the Autumn Damak

Celsiana, damask rose

Still Life by Maria von Oosterwijck, 1689
Wikimedia Commons

Rosa centifolia. Other names are Cabbage Rose, Rose de Peintres, or names incorporating 'Dutch' or 'Belgic'. It is distinguished by its abundance of petals, fine pink colour, and high fragrance. Its popularity increased as a result of its prevalence in 17th century Dutch and Flemish still life paintings as well as 18th century French art by Fragonard, Boucher, and others. The miniature form, Rose de Meux, was very popular in the 18th century.

Portland rose (also known as Damask Perpetual) prior to 1775. Reportedly 'discovered' in Pasetum, Naples. Associated, perhaps erroneously, with Margaret Cavendish Bentinck (1715-1785), Duchess of Portland, who studied natural history and botany and was a plant collector. At some point she supposedly received from Italy the Scarlet Four Seasons rose, eventually known as the Portland Rose or Duchess of Portland. Over time it gave rise to an entire class of repeating damask roses.

The Portland Rose

 Frustratingly, some roses defy categorisation. A favourite of mine, Shailer's Provence, aka 'Gracilis,' dating from 1796, is variously defined as: a centifolia, an early Boursault rose, a variant of chinensis, or possibly descended from rosa indica. It doesn't matter to me, I love it for its beauty and because I obtained the original cutting from my mother.

Shailer's Provence

When did roses bloom in England in past times? Gardening and horticultural books reveal exactly when certain specimens flowered.

May: cinnamon rose, monthly rose, damask rose, burnet-leaved rose, Scotch rose
June: damask rose, white rose, red rose
July: musk rose, monthly rose, American rose (perhaps the Virginia or Pennsylvania rose)
September and October:  musk rose, monthly rose

Where could one obtain roses? If you were extremely patient, you could grow roses from seed. Normally cuttings were taken and rooted in soil. Or one could dig up and transplant a specimen. Or you could buy young or established plants from a nursery garden, which might be as large as 50 to 100 acres. With the rise of nurserymen in the 18th and 19th centuries, catalogues of their entire stock were printed, and in them we find many plants familiar to us today. Here are some prices for types of roses mentioned in this article:

William & John Perfect, Yorkshire, 1777
Blush Belgic 1s
Damask 4d.
               Dutch hundred leav'd 1s.          
  Maiden's Blush 1s.
  Rosa mundi 4d.
Semi-double Velvet 1s.
Single Yellow 6d.

What might the purchaser do with the roses? Plant them, obviously, but in what manner? During the 17th and 18th centuries the rose was merely one of numerous garden specimens, typically planted in combination with other flowering shrubs and evergreens. In 1791 Richard Twiss designed a rectangular bed edged with box. Within this enclosure was a ring of low-growing roses--moss rose, musk rose, white Provence rose, Austrian copper, de Meux, centifolia varieties. These surrounded evergreens and other flowering shrubs (lauristinas, hibiscus, kalmia, azealea, tulip tree, and cherries).

Rose beds as a separate garden feature didn't arise until the importation of the recurrent Rosa chinensis from China, and the various hybrids produced from it. Extended flowering meant that the rose could take centre stage and it swiftly achieved prominence over all other flowers.

Celsiana by P.J. Redouté,
Wikimedia Commons
Empress Josephine's gardens at Malmaison in France are regarded as the world's first modern-stye rose gardens. Her innovative style, referred to as jardin a l'Anglaise, not only consisted of beds filled with shrub roses or standards (tree roses). Long-caned varieties clambered over pergolas, pillars, obelisks, and trellies. Her passion for roses inspired many a hybridiser, as well as the famous rose painter Pierre-Josepsh Redouté of the Netherlands, who immortalised the Malmaison collection in his monumental three-volume work Les Roses.

New discoveries, such as re-blooming Bourbon roses, brought about the great rose revolution in Victorian England and 19th century France, when hybrids were created by the hundreds. Tea roses, floribundas, and other later varieties all descend from the very earliest roses grown by our ancestors.

Rose Photographs: My own gardens


Twelve Months of Flowers, Robert Furber, 1730
The Gardeners Kalendar, Directing the necessary works to be done every month in the Kitchen, Fruit, and Pleasure-Gardens, as also in the Conservatory and Nursery, Philip Miller, F.R.S., 1775
Every Man His own Gardener, Thomas Mawe 1784
The Roses: The Complete Plates, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, 2007
The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds, 1720-1800, Mark Laird
The Love of Roses: from Myth to Modern Culture, Graham Rose and Peter King, 1992

March 2015
Margaret (Evans) Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of several historical fiction genres, and is also published in nonfiction and poetry. A lady landscape designer and rosarian is featured as the heroine of her novel The Proposal. Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.



  1. Some of those photos are so lovely you can almost smell them! Thanks for such an interesting and delightful; post.

  2. What a lovely post! The photographs are gorgeous.

    1. Thank you! A nice preview of coming summer attractions in my gardens!

  3. Lovely, post, Margaret! I wear a beautiful rose scent every day.

    1. Which one do you favour? I have several versions of rose scent myself!

  4. Margaret, I'm always in awe of the photos of your beautiful roses, and love your articles about roses in history. Thanks for posting!

  5. Beautiful post. I do love the centifolias—so incredibly lush.

  6. What a fantastic article. So lyrical and evocative, while fact-filled. Thank you!


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