Eleanor Roosevelt: "I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered," ..."But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalog: no good in bed, but fine up against a wall."

A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose

By —— Bio and Archives--June 15, 2017

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So advised Gertrude Stein—probably about the only thing she is widely remembered for, despite the best efforts of Alice Toklas, who engraved the words onto the edges of decorative plates—presumably when she wasn’t cooking up cannabis brownies.

June is reckoned as Rose Month, and not only for those of European descent. The Algonkian tribes of northeastern North America called it the Rose Full Moon Month. But our fascination with roses commences far earlier in time and away.

The Minoan civilization on the Mediterranean island of Crete persisted from about 3500-1400 B.C. before succumbing to a massive eruption on a nearby Aegean volcano. Surviving rooms in the palaces had decorative friezes depicting, among other subjects—roses.

Over millennia later, Egypt became famous in the ancient world for its scale of rose production. The blooms were necessary for piling many inches deep around diners at state banquets down through to the time of Cleopatra. Impressed, the Romans followed with their own love for roses even growing them in ornamental rose gardens as at volcanically doomed Pompeii.

We now have the Latin tag, sub rosa—‘under the rose’—for an assurance of secrecy and confidentiality. Such has assured the impact of the rose on western culture. And not only there. Omar Khayy√°m penned several immortal lines in his Rub√°iy√°t that enthuse rosarians to this day. Indeed, a Persian proverb advises that, “The world is a rose; smell it and pass it to your friends.” Further afield, from China it is suggested, “A thorn defends the rose, harming only those who would steal the blossom.” Nevertheless, another Chinese proverb suggests that for those willing to take that risk, “A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses.”

Back in Merrie Olde Englande, rosarians dislike the designation Wars of the Roses, fought between the Houses of Lancaster and York from 1455 to 1487. It did, however, give rise to the White Rose of York, Rosa alba semiplena prior to 1473, according to some authorities. Henry VII then combined this White Rose of York with the Red Rose of Lancaster to create the Tudor Rose. Nevertheless, as William Shakespeare observed in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Juliet was, of course, Italian, presumably with a Mediterranean appearance. But to this day, a naturally attractive woman or girl with a fair complexion is said to be an “English Rose”—at least, if she hails from the sceptered isle.

It may have become their floral emblem, but the English have no exclusive claim to clutching, if with care, roses to their culture. Across La Manche, a French proverb advises that there is, “No rose without a thorn.” Likewise, says an old Jewish proverb: “From the thorn bush comes forth the rose.” And from Sweden comes an observation, “If you are among roses, your friends will look for you among the thorns.” This, however is nicely balanced by another Swedish proverb, to wit: “If I had a rose for every time I thought of you, I’d be picking roses for a lifetime.” But, “Those who don’t pick roses in summer won’t pick them in winter either,” suggests a German saying.

All of which is very well but it comes as a shock to learn that every named rose prior to the opening years of the 19th century arose as a chance hybrid. All that changed thanks to the great patroness of roses, Josephine de Beauharnais, the Empress Josephine Bonaparte (1763-1814). In 1799, she embarked on an enterprise to collect every known rose in the garden at the Chateau de Malmaison—landscaped in the “English” style. This allowed horticulturists to cross various forms, achieving the modern rose in all its glory and, incidentally, earn Josephine the title, “Godmother of the modern rosemaniacs.”

Today, numerous tributes to the rose flourish wherever English is spoken and, as we have seen in many another tongue. For example:

Continued below...

  • It wasn’t a bed of roses: something not easy or without troubles
  • No bed of roses: not easy or without trouble
  • Rose-coloured glasses: seeing life optimistically
  • Bloom is off the rose: something or someone is no longer as interesting as it was
  • Come up smelling like a rose: looking good after some difficult task
  • Everything’s coming up roses: life is wonderful
  • Stop and smell the roses: calm down and contemplate the finer things in life
  • Put roses in cheeks: making someone look healthy
  • Smelling like a rose
  • Take time to smell the roses
  • For the sake of a single rose, the gardener becomes servant to a thousand thorns

Still not convinced that roses run deep in our culture? Perhaps then you are cool as a cucumber—certainly no shrinking violet.

But let Eleanor Roosevelt have the last word: “I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered,” she explained. “But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalog: no good in bed, but fine up against a wall.”

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Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.

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