The Greeks and Romans had a love affair with roses.
Roses were revered by all the ancient civilisations and are central to the iconography of many faiths. The Romans adored roses, used them in cooking and in all their festivities. They found a few double roses had developed in the wild in a freak of nature, a kind of sideways genetic movement in single roses. They fell in love with these multi-petalled mutations, selected the best and propagated them by taking cuttings.
It’s wrong to say roses have thorns.
Thorns are actually modified branches. What roses have are prickles, tiny hairs or bristles that bind together, partly as armament – no self-respecting herbivore is going to start crunching on a rose – and partly as crampons to help them climb towards the sunlight they need to flower. The prickles also harbour bacteria and fungi – biological weaponry to poison their assailants.
They’ve got other methods of self defence, too.
When they’re under attack from aphids, roses release a chemical SOS to ladybirds and other predators, which fly in to make an easy meal of the pests.
A rose is sex on a stalk...
Well, it is soft, velvety and voluptuous with mysterious depths and sometimes likened to female physiology. And its intoxicating fragrance has everything to do with passion and romance and nothing to do with those sterile imported things sold on Valentine’s Day.
We’re not the only ones smitten by that glorious scent.
No, roses send out wafts of aroma to entice pollinating insects...
The modern rose is the offspring of a romantic island liaison...
Eighteenth-century traders brought their roses to the Ile Bourbon – now called Réunion, in the Indian Ocean: roses from China, which flowered over a long period, and the beautiful, scented damask blooms from Europe used to make perfume. Cross-pollination produced a whole new class of rose, the French Bourbon – much prized by the Empress Joséphine – which became the basis for the modern rose today.
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And an English cattle breeder moved things on.
In 1879 Henry Bennett applied the principles of genetic selection used in cattle breeding to roses, sometimes “back-crossing” a rose with its parents – a kind of incest, really. He invented the delicate art of hybridisation – brushing the pollen of one rose onto the female stigma of another – to create the world’s first super-rose: the hybrid tea. Since then fanatics have been tinkering with rose genetics to create countless hybrids and Bennett’s technique remains relatively unchanged to this day.
But he’s created a monster – albeit a beautiful one.
It’s an irony that in our pursuit of beauty, roses have become dependent on us and their future is now in our hands. Single roses have loads of stamens and pollen; double roses developed petals at the expense of stamens and modern roses either don’t produce pollen or if they do the number of petals on the flower make it inaccessible to insects, so rose breeders have to do their pollination for them. It’s quite sad.
You love roses of all types.
I love the dog rose; it’s the epitome of the beginning of summer. When I see it I just feel joyful. The first garden rose I fell in love with as a child was the Peace rose. “William Lobb”, a moss rose, is a favourite of mine: if you rub the buds they release a gorgeous fragrance – quite different from the rose itself when it opens. And I adore the old roses like Rosa mundi: our younger daughter’s second name is Rosamund.
As told to Jane Wheatley
Carol Klein’s Plant Odysseys is on BBC2 tonight (Monday 27th July) at 7.00pm