History of Roses: Part I

“I have loved only Napoleon and roses” Jean Pierre Vibert a French breeder of roses in the month of his death, January1866 at the age of 89. The Quest for the Rose p 105.

The rose has been cultivated in the west at least as far back in time as the Babylonian civilization. At the start of the nineteenth century, China was about as far along in rose breeding as was the west, so  it is not unreasonable to believe that the culture of the rose might be at least as old in the far east. There are stories about Romans cultivating great fields of roses and using their petals in imperial celebrations. There are stories of knights returning from the crusades and bringing with them garden roses from Persia and Assyria. There are reasons to believe that the roses painted by Rembrandt’s contemporary Rachel Ruysch were special cultivars of local (Dutch) breeding. Indeed the rose has been entwined with human culture for millennia; but the real start of rose history, of large scale distribution, and of intense rose breeding begins with Empress Josephine’s garden at Malmaison.

Through the war of 1812 the British Naval blockade of France kept commercial and military commerce alike from entering or leaving the ports of France. But there was one ship whose cargo was too important to the British, one ship that was allowed to pass, one ship that was given special protection in light of its special contents. It was a ship containing a large consignment of plants from Empress Josephine’s garden at Malmaison, primarily roses. Perhaps the British feared for the fate of the garden and its roses at the end of the war. Whatever their motive, it is clear that they held the collection at Malmaison in high regard.

Empress Josephine’s garden at Malmaison was the first of its kind. It displayed something close to 250 different rose cultivars, most of which were gallica roses. Present, too, were dozens of damask, alba, centifolia and species roses. It was by far the most complete collection of rose plants ever assembled. When she died in 1814 her gardener, duPont, passed the roses on to Hardy who was head of Luxembourg gardens in Paris. Soon thereafter a few young men including Vibert and Laffay were growing and breeding roses. One account has at least one of their nurseries growing 200,000 plants from seed per year. Laffay continued to breed roses until at least 1847 and Vibert went on to breed roses until 1866. Over most of the nineteeth century, France would be the powerhouse driving rose breeding, turning out many hundreds of new cultivars each decade.

The roses one might have found at Malmaison  include the R. gallica officinalis that, even then, would have seemed a little wild and urefined. At the other end of the spectrum, the garden would have included Fantin Latour, a centifolia rose with clear, warm pink blossoms and a quartered form. Somewhere in between might have been the alba rose Celeste. Roses introduced by 1934 would include Chapeau de Napoleon or Crested Moss, and Empress Josephine. The rose at this point in history made beautiful, fragrant flowers in any color you wanted – so long as it was pink. And it made them once a year.


photo of rose Fantin Latour

Fantin Latour’s open flower shows an attractive arrangement of petals.


Rose breeding and its results might have turned out to be a rather boring affair except that new breeding stock kept arriving with traders from the far east. Trading enterprises were bringing repeat-flowering roses back from China and four such rose cultivars were used extensively as breeding stock. The most coveted trait brought by the first four china roses was called remontance. In remontant roses, the flowering cycle repeated at least once during the growing season. Whereas gallica and centifolia roses would just bloom in late spring, remontant roses would bloom again in fall. And sometimes they would bloom more regularly than that. China roses also brought the darkening red pigment – the pigment that turns the tips of some very modern roses reddish as they age under good, warm sunlight. This is a trait quite common to later tea roses and one that is used to some advantage in certain more modern roses.

Two classes of roses arose from crossing of the four stud china roses with old garden roses: the chinas and the bourbons. Chinas tend to be a little shrubbier and a little more reliably remontant; bourbons tend to be and a little more cold hardy and their flowers tend to be larger, more formally organized, and more fragrant; but they also tend to be a little leggy, a little more prone to blackspot, and rather less generous with their blooms. Among the china roses in trade today are Hermosa, Cramoisi Superieur, and Old Blush. Among the bourbon roses are Madame Isaac Pereire and Souvenir de la Malmaison.

photo of rose Madame Isaac Pereire

Madame Isaac Pereire rose growing at Roseraie de l’Hay

The noisette entered rose breeding in the first quarter of the ninteenth century, too. The first, Champney’s Pink Cluster, was a cross of the musk rose with Old Blush. At first one might have guessed that it would not amount to much. Its offspring Blush Noisette is quite remontant; its flowers are plentiful, and its fragrance delicious; but the flowers are small and uninteresting. The plants, at least for a few early years, tend to be awkward.

In 1839 Beauregrard hand pollenated Park’s Yellow Tea-Scented China with pollen from the noisette Desprez to produce Safrano. This rose proved to be the first rose to feature the high-centered bud coveted by rose gardeners ever since, and it made a huge impact on rose breeding. Being an ancestor to just short of 15,000 named cultivars, Safrano is among the most influencial roses ever bred. An influencial great-great grandchild of Safrano is Perle des Jardins, most of whose genetic makeup can be traced back to Safrano. From the exact same parents as Saffrano came Desprez a Fleurs Jaune. It’s a climbing rose that makes pretty, cupped, ivory colored flowers  that have much fragrance.

Needless to say, this knot of roses inspired several bodies of work. One was a whole line of climbing roses which culminated in the lovely tea-noisettes such as Marechal Niel, Gloire de Dijon and Duchesse de Auerstadt. Those who grow these roses will frequently recommend them as the best garden roses one can grow.  But because they are reliably cold hardy to zone 8b or so they are not so widely distributed as more hardy roses.

Through the ninteenth century rose breeders shuffled and reshuffled the genetic material from roses in these classes. By the 1840s breeders had introduced two more new classes. One was called the damask-perpetuals or portland roses. These possess the shrubby nature of most roses in the damask class along with good fragrance and disease-resistance. Such roses make for excellent garden shrubs. Rose de Rescht and Comte de Chambord are fine examples.

The second new class of roses was the hybrid perpetual class. An early hybrid perpetual is La Reine. The primary characteristic of this class is large and formally shaped blossoms, usually cupped in form. Photos of most early hybrid perpetual rose plants and their flowers will seem barely distinguishable from other classes, perhaps.

Over the better part of a century during which hybrid perpetuals were widely cultivated, the flowers became more important than the plants they grew on. By the 1880s there were large flower exhibitions at which cut roses were displayed, and hybrid perpetual roses were presented there on the show bench. As a consequence there grew a whole trade of breeding and selling rose cultivars that were to be judged entirely on the basis of how large and formally perfect their flowers appeared on the show bench. Sometimes this came at a cost; the health or beauty of the garden plant suffered.

Thousands of hybrid perpetuals were introduced. Probably not one percent remain in distribution. This is because virtually every rose garden falls into disrepair and neglect at some point and only the most vigorous and hardy of roses will survive.  Most of the hybrid perpetuals we have today are survivors of neglect.

It is with the arrival of the hybrid perpetual as a show bench rose when the path of rose cultivation split in two. A distinction was made between a) roses as garden and landscape plants and b) roses as little flower-making machines for the cut-flower industry. Ever since this time rose gardeners have had to carefully consider to what end they would be putting their rose plants in order to correctly inform their selection of cultivars. Those who would just decorate a garden chose one sort of rose. Those who wished for pretty cut flowers planted another sort, and hid the plant where it wouldn’t doo too much harm to the appearance of the garden.

Most of rose breeding up until the late 1800s was a trial and error affair. In the mid 1880’s the ideas of Gregor Mendel – the German monk who used experiments with peas to deduce the principles of genetic inheritance of traits – were employed for the first time to help in choosing parent pairs in the breeding of roses. One result was a rose still quite solidly in commerce today, the hybrid perpetual Mrs. John Laing. It makes large, neat flowers with good fragrance on a vigorous plant. The rights to distribute this rose in the US brought its British breeder the sum of £ 10,000,  which today would amount to several millions of dollars.

photo of Mrs John Laing

Pink blossoms of hybrid perpetual rose Mrs. John Laing.

The rose had ceased to be just a garden plant passed from one plant lover to the next. It was now a significant object of commerce. This would change its destiny.