Frequently Asked Questions
The Rose: a brief History
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Breeders quickly set to work integrating the foetida bicolor genes into hybrid tea roses. The work helped produce more bicolor roses, roses with strong red, vermilion, gold, orange, and apricot coloration, and roses with darker green foliage.

Unfortunately, rosa foetida has a number of weaknesses. It produces very stick-like unbranched growth with small leaves, and it is highly susceptible to blackspot. These weakness got passed along perhaps even more sucessfully than did the strong colors. Within a few decades most new roses had some foetida heritage, even if they were not warmly colored. And black spot was assumed to be an inevitable and unavoidable aspect of rose culture. The birth of the petrochemical industry conveniently propagated the myth that a bit of toxic spray would fix everything. Constitutional weakness was assumed to be irrellevant.

Meanwhile a parish priest, Pemberton, spent the first twenty years of the twentieth century crossing fragrant hybrid teas with noisette-multiflora crosses such as Trier. He produced a number of excellent roses that have gradually won the hearts of almost every dedicated rose-lover. These include Penelope, Buff Beauty, Felicia, Cornelia, and Danae. He called his introductions Hybrid Musk roses. And they have been winning the hearts of rose-lovers ever since.

Just after World War II Peace burst onto the scene and the race to create warm-colored large-flowered roses was on. Roses won or lost in the distribution game based on their abilities to win prizes on the show bench. Or on the basis of their attractiveness in color brochures.

What followed was a flurry of introductions that featured bright colors. Bright red, vermilion, red and yellow bicolors, orange, hot crimson, copper, and salmon all found their way into roses. The practice of breeding exclusively for form was more prevalent in the US. And some US breeders such as Swim managed to keep fragrance as part of the equation. In France, Meilland, Kordens, Lens, and a few other breeders turned out a strong line of foliferous landscape roses.

Hybrid Tea, Hybrid Foetida, Hybrid Wich?

But the twentieth century trend of pretty much ignoring health and fragrance issues when making new rose introductions was disturbingly popular among breeders, especially in the US.

Because of this trend, it seems probable that 100 years from now, of the six to ten thousand hybrid teas and floribundas bred until today, probably not two hundred of those bred during the twentieth century will be in circulation. Probably Peace, Pascali, Double Delight, Marijke Koopman, New Zealand, Touch of Class, and Silver Jubilee will be on distribution lists. Probably Iceberg, Sunsprite, Playboy, Europeana, and Anisley Dickson will be on the lists. And probably a dozen English Roses bred in the interval will be. The story of Hybrid Teas will then read much like that of Hybrid Perpetuals does today. Most of this decade's and last decade's introductions will be forgotten forever.

Recent History

In the early 1960's David Austin decided to bring old rose form, good health, and fragrance to remontant roses. His work remained on the fringe of rose breeding for almost 20 years. But in 1985 with the introduction of Graham Thomas and Mary Rose, Austin proved that both the English Rose and its idealized aesthetic were here to stay.

Today, Americans and rose lovers worldwide are discovering the beauty of Austin's roses and adopting aesthetic points of view on roses that parallel Austin's. As a result of his work fragrance and good health are qualities cropping up in a much larger portion of introductions by other breeders than was the case when Austin started. So too are shrubby growth and soft, garden friendly colors.

Americans are by some measure 15 years, and by other measures 50 years behind the British in terms of which roses they value. It was at the end of World War II that British rosarians began to culivate an interest in Old Roses and Shrub Roses. In the vanguard was Graham Stuart Thomas who had been taught the art by Constance Spry.

In America it is easy to get the impression that no person with any regard for Old Roses has a chance of holding any office in the ARS, even one of consulting rosarian. Claire Martin tells of bringing an English Rose to his first local ARS exhibition and being nearly laughed out of the place. The ARS rose site does, however, have quite a few great offerings to those who would grow Old Roses. And there is a groundswell of interest in Old Roses among rose lovers. Part of the reason institutional change is slow is because so much of the ritual activity of the faithful still revolves around the show bench and so little of it appears to involve going into gardens to smell the roses. This is a terrific shame because gardens are so much prettier than show benches.

If there is a group of roses for which American breeders are in the vanguard today it might be miniatures. The miniature was invented by Pedro Dot in Perla de Alcanada. Ralph Moore has spent more than fifty years perfecting the form, introducing dozens of cultivars. And there are a dozen or so very active breeders in America working on this kind of rose.

The miniature has many of the advantages of the polyantha, often being almost as foliferous. And its wichuriana heritage and low-growing habit make it quite cold hardy and disease-resistant. If it has a drawback beyond the obvious small size of plant and flower it might be a general tendency to lack fragrance. But there are many notable exceptions to this.

The future of roses is bright. Issues of habit, foliage cover, health, fragrance, and foliferousness are all being addressed by more breeders today than they have been for some time. The materials on hand and the knowlege supporting breeding are perhaps an order of magnitude better than they were fifty or sixty years ago. This will allow breeders to bring us offerings for every conceivable application in every conceivable color.

Eventually the rose will be able to take its place as queen of almost every garden, happily situated among plants that compliment her many virtues.


  • What is the history of the rose?
  • Roses in Ancient History

    Roses are closely related to a huge number of important fruiting plants in the prunus family: apples, cherries, peaches, pears, plums. They have a more distant relation to magnolias and raspberries. All of these plants produce flowers and fruiting bodies.

    The rose is probably tens of millons of years old. As are most flowering trees, it is a relative new-comer. Exactly how it evolved is unclear, but flowering hastened its evolutionary progress and fruiting hastened its geographical diaspora.

    Native roses can be found in most parts of the northern hemisphere except in arctic tundra, desert, and high mountain areas. There are too many to mention; but some of the ones put to use in rose breeding are given below.

    Pimpinelifolia, canina, eglantaria, and gallicas inhabit cool European areas. Acicularis grows in Canadian subarctic areas. Further south in north America one can find setigera, virginiana, and carolinia roses. Moschata, in one flavor or another seems to be spread from Europe across Asia to east Asia.

    From the middle east come foetida and damascena. Southeast Asia has gigantea, the parent of tea roses and rosa brunonii, a musk rose. East Asia has wichuriana, nitida, and rugosa.

    From China come a vast array of useful roses including roxburgii, laevigata, banksia, bractea, xanthena, and the most influential, the remontant china roses.

    The rose has been important to European and Asian societies for many centuries.

    Greeks cultivated roses. Plato, who wrote at roughly 600 B.C. is one of several philosophers to mention roses. Then the Romans cultivated roses. They had an almost obsessive fondness for them. Some believe that the technology Romans used to build heated bath houses was also used to build greenhouses for rose culture: they appear to have had roses blooming year-around.

    There is even a story of a Roman emperor who, as was the tradition, had rose petals dropped onto his dinner guests as they sat in repose after the meal, some nodding off to sleep.

    But the emperor's enthusiasm for rose petals was so great that the petals kept falling and falling, building up in great drifts. The drifts grew so deep that several guests were smothered by them! Sometimes one an suffer from too much of a good thing.

    Through the middle ages roses were used by apothecaries in curing certain illnesses. It was not until the British fell short of citrus fruit in world war II that it was discovered that rose hips were nature's most concentrated source of vitamin C. So the apothecary's art had some validity.

    In seventeenth century India the wife of a Raj discovered that rose petals strewn upon the water would release their fragrance to the water. She is credited with the invention of rose water. The empress is immortalized by a rose named for her, Nur Mahal.

    Roses in Europe. The Early Years

    Meanwhile, in Europe, breeders in France and the Netherlands were breeding and cultivating Gallica and Centifolia roses. And they were growing damasks brought back from the middle east during the crusades. Some of these are featured in old still-life paintings by Dutch painters. Others are illustrated meticulously by the artist Jean-Pierre Redoute.

    In the eighteenth century European ships brought all sorts of wonderful goods back from China. Among these were four roses that had a unique property: they bloomed through the summer. The two shorter roses were Slater's Crimson China, and Old Blush. Two climbing roses were Parks Tea-scented China and Humes Yellow Tea Scented China both now assumed to be r. gigantea crosses with china roses.

    The introduction of these roses to the European market revolutionized rose breeding. By the middle of the ninteenth century rose growers in France were cultivating thousands of new seedlings each year in the hopes of finding important new cultivars. A prominent rose-breeder, Vibert, as he lay on his death-bed with his wife some distance away and out of ear shot, whispered in the ear of the man who was to take over his nursery "I have loved only two things: Napoleon, and Roses."

    The European classes of gallica, alba, centifolia, and damask roses were augmented with bourbon, noisette, hybrid china, hybrid perpetual, and tea roses. Vibert lived to breed some of each of these classes. And a number of his introductions are prized today.

    By the late ninteenth century many thousands of hybrid perpetuals had been introduced. With them came the 'show bench' and the practice of evaluating roses primarily on the merit of their show bench performance. This practice produced a lot of show winning roses of little garden merit. Most have been lost - few of which are mourned.

    Out of the Garden and onto the Bench

    In 1867 La France was introduced. It was a cross between tea and hybrid perpetual roses. Within 30 years the breeding of roses was almost exclusively focussed on hybrid teas. Still, many thousands of hybrid perpetuals were bred specifically for the beauty of their cut flowers and without regard for health or garden-worthiness.

    The wichuriana and rugosa roses were introduced to the west near the start of the twentieth century. Several dozen hybrids of each sort were introduced. The most influential has proven to be New Dawn, a sport of the pale pink wichuriana climber Dr. W. Van Fleet. This profoundly changed the nature of rose breeding, leading to a strong focus on the rose as a garden plant

    Pernet Ducher in 1900 introduced Soleil d'Or. It is a hybrid of rosa foetida bicolor: the only wild rose to have a dark coppery red rose petal. The reverse side of the petal is golden yellow; making this the most conspicuous of the reverse bicolor roses among Old Garden Roses.



    Roses for Every Garden
    Copyright Stephen R. Brubaker 2012