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Roses have an interesting ancient history. There are more than 30,000 varieties and between 100 to 150 species in the genus Rosa.

There were two geographical groupings that contributed to the development of the rose culture: The European/Mediterranean group of species and their hybrids, and the Oriental group of species and their hybrids.

The European roses are primarily the following: Gallicas, Albas, Damasks, Damask Perpetuals, Centifolias, and Mosses.

Mainstream Oriental groups are Chinas and Teas.

The rose apparently originated in Central Asia about 60 to 70 million years ago, during the Eocene epoch, and spread over the entire Northern Hemisphere. Forty million years ago, a rose left its imprint on a slate deposit at the Florissant Fossil Beds in Colorado, and fossils of roses from Oregon and Montana date back 35 million years, long before humans existed. Fossils have also been found in Germany and in Yugoslavia. Roses grow wild as far north as Norway and Alaska and as far south as Mexico and North Africa.

INTERESTING FACT: no wild roses have ever been found to grow below the equator.

Early civilizations, including the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Romans, appreciated roses and grew them widely as long as five thousand years ago.

It is said to have grown in the Garden of Eden, ancient Persia, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Five thousand years ago the Chinese appreciated its value and cultivated it widely, in addition to many other past civilizations. Roses have been found dating back to 1,600 B.C. when Cleopatra welcomed Marc Antony in a room filled with rose petals and legend says that Nero once spent the equivalent of $150,000 for roses to use at a party. The Romans, however, loved roses in a more physical way; using them in candy, wine, pudding, garlands, and rose water.

Wreaths of Damask-like roses have been found in Egyptian tombs. Frescoes painted during the heyday of the Minoan culture on Crete show roses. The festivals both sacred and profane of the classical Greeks included roses, as did those of the Romans. The Romans were so sophisticated that they developed a hot-house technology which allowed them to “force” roses into more bloom; they also imported roses from Egypt. The oldest rose identified today is Rosa gallica, also known as the French rose, which once bloomed wild throughout central and southern Europe and western Asia, and still survives there. Although the exact origin of Rosa gallica is unknown, traces of it appear as early as the twelfth century B.C., when the Persians considered it a symbol of love. The same rose also called Rosa Sancta (the Holy Rose) has been grown till today in holy places in eastern Africa.

Some sources say that the peony and chrysanthemums are more valued in the East and that the breeding of roses has never taken off here. But about 500 B.C. Confucius wrote of roses growing in the Imperial Gardens and noted that the library of the Chinese emperor contained hundreds of books about roses. It is said that the rose gardeners of the Han dynasty (207 B.C.-A.D. 220) were so obsessed with these flowers that their parks threatened to engulf land needed for producing food, and that the emperor ordered some rose gardens plowed under.

East Meets West: Rose Breeding and Hybridizing

The European species have only one season of bloom per year, while the Orientals repeat bloom more or less continuously. During the period 1750-1824, several China Roses and Tea Roses made their appearance in the Occident. These were continuous-blooming, but not hardy. Their introduction into the Occident at length completely revolutionized rose progress.

The garden roses of themost ancient times in Europe and the Mediterranean were seemingly the Damasks, the Gallicas, and perhaps the Albas. During the Middle Ages, these roses retained a certain religious use, not only as decorations and adjuncts to (now Christian) holy festivals, but also with a special role in the medicinal gardens which brought about the distillation-of-rose-essence industry, which still has local importance in a few areas of Europe (formerly France, now primarily Bulgaria). With the end of the Middle Ages and the rise of the merchant class, commerce in horticultural material in the Netherlands flourished – alongside their tulips, carnations came the systematic growing of roses from seed (previously, roses had primarily been propagated from cuttings, suckers, runners, and possibly to a small degree by grafts). This opened up the possibility inherent in sexual reproduction: Variation.

Only some tens of rose cultivars existed, now, in the period up to about 1810, one or two hundred became available, indeed a whole new group, the Centifolias, arising from the complex and possibly arbitrary breeding of the Dutch. One of the great holes in knowledge of rose history concerns specifics about what roses they used in this, and how they went about it. Also around the same time Around 1800, the French became interested in roses and the rose industry. This interest was fueled by the French Empress Josephine who surrounded herself with experts of many disciplines including botany and who started a renaissance in rose culture. Napoleon supported her hobby by ordering that every rose found blooming on foreign shores be brought back for her collection.

A revolution in rose breeding and growing took place in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when increased trade with the Orient brought Rosa chinensis, the China rose, to the attention of Europeans. ‘Old Blush’, the first variety of China rose to reach the West, was introduced into Sweden in 1752 and into the rest of Europe by 1793. The China rose had also been called the Bengal rose because it was imported to the West from Calcutta, the region’s capital. In the eighteenth century a large botanical garden flourished there, containing roses brought from China by merchants of the British East India Company. In 1789 a British sea captain took flowers home to England. Beginning in 1793, more specimens were shipped from Calcutta to many parts of Europe by Dr. William Roxburgh, the director of the company. Rosa x odorata, the tea rose, followed in 1808 or 1809. Tea rose was so named because of the tea like scent of its foliage.

Although the Chinese had grown these and other roses for centuries, their impact in Europe was truly phenomenal. Their most remarkable quality – continual repeat blooming – was completely unknown in Europe at the time and made them an instant sensation. Unlike the repeat-blooming “Autumn Damask’, which blooms briefly twice a year, continual repeat bloomers produce flowers over an extended period during the growing season. In addition to its flowering capabilities, the China rose possesses a foliage that is almost evergreen, and the tea rose a foliage that is resistant to mildew. European rose breeders were eager to marry these traits into existing rose lines. Indeed, the China and tea roses laid the genetic foundation for almost all modern roses. Unfortunately, they also passed on a lack of cold hardiness to many of their descendants.

That’s as far as conventional rose history has it, now for the twist – the history of rose breeding culture may be older in the Americas than in Europe! In the British colonies in America, rose commerce was active during the eighteenth century. Robert Prince opened the first American nursery in Flushing, Long Island, in 1737, and started to import a mounting assortment of new plants. By 1746 he advertised 1,600 varieties of roses-no doubt one of the largest collections in the world at that time. Prince’s records show that in 1791, Thomas Jefferson ordered two centifolias, a ‘Common Moss’, a ‘Rosa Mundi’, an unidentified yellow, a musk rose, and, quite interestingly, a China rose. Since China roses did not reach most of Europe until 1793, it is possible that the rose traveled directly from Asia, on a clipper ship that crossed the Pacific by way of Cape Horn. The Portlands were a class of rose that came into being about 1800, probably derived from a cross of the “Autumn Damask’ with the China rose and Rosa gallica. Named for the duchess of Portland, the Portlands were one of the first good garden hybrids to meld East and West, possessing the repeat-blooming ability of their China rose parent. Also called damask perpetuals, the Portlands were grown until the hybrid perpetual was introduced almost forty years later.

Sources: Various. Ellen Palmer “Queen of the Garden”;

[Separate from article – The photo above is of my mum’s “Teddy Bear”, a mini antique rose.- A.K.]


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