Naming the Rose

I’ll never forget, when as a small child my mum gifted me the delight of choosing any plant in the entire local plant nursery to take home with me. Carefully, I made my selection – a beautiful, strongly scented, vermilion rose named Dolly Parton. Pleased with my choice, I took it to the counter, excited for mum to share my adoration of Dolly. But to my confusion, her nose wrinkled and she shook her head. Uh oh. What was wrong? My mother loved ALL flowers. “Lucy…” she said delicately, “you can pick any plant in the whole place. Any plant, except for that one. I can’t stand country music!”

Mum’s garden is full of roses. We talk about them a lot. Charlie, Joey, Pierre, even Mr Shakespeare, Queen Lizzie, Princess Alexandra and the newly acquired Black Caviar (Christmas present for Dad – he is a passionate race-horse man). We also talk about Mum’s Mum and the roses she loved – Mr Lincoln, Papa Meilland, Double Delight. And as we discuss the latest poor behaviour exhibited by Peace, or how battered Claire Austin is after yet another attack from the white cockatoos, I can’t help but feel like these roses are people. Very beautiful people with personalities, temperaments, likes and dislikes. Some are vain, weak, strong, funny even – on more than one occasion I’ve begged mum not to plant Masquerade just because she thinks it would make her laugh.

Roses, like many plants, evoke memories and tell us stories – not only about the people who grow them in their gardens, but also about the people who named them and the people they were named for.

Rosa 'William Shakespeare'

Reported to be somewhere between 35-70 million years old, roses would most definitely be at the top of my Plant Chain of Being, if such a hierarchy existed. Bred all over the world but most notably in France, their popularity exploded during the 18th and 19th century as hybridisers learned to cross-breed repeat blooming Asian varieties with the better scented and stronger French roses. During this time, Empress Josephine (wife of Napoleon and lover of plants) fell in love with roses. She created a rosarium in her gardens at Chateau de Malmaison and filled it with around 200 of the latest cultivars from all over the world. Its said that even during the height of the war with England, the blockades were opened to allow safe passage for Josephine’s flowers. Fittingly, Josephine is the namesake of two especially lovely cultivars, Empress Josephine and Souvenir de la Malmaison, the latter was named by Josephine’s ex-lover, the Grand Duke Michael of Russia, whom she had refused to marry on the grounds his homeland would be too cold for her.

Josephine brought roses back into fashion in Europe. With the arrival of so many new cultivars breeders realised their old descriptive names would no longer suffice. Instead, they looked to the women in their lives and the celebrities of the day to inspire and dedicate their creations: mothers, mistresses, writers, artists, politicians and royalty amongst them. Frau Dagmar Hastrup was named for the mother of the rose breeder; La Belle Sultane for Josephine’s cousin Aimee, who was captured by Barbary pirates and sold to the Sultan of Turkey; Lamarque for the revolutionary politician; Rosa mundi after King Henry II’s mistress and Dorothy Perkins for the granddaughter of the breeder. To have a rose named for you was the highest form of flattery and breeders were careful in their selections.

Rosa 'Pierre de Ronsard'

Roger Mann, in his excellent book Naming the Rose, suggests that by the end of the 19th century over 30,000 new roses had been introduced. Sadly, most of these have been forgotten by history and replaced with newer, more popular varieties. However, today’s rose lovers still have access to over at least 12,000 varieties globally, with new cultivars added each year.

So, who are the creators behind these masterpieces? We know most about the rose breeders from the 18th century onwards and their stories are as intriguing as the people they named their roses for. The son of Louis XVI’s gardener, Phillippe Noisette and his wife Celestine travelled via France and Haiti to establish the first ever specialist rose nursery in America. As Celestine was African-American and inter-racial marriage was illegal under South Carolina law, it took years of fighting in courts before the Noisettes successfully won the right for their nuptials to be recognised. Australia’s most noted rose breeder, Alistair Clarke, was a Scottish immigrant educated at Cambridge and met his soon-to-be wife Edith Mary on a return voyage to Melbourne. As Edith Mary was an heiress, Clarke’s days were free to be spent breeding classic roses such as Black Boy, Lorraine Lee and Squatter’s Dream – another racehorse namesake.

Of course, I must mention David Austin, whom I like to think of as the David Attenborough of rose breeders. His English roses are a firm favourite amongst contemporary growers and his cultivars are classically British – named for important historical figures like Abraham Darby and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the monarchy, and family members such as his father Charles, wife Pat, daughter Claire and daughter-in-law Jayne.

And then there is the Meilland dynasty, whose partnership with American rose breeders Conard-Pyle Co led to roses with dual names – the original British name and an adapted American. Most notable of these was Madame Antoine Meilland, named for Francis Meilland’s late mother. The very same rose was released in America on 1945, the same day Berlin fell, as Peace, now one of the world’s favourite roses. Meilland also bred the popular Pierre de Ronsard, named for the deaf French poet adored by Mary Queen of Scots and Papa Meilland, named for Francis’ father Antoine Meilland.

Rosa 'Julia Child'

There are roses named for people from all walks of life. Think ballerinas (Anna Pavlova), scientists (Marie Curie), actresses (Elizabeth Taylor, Ingrid Bergman), artists (Picasso, Monet), religious icons (Mary Mackillop, Catherine MaCauley, Pope John Paul II), adventurers (Christopher Columbus), designers (Gertrude Jekyll), writers (Mark Twain) and even chefs (Julia Child).

In the USA particularly, political roses have been popular. I’ve heard stories of people who plant the Republican headquarters, their gardens teeming with Barbara Bush, Ronald and Nancy, Mr Lincoln and Eisenhower. Then there are those who grow a mysterious unnamed rose who looks suspiciously like President Herbert Hoover, however their owners swear it to be anything but. The entire female house of the British monarchy grow happily in some backyards – the customary favourites Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, Princess Alexandra of Kent and Diana Princess of Wales.

It’s a handsome thought: growers choosing other cultivars based on who they already have in their garden, as if they were old friends or family.

Another category entirely is those roses whose name selection I would love to have been a fly on the wall for: Happy Butt, Golden Showers, Queen of Bedders, Tipsy Imperial Concubine (a favourite – named for the most beautiful woman in China whom the Radiant Golden Emperor was so infatuated with that he spoiled her with lavish gifts, even grape wine from Persia, hence the rose’s name), Erotika, Smell Me, Gnome World, Macho Man, Passionate Kisses, Herz Ass (I know, I know, “Ace of Hearts” in German, but still!), Romantic Roadrunner, Mrs Reynolds Hole (another favourite) and the Snow White and Seven Dwarfs series created by a rose breeder in the Netherlands. Sponsorship rose names can also be a doozy. Somehow I don’t feel quite the same tenderness towards Weight Watchers Success Story as I do towards Sutters Gold, named for Johann Augustus Sutter who died in poverty after being forced off his land by the US Supreme Court when gold was discovered in a creek nearby.

I know I’m not alone when I say, ‘Shakespeare you were wrong, at least about the roses anyway’. The name, the story, is everything. But isn’t it lovely to think, while Dolly Parton will probably never make an appearance in mum’s garden, someone, somewhere loves her; loves her story; and has an entire mass planting of her right outside their window. And why shouldn’t they? She really is a beautiful rose.

All images used in this story are by T.Kiya and were sourced from Wikipedia Commons.

Rosa 'Sutters Gold'
Rosa 'Mr. Lincoln'