Rose is a rose is a rose

When it comes to the mostly incomprehensible and often repetitive modernist poetry of Gertrude Stein, the simple words “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” are probably her best known and certainly most imitated. Stein, an American writer who made her digs in Paris, was making the point that things are what they are irrespective of the words we use to describe them. While the mental connections people make when they hear certain words have intrigued metaphysical thinkers since ancient times, “Rose is a rose” has become a bit of a catch phrase with people wanting to sound eloquent while ignoring the richer possibilities of the English language. Other writers have parodied her words and politicians have exploited them but I think it was perhaps the poet’s life partner, Alice B Toklas, who probably found the most fitting use for the verse. She created plates with Stein’s rose line painted right round the rim on which she served hash brownies to their Bohemian guests. Suddenly those rose words from Stein sounded oh, so very deep.

Stein’s words were the work of a self-proclaimed genius for that’s what she boasted to the Parisian avant-garde when they came to the salon she hosted in the early years of the 20th century. With so many of these darn flowers in cultivation though, maybe words cannot describe this most loved of all garden flowering plants. There are tens of thousands of varieties of rose and with no two ever quite the same, how do you generalize? There are Hybrids and Species, Floribundas and Dwarfs, Shrubs and Climbers, all divided into countless types and sub-types completing a bewildering array destined to test all but the most avid of weekend gardeners. Maybe a rose ain’t just a rose after all.

The story of this flower in cultivation starts about 5000 years ago although it’s said the fossil record goes back much, much further. All of another 35 million years or so, give or take a few rocks. Roses were depicted in the art of the ancient Minoans and Egyptians and in several other ancient cultures. King Midas and Alexander the Great are supposed to have grown them while the love of the Roman world for the rose goes without saying. Rose petals scented the wine at their feasts and masses of blossoms showered the naughtiest of their orgies. The Romans are thought to have been the first people to grow large quantities of roses for what we would now call a commercial use and so many flowers were eventually needed by the ruling elite that other crops were neglected, pushing the common folk at times to the brink of starvation.

Rose water which is made by steeping petals in water was used as a medicinal ingredient by the Romans and by other cultures in their turn. The use of rose water as a delicate flavouring in Eastern cuisines has also long been appreciated. It can be added to jellies and syrups, various puddings and is used in exotic cake recipes.

Roses appear in traditions of all the world’s major religions and used as a motif it has particular significance to many. The large circular windows of stained glass in Gothic cathedrals are commonly known as “Rose” windows, the stonework tracery of the windows mapping out in architectural form the petals of a flower. One famous rose associated with a cathedral is the Tausendjähriger Rosenstock or thousand-year rose, a wild dog rose which grows on the wall of the Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany. It’s thought to be the world’s oldest living rose and may have been planted in the early 9th century. The Tausendjähriger was nearly destroyed by Allied aerial bombing which hit the cathedral in 1945 but the roots survived and the rose blossomed amongst the ruins which just goes to show, sometimes an old dog really does have a few new tricks.

As badges of heraldry the rose was used by the Houses of York and Lancaster as emblems in their long Wars of the Roses. These were the simple gallica and alba roses of Europe but the arrival of the China rose into Europe in the late 18th century changed everything. It introduced the colour yellow into rose cultivation, an explosion of repeat flowering cultivars and the start of what we now call “Old Garden” roses, many of which are heavily scented to a degree not enjoyed by modern varieties.

Roses of course are a big part of Melbourne’s Spring Racing Carnival and it’s a pity that, in this pandemic year, they will be doing all that flowering tomorrow with no one much to appreciate their effort, ’cept maybe “Robert the Rose Horse”. Reds and pinks, yellows and mauves, stripes and solids will be on display. The only thing you will never see at the Cup, or anywhere else for that matter, is a blue rose.

Take a walk around any back street of suburban Yallambie right now and you’ll see roses growing in profusion in many gardens, often with scant regard and all the while doing what they do best. That is flowering away for all the world to see while being totally ignored, the air around them tinged with scent, food for the bees.

Louisa Anne Meredith, (Source: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts).

Roses were grown by Robert Bakewell in the early years of Yallambee and in 1856 when Louisa Anne Meredith visited the property she described enthusiastically the roses she saw growing there, naming several of them and singling out especial praise for the “Cloth of Gold”, a popular yellow climber of the middle 19th century, now little grown.

And then the wreath of roses! Nothing like them has gladdened my senses since. One, monarch of the whole, seemed a giant elder brother of the noble ‘cloth-of-gold’, with great ruddy juicy stems, polished spreading leaves; and such flowers!

The Station Plenty, view VIII by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)

A full-blown one might have formed a bouquet for the ample bosom of Glumdalclitch herself; the colour was rich warm buff, almost saffron colour, deepening in the centre, and the texture of the broad petals was that rich wax-like substance, like a Camelia, but even thicker.

It was the noblest of the rose-tribe I ever saw, and well contrasted by the delicate Annie Vibert and Devonienses, Banksias, &c., while the cloth-of-gold and some other deep-red roses aided to make up the courtly group around.

(Over the Straits, Louisa Anne Meredith)

“Paul Ricault”

While that old “Cloth of Gold” is long gone we do have a number of hardy roses growing here which we look at fondly with our rose coloured glasses at this time of year, every year, the names of many of these plants now forgotten.

One amazing cabbage rose growing near the front of the house is possibly “Paul Ricault”, a cultivar originally bred in France in the mid-19th Century. The flowers of this plant are quite literally the largest blooms I’ve ever seen on a rose and at its best this flower is more like a double peony in structure than what I normally think of in a rose. Cabbage roses or Centiafolia (one hundred petalled) as a type date from about 1550 and their earliest forms were once regarded as a type of species but are now thought to be a naturally occurring hybrids. Cabbage roses were bred by Dutch rose growers as early as the 17th Century and it is this rose that you see in so many of their still life paintings of that era.

A standard “Peace”

Probably the most widely known rose type we have in our garden though is “Peace”. This famous and much grown hybrid tea was developed in France in the 1930s. Legend has it that with war looming cuttings of a new creamy yellow rose were sent to the US, some say on the last plane to leave Paris before the Nazi invasion, and in America in 1945 it was given the name “Peace” to mark the ending of hostilities. Sample roses were given to each of the delegations at the inaugural meeting of the United Nations with the words, “We hope the Peace rose will influence men’s thoughts for everlasting world peace”. It is a hardy and vigorous plant described by one rose expert as “without doubt, the finest Hybrid Tea ever raised”. With over 100 million Peace roses said to have been sold since 1945 that’s a pretty fair call. The rose in our garden is a grafted standard, a ‘rose ball on a stick’, which we rescued from the garden of my wife’s late grandparents’ home in Eaglemont about 20 years ago.

A bit of “Peace”

“Peace” as a concept is a worthy symbol for a rose I think. Heaven knows we all need a little peace around the edges of our lives this year. The White House Rose Garden was replanted in 2020, the first time in 60 years, but I don’t think peace has been on the agenda there much lately. Maybe it’s an irony but the new Rose Garden recently became the source of a super spreader pandemic event among White House personnel, an event which included the President himself. In the weeks leading up to an important election, what happened at the Rose Garden a month ago has come to exemplify a lot about what’s been happening in America.

“Peace” – it’s a small word with a very big meaning and one worth keeping in mind. The healing properties of roses, the essence of their aroma and the symbolic associations of the plant itself with the Amor have long been appreciated. Maybe the pictures I’ve included here which were taken mostly this last month or so will tell the story of what I’m feeling more than words ever possibly can. You see, sometimes words aren’t enough. Rose is a rose is a rose taken together makes a garden, and that’s a lovesome thing.

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