Roses ~ ‘… and when she opened her suitcase …’

By Patricia Paquette
October 2016

I overheard two women talking on the street one gray winter morning in downtown Seattle when these words stopped me cold: “And when she opened her suitcase in the hotel room, it was filled with red roses.” I was on my way into the office, and a little late, but the sheer romance of this image, its stunning luxury, erased all thoughts of the day ahead. Don’t you wonder what came before the flower-filled suitcase – or after? I’m guessing the woman in the hotel room, or whoever packed her suitcase, must have been a redhead.

What flower can rival the place reserved for roses in our hearts and gardens? And no wonder, with its long and loved history in the wilds and in cultivation.

Ancient History – in Colorado and China

Fossil evidence for roses dates back some 70 million years in Asia and from 35 million years ago in North America. “Rose species are found only in the Northern Hemisphere, and no one knows why,” according to the American Rose Society, which notes that specimens found near Canyon City, Colo., closely resemble the modern-day species familiar to many gardeners, Rosa nutkana (the Nootka Rose) and R. palustris (the Swamp Rose).

It’s easy to get lost in the thicket of rose history, categories and hybridization, but time travel a few millennia forward and, says the National Arboretum, “you’ll find that the majority of modern roses owe more of their genetic heritage to Chinese species than to all others combined.”

'Champneys Pink Cluster' -
‘Champneys Pink Cluster’ –

Indeed, garden cultivation of roses began some 5,000 years ago, probably in China. However, even before the first ever-blooming rose made the trip from China to Europe in the late 1700s, “roses were already one of the most loved flowers in Western culture, with unparalleled beauty and fragrance,” say Arboretum historians. This was true even though nearly every variety grown in those times bloomed for only about a month each spring. Then, the newly arrived ‘China’ rose (R. chinensis) burst on the scene, blooming all season long, and cloaked in even more beautiful petals and fragrance. Just imagine.

A Ground-breaking American Rose – With a French Name

Native species roses were growing in North America while the continent was being settled by Europeans. Captain John Smith records a rose today thought to be R. Virginiana, which caused a sensation when it was exported to Europe. However, “there is no other class of roses more American than the Noisettes,” in the opinion of horticulturists such as those at Carolina Gardener. The Noisette was the first rose hybridized in the new country, and is named for Phillippe Noisette, a French-born horticulturist and neighbor of John Champneys, a rice farmer in Charleston, So. Carolina. This was in the early 1800s, when Charleston was a major port in the global plant trade.

‘Champneys Pink Cluster,’ the first in the new class, resulted from a cross between ‘Old Blush’ (a China rose, R. chinensis) and the European musk rose (R. moschata) in Champneys’ garden. As the story goes, Champneys gave some of the infant plants to Noisette, who collected its seeds, developed the ‘Blush Noisette, and sent that seed to his brother in Europe, where it became a parent of a long line of roses stretching even to today.

The Twinleaf Journal published at Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello notes that ‘Champneys Pink Cluster’ “remained an important ornamental through the nineteenth century. Jefferson’s long life was ending just as this new breed, the Noisette, was emerging on the scene.” Ever the cutting-edge plantsman, however, in 1791 he ordered two each of the ‘Monthly rose’ (R. chinensis cv.) and the ‘Musk Rose’ (R. moschata) from a New York nursery.

Roses stepped into their “modern” period 75 years later when the first hybrid tea rose was developed in 1867. These are the roses you want in your cutting garden, in the vase, or in the florist’s delivery box – or suitcase – when you open it.

Four Men and a Rose

George Washington. Noisette roses are still grown today and are admired for their beauty and vigor. One example is the white ‘Martha Washington’ Noisette grown at and around the Mount Vernon estate of our first president. But just like the story of the cherry tree, it is a myth that George planted and named it for his mother – since the new American rose was developed after Washington’s death.

Ronald Reagan.  “The American people have long held a special place in their hearts for roses.” So said President Ronald Reagan when he signed a proclamation declaring the rose as the national flower in November 1986. Speaking in the famed White House Rose Garden, he noted that roses are grown in all 50 states and that, “more often than any other flower, we hold the rose dear as the symbol of life and love and devotion, of beauty and eternity.”

Robert Burns. Roses are the basis of countless perfumes, poems, and songs. You may know Scots poet Robert Burns’ 1794 song, A Red, Red, Rose

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie That’s sweetly play’d in tune. …

& Bob Dylan. But did you know that songwriter and musician Bob Dylan is on the record as saying that the lyrics to Burns’ song have had the greatest effect on his creative life?

‘A Dish for the Gods’

We’ll dig into 21st century roses and current horticultural practices another day, probably in deep midwinter, when we most crave garden daydreams. In the meantime, let’s dream about a rose-flavored recipe for Quail in Rose-Petal Sauce that inspired passion among diners in Laura Esquivel’s fanciful novel and movie, Like Water for Chocolate.

Can you tell that I love roses? So of course, I tried it myself. The most difficult part was bringing enough rose petals to bloom all at the same time during a gray Seattle summer. I grew two plants of R. ‘Glory Days,’ a hybrid tea with a fragrance and taste something like ripe nectarines.

Why did I try it? This sentence, like the one about the rose-filled suitcase, caught my heart: “When Pedro tasted his first mouthful, he couldn’t help closing his eyes in voluptuous delight and exclaiming: ‘It is a dish for the gods.’ ”

Quail in Rose-Petal Sauce

12 roses, preferably red (organic, no sprays)
12 chestnuts
2 tsp butter
salt & pepper
2 tsp cornstarch
2 drops attar of roses
2 T anise
2 T good honey
2 cloves garlic
6 quail
1 pitaya (dragonfruit)

The novel is short on direction, but cooks and romantics can find a recipe online, at sites such as the Food Network, Pinterest and others. Like all cooks, I adjusted this recipe to taste, using three small Cornish game hens instead of quail, plums instead of dragonfruit, and an olive oil-butter combination to reduce burning. And although it’s not on the list of ingredients, I splashed some fruity red wine into the sauce.


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