History of the Rose

Roses – Past and Present

Roses have been grown and much favoured by man for many hundreds of years. An enormous number of books have been written not only about their cultivation but also about their history. This extensive literature can be confusing to the lay reader, particularly so far as the early history of the rose is concerned, and it is evident from these differing accounts that much of that history is based on conjecture.

History of the Rose We are told by geologists that fossils found in rocks provide evidence that the rose goes back in time some 35 million years. By comparison, the existence of man can only be traced back about a million years.

Rose species, the wild roses, occur naturally only in the northern hemisphere, where they have a very wide distribution. They range through North America and Europe into North Africa, but the largest number are found in northern Asia, from Siberia to the Himalayas and in China and Japan. Roses are much favoured in Australia and New Zealand and grow well there, but are not found growing wild in either country or in South America. Many of the wild species differ widely; some are dwarfs, while others arc mighty climbers up to 12 m (40 ft) in height. Differences in flower, fruit, and foliage also occur, so that botanists are not always in agreement about how many are true species. At the present time a conservative estimate is about 120 species, but only a small proportion of these have played any major part as parents of our modern roses.

The modern hybrid tea rose is still probably the most popular rose grown in the British Isles for general garden decoration, for it produces the best individual blooms. The wide range of colour, and the beautiful scent of many varieties, make the hybrid tea rose justly appreciated also by flower arrangers.

Generally ‘La France’ has been given credit as the prototype of the hybrid tea class, but this is questioned by some authorities who consider ‘Brown’s Superb Blush’ (produced in 1815) has some 50 years’ precedence. ‘La France’, introduced in 1867, was raised by Guillot in France. With its large, fragrant, silvery-pink flowers and recurrent flowering habit it was without doubt the first to display the possibilities of the hybrid tea class. Even today it can be seen occasionally in gardens, although it is now less vigorous than many of our present-day varieties. Unfortunately its fertility was low, but some seedlings were raised, leading on to roses I myself have grown, such as ‘Mme Caroline Testout’ (still seen in gardens, particularly in its climbing form), and ‘Mme Abel Chantenay’, a great favourite because of its fragrant pale-pink flowers.


Developments in Colour

Until the early 1900s, hybrid tea roses had been pink, red, or white, but a dramatic improvement in the colour range was brought about when Pernet-Ducher, a French nurseryman, succeeded in crossing the semi-double form of the Persian yellow rose R. Foetida persiana with a red hybrid perpetual, ‘Antoine Ducher’, which produced the first orange-yellow rose in 1900. This was ‘Soleil d’Or’, which has red shadings and was at the time classified as a type known as ‘pernetiana’, after Pernet Ducher, but is now absorbed in the hybrid teas. When it was crossed with a hybrid tea, ‘Mme Melanie Soupert’, the first pure yellow cultivar, ‘Rayon d’Or’, was produced; it was introduced by Pernet-Ducher in 1910.

This breakthrough led to a whole range of new shades when ‘Rayon d’Or’ was crossed with hybrid teas: oranges, flames, and bicolours with scarlet petals which had a golden-yellow reverse. Unfortunately, they showed a tendency towards weak growth and susceptibility to black spot — characteristics that rose breeders have since tried to eliminate. Less dramatic but of considerable importance, especially for those interested in forcing roses for cut flowers, was the introduction of ‘Ophelia’ in 1912 by Paul of Waltham Cross. Its beautifully shaped salmon-pink, fragrant flowers and long, pointed buds were very much appreciated by rose lovers, not only for home decoration but also in the garden. ‘Ophelia’ has, in addition, provided so many mutations or sports (in particular ‘Madame Butterfly’, which also produced ‘Lady Sylvia’) that, in spite of her unknown parentage, she became the founder of a very large and beautiful family.

The next important breakthrough came when Francois Meilland, a young French hybridist, produced a seedling which he named ‘Mme Antoine Meilland’ after his mother. Sufficient stock was ready for distribution in 1939, when World War II intervened. Held back until the war ended, it was launched in America in 1945 with tremendous publicity under the name of ‘Peace’. Generally acclaimed for its large blooms of unusual colour (soft yellow, edged with pink), it was considered even more remarkable for its vigour and size. Such a dramatic development led to wide breeding with considerable effect and the production of many good varieties.

In comparatively recent times, in 1943, Wilhelm Kordes, a German breeder, introduced ‘Kordes Sondermeldung’, which became known in this country and America as ‘Independence’. This was the well of colour from which so many of the orange-scarlet floribundas as well as hybrid teas have sprung. ‘Independence’ had many faults as a garden rose: the blooms flopped on weak stems and as they aged assumed unattractive shades of brick red, so its popularity was brief. Although classified as a floribunda, ‘Independence’ was really more akin to the hybrid tea type.

‘Super Star’, raised by another German breeder, Math Tantau, and introduced in 196o, created the next sensation because of its colour, a brilliant light vermilion, which had not been seen in the rose world before. The same raiser introduced ‘Duftewolke’, better known as ‘Fragrant Cloud’, four years later and this gained popularity very rapidly owing mainly to its glorious scent, which has defied those who claim that modern roses are without fragrance. In 1972, the English breeder Jack Harkness, introduced ‘Alexander’, a seedling from ‘Super Star’ even more sensational in its brilliant vermilion red colouring. A Scottish breeder, Alex Cocker, has just produced ‘Silver Jubilee’, a most attractive rose with a diffusion of R. kordesii in its veins, vigorous and healthy in growth. The flowers are coppery salmon-pink in colour, a subtle blend with further possibilities envisaged.


Hybrid polyanthas

The first dwarf, a polyantha rose, was introduced in 1873 by Guillot of France under the name of ‘Paquerette’, which had double, white flowers. Produced from R. multiflora, the pollen parent is believed to have been a China rose, R. chinensis; both these species had been introduced from the Far East in about Boo. Guillot continued to raise seedlings, and ‘Mignonette’ was introduced in 1880. From this variety Pernet Ducher obtained a seedling, ‘Mlle Bertha Ludi’, which he sent out in 1891 and which is thought to be the first modern hybrid polyantha. The attractive ‘Gruss an Aachen’ appeared in 1908 and is still grown by some enthusiasts. A year later Levavasseur of Orleans sent out ‘Orleans Rose’, which became well known owing to the number of sports which arose from it directly and from its descendants.

Using ‘Orleans Rose’ as a parent, the Danish nurseryman Svend Poulsen, introduced in 1924 two new hybrid polyanthas, ‘Else Poulsen’ and ‘Kirsten Poulsen’. These attracted a great deal of attention and can still be seen in gardens. They are considered by some authorities to represent the beginning of the hybrid polyanthas which eventually became recognized as floribundas. The advent of ‘Karen Poulsen’ in 1932  did nothing to lessen the impact of this new race, which proved supremely useful for bedding and for display in public gardens. A considerable amount of prejudice had to be overcome, for the new type seemed to offer a threat to the supremacy of the hybrid tea.

In 1952 the name ‘floribunda’ for this class of roses was accepted by the RNRS, although it had been generally used for some years. Edward Le Grice, a well-known Norfolk breeder, introduced ‘Allgold’ in 1956, an advance in yellow floribundas, and very healthy and stable in colour. Many raisers all over the world have continued to produce floribunda roses with considerable success. Le Grice in 1969 broke new ground with the first floribunda in purple shades — a combination of the old garden roses allied to the floriferous modern floribunda in the variety ‘News’.

The most recent advance has been made by the well-known breeder Sam McGredy IV with his ‘hand-painted’ series of roses: ‘Picasso’ in 1971 and ‘Matangi’ in 1974; while many others are still to be seen.



Miniature roses have a charm all their own, and in recent years there has been a steady increase of interest in this class. Originating from the dwarf form of the China rose, R. chinensis minima, the early varieties were the subject of some confusion. ‘Pompon de Paris’ was grown as a pot plant for the Paris markets around 1840; a variety much like it was brought from Switzerland by a Major Roulet, and is still known as R. roulettii. The climbing sport of ‘Pompon do Paris’ is still grown and is one of the features of the office wall of the Royal National Rose Society’s headquarters at St Albans.

In the early 193os Jan de Vink in Holland and Pedro Dot in Spain made crosses with a range of other roses, mainly hybrid teas and polyanthas, and produced new varieties which retained the miniature habit to a remarkable degree. More recently, in the United States, Ralph Moore has used a wide variety of parents in his breeding programme, and has now succeeded in producing a miniature moss variety called ‘Dresden China’ and a striped rose called ‘Stars ‘n’ Stripes’.


Other developments

The rose ‘Lady Duncan’, introduced in 1900 in America, resulted from a cross between R. rugosa and R. wichuraiana, both natives of Japan. A trailer which did not attain popularity, ‘Lady Duncan’ soon disappeared from the catalogues; but it appears to have been resurrected in 1919 and named ‘Max Graf’. On its re-introduction into commerce, Wilhelm Kordes planted it, as he was particularly interested in breeding hardy roses. At first he had no success. Eventually, however, in 1940 he obtained seed pods, and from these he raised two seedlings, one of which failed to survive its first winter. The other, however, proved very fertile and has since been recognized as a new species, R. kordesii. Crossed with various roses, the result has been a series of repeat-flowering climbers, generally known as the Kordesii climbers, notable for their hardiness and general good health.

The sweet briar, R. eglanteria, a native of Britain, has always been much valued for its scented foliage, so it is not surprising that in the late 19th century it became the subject of a serious breeding programme. This was initiated by Lord Penzance and resulted in the introduction, between 1893 and 1895, of several hybrids known collectively as the Penzance briars. They make good shrubs where an impenetrable hedge is required, and possess the characteristic scented leaves.

The hybrid musks (or Pemberton roses, as I prefer to call the group of shrub roses raised by the Rev. G.H. Pemberton between 1912 and 1928) are still among the finest shrub roses for gardens. With their long season of flowering and sweet scent, the Pemberton roses are deservedly favoured by many discriminating gardeners. ‘Daphne’ was the first to be introduced, and many others followed. ‘Belinda’ and ‘Buff Beauty’ were introduced by J.A. Bentall, who succeeded Pemberton, but were most probably raised by the country clergyman himself.


08. March 2011 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Roses | Tags: | Comments Off on History of the Rose


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