Roses (hip-hip hooray!)

Rose by Catherine Horwood 2018. Reaktion Books Ltd.

Apparently, the rose is the world’s favourite flower. It’s not mine. I therefore seem to find myself at odds with the rest of humanity in countries such as England, Bulgaria, Iran, Iraq, Ecuador, Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Slovakia, the Maldives, and even the USA (since the rose was decreed that country’s national flower in 1986…), where it is the national flower. But, not wishing to be accused of some sort of phytoprejudice – and as a declared plant-lover who is more than a little phytocurious and keen to extend his botanical knowledge – I read Catherine Horwood’s new book over the Christmas break. Entitled simply Rose, it is the author’s declared goal “to distil … the essence of what the rose has meant over the centuries and around the world.” And in its reasonably modest 238 pages, it does just that. Indeed, the book can very fittingly be summed up by the view of rose historian Edward Bunyard that the rose is an “index of civilisation”. High praise indeed!

Rose doesn’t broaden its reach to other botanical roses, such as the rose of sharon, rose of Jericho, or rose campion. Rather, and wisely, its focus is very firmly on Rosa species in the flowering plant family to which it gives its name, the rose family, or Rosaceae. In that regard Rose is quite different to other titles in Reaktion’s Botanical series that I’ve reviewed – Harris’ Sunflowers (which showcases the enormous sunflower family), and Gray’s Palms (which considers the entire palm family). That a single genus can sustain an entire book is surely testament to author Horwood’s bold claim that “no flower has more symbolic links”.

Having long-standing historical associations with love, hope and peace, it was fitting that delegates at the United Nation’s organizational meeting in San Francisco in 1945 were given the appropriately – if rather optimistically – named Peace rose to commemorate the event. But, we are also advised that the rose has associations with passion, devotion, luxury, war, death, and fragility. Its relationship with Mankind has not always therefore been one of peace and kindness, as is dramatically emphasised by The White Rose, a short-lived anti-Nazi resistance group in Germany between 1942 and 1943. The many and varied human associations with roses are brought out in the book’s 11 chapters. Although several of those have quite functional titles – e.g. “The literary rose” [which symbolizes courtly love/lust, mortality and fragility of life, and God’s love], “The royal rose” [red roses and white roses were the symbols of the two warring would-be dynasties in England‘s so-called Wars of the Roses; Rosa rubiginosa, (the eglantine or sweet briar) was particularly associated with Queen Elizabeth I], and “Posies, petals and perfume” [I now know that pot pourri means ‘rotten mixture’…] – they don’t necessarily convey the full extent or inherent interestingness of the section’s subject matter (but, persist and you will be richly rewarded…).

Accordingly, and along the way, in Rose we learn that: more than 4000 songs have rose in their title; China is the oldest cultivator of roses in the world; the rose replaced the lotus as the symbol of Isis in ancient Egypt; Roman Emperor Nero spent the equivalent of £100,000 on rose petals to scatter along a beach; in the Roman Catholic Church, beads of the rosary (derived from the Latin word rosarium which means rose garden in English) are traditionally made from rolled rose petals; and Nijinsky (the ballet dancer not the racehorse) was nightly sewn into his close-fitting, contour-enhancing, rose-themed costume when performing in Le Spectre de la Rose in 1911.

As might be expected, the book is also replete with a great deal of in-depth information about the breeding of roses and development of rose horticulture; the approx. 120 Rosa species have spawned more than 20,000 commercial cultivars. From that multiplicative insight one can conclude that people [well, certainly rose breeders who set the pace and create the latest fads and trends in all things rosicultural…] have great affection for roses, and are keen to experiment and create new forms of this iconic flower. But, whether that’s in response to innate demand by customers, or a need and desire for novelty that’s generated and fueled by breeders is perhaps a debatable point.

As is typical of the publisher’s Botanical series of books, Rose contains lots of important notes to substantiate various claims and statements so the interested can pursue those points. But – and ain’t it always the way? – the one fact that really caught my eye, but for which no source was cited, was mention of use of roses as an early warning system for diseases of grape vines*. But, that’s a minor quibble and shouldn’t be allowed to detract from what is otherwise another masterly example of the blooming ‘plants-and-people’ genre. Well done, Doctor Horwood!


As the final part of the book’s proper text, Horwood tells us that, in 2017, viewers of the BBC Gardeners’ World programme voted the rose as the most important and influential flower of the last 50 years. Having now read Catherine Horwood’s engagingly-written, abundantly-illustrated, and extensively-researched social history of the plant, I can understand why. Whilst it’s still not my favourite flower, I learnt a great deal about the rose and its place in human society in reading the book, and am now much better disposed towards that flower. And in many respects that’s really all you really need to know about Rose: Any book that can change hearts and minds about a topic is doing a very good job – and is fully deserving of being read! And for that we all should be most grateful to the book and its author.

* Although no source is cited for this little gem in Rosa, a quick bit of ‘Googling’ found several candidates as the evidence for this practice (e.g. here, here, and here…). Another nugget of the book’s rosaceous information – that gender plays a role in fragrance preferences – I’ve not yet sourced…

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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