La vie en rose

From stand-alone stems to multi-flowered shrubs, the most iconic of blooms is as pure as poetry in motion

Height of beauty: Climbing roses flaunt their beauty on lattice fence, as various species of flowers hug the ground.

‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness…” English poet John Keats was not thinking about roses in particular when he wrote that poem in 1818; he only mentioned “musk-rose blooms” in passing. Yet, there is probably no other flower which has given so much joy since ancient times than the rose.

Ancient civilisations had already been cultivating roses for hundreds of years when Greek botanist Theophrastus wrote about “the hundred-petalled rose” in 270 BC. Cleopatra, queen of Egypt from 50-30 BC, is said to have loved roses so much that she had her bed strewn with the petals of fresh roses every day and had the sails of her ship soaked in rose water. Historian Athenaeus documented how she seduced Roman army general Mark Anthony by having her private rooms carpeted with 20cm of rose petals, and welcomed his barge standing knee deep in roses.

Cleopatra was not the only one obsessed with roses. Historians recorded that in ancient Rome, roses were strewn at public ceremonies and banquets, and rose water bubbled through the emperor’s fountains. Public baths were seeped in it, and in public amphitheatres, crowds sat under sun awnings drenched in rose perfume. Rose petals were used as pillow stuffing, and roses adorned people’s hair. They ate rose puddings and their love potions and aphrodisiacs all contained roses.

Nero, emperor of the Roman empire from 54-68 AD, had silver pipes installed under each guest’s plate so that during dinner the guests were sprayed with the scent of roses between courses. Above them was a ceiling painted to resemble the celestial heavens. As they looked up, the ceiling would open and shower them in a continuous rain of perfume and flowers. At one of his parties such an enormous amount of rose petals fell that one of the guests was smothered to death.

Botanists differ on the number of rose species, with some saying there are 100 and others 150. By crossing these species, breeders have created thousands of cultivars — with flowers in various forms and sizes, and in a variety of colours, shades and colour combinations — for generations of gardeners.

Today’s roses are classified as hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras, polyanthus, shrubs, climbers, miniatures and mini-roses, all of which are valued for their ability to bloom repeatedly. Hybrid teas are the classic rose for cut flowers, with only one upright flower per stem. Floribundas are shrub roses with clusters of flowers that bloom continuously; they are usually hardier than hybrid teas. Grandifloras are tall and vigorous plants that produce single flowers or in clusters; they are very similar to hybrid teas, except for their bigger size.

Polyanthus are small-flowered roses in large clusters on small, compact bushes, while shrubs are a large group of various classes that vary widely in height and habit. Climbers are roses with long arching canes that can be trained on a support such as arbours, trellises, fences and walls, while miniatures and mini-roses are scaled-down versions of the larger garden roses. Miniatures and mini-roses range in height from 15-60cm tall, with flowers and leaves that are proportionally diminutive.

I had a chance to see roses of all kinds recently when a friend took me to the Rose Garden of the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco as a treat on my birthday. My friend since high school, Leandro Nunez, lives just a block away from the park, where he goes for his early morning walk. Sharing my love of plants, he often sends me photos of flowers in the park as well as in his own garden.

‘A joy for ever’: Roses have been one of the star attractions of the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California, since 1961.

One plant filled with colourful flowers was awe-inspiring enough; seeing long rows of them rendered me speechless. My guide for the day said the garden boasted at least 60 rose beds. He showed me beds which had only white flowers, others in various shades of pink, red, orange, gold or yellow; some were bluish, others greenish, while still other beds came with roses in different colours and colour combinations. Some of the flowers looked majestic as they stood alone on long stems, others looked more comfortable in threes and fours, or in big clusters. Climbing roses flaunted their beauty on lattice fence as long as the eyes could see, while in circular beds, various species of flowers hugged the ground.

One of the star attractions of the Golden Gate Park since 1961, the roses bloom repeatedly but they are at their best at this time of year. They are then pruned, in time to cast their magic spell again on visitors in December.

The sojourn seemed like a dream, especially since I was looking at the flowers on the screen of my mobile phone in the comfort of my bed. As a memento, Leandro also took photos of the roses to send me.

With John Keats’ poem in mind, I thought I’d share them with you, readers, so that such things of beauty would never pass into nothingness. n


Email nthongtham@gmail.com.

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