Roses today seem very commonplace. Everyone has heard of them or knows someone who has grown them. We rarely consider how they become so widespread throughout the world. How were roses originally cultivated, and why did they make it to the modern world with so many different varieties? Below is a brief history of the rose. It has taken a very long, strange, and interesting path to get where it is today.
Many people don’t realize that the roses we know today primarily originated in Asia. They were initially grown not as ornamentals, but as medicinal plants. Roses were used to treat a variety of ailments. In some Asian countries medication based on the rose plant can still be found today. Around the 16th century roses began to be exported from China by European ships exploring Asia. Europe and the Americas did have some roses, but they were primarily wild. There was little color selection, most were shrub like, and they didn’t bloom more than once a year. Roses imported from Asia were of greater quality, variety and many offered repeated blooming. The joy of tending plants that bloom throughout the growing season caused rose gardening to catch on as a hobby throughout the developing world.
Before new varieties were brought from Asia Europeans as far back as the Romans grew roses, but they were of the “old world” type. The dividing line between “old world roses” and “modern” hybrid tea roses is considered to be about 1867. From the Roman Empire until 1867 roses grew and declined in popularity throughout the world. Often only the gardening at monasteries kept roses in existence during times of decline. Rose growing took off again in France during the 1800s when Empress Josephine encouraged rose gardening to be explored and further developed.
Empress Josephine was the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. She resided at the Malmaison Chateau after becoming Empress of France and was extremely interested in all aspects of rose gardening. Josephine decided not just to grow roses, but to bring every single rose variety in existence to the Chateau’s garden. She worked with many important botanists and rose enthusiasts during the early 1800s to bring the roses of the world to France.
Roses hybridize very easily. In many ways this is part of what can make rose gardening exciting. There isn’t a size or color of rose bush or climbing rose that can’t be found. However, the crossing and creating of new plants has over time caused a decline in disease resistance. This is why it’s crucial to try and locate disease resistant varieties of roses for your garden.
Roses have really come a long way. They’ve basically always been around in one genus or another. In a way, rose gardening can make you feel in touch with those throughout history. The next time you’re out pruning think of the Romans tending their gardens under the ancient sun or Josephine Bonaparte in her massive rose garden surrounded by over two hundred and fifty beautiful rose varieties. She of course had an entire staff to help her prune!