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Fussing Over Roses

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An ancient bloom that bewitches rosarians to this day By Barbara Sullivan • Photographs by Mark Steelman

onths ago, when temperatures hovered in the 30s and rose gardens slept in temporary desolation with rows of carefully pruned, leafless and thorny canes giving no hint of what lay waiting, a group of dedicated rosarians gathered to talk about their favorites — maybe it was the pure white ‘Pope John Paul II’, the flaming red ‘Dolly Parton’ or the floriferous yellow ‘Julia Child’ — and how this year they might try out a new soil formula or spray program or replace those weaklings that just weren’t hacking it. In fact, for members of the Wilmington Cape Fear Rose Society (WCFRS) there is never an off-time from this passion. Their monthly get-togethers culminate in an annual garden tour (this year on May 7), where they and the public get a chance to look over new varieties in private gardens and admire the size and perfection of some of the old standbys. And, although the American Rose Society has been in existence almost 125 years and WCFRS itself began sixteen years ago, this whole process of fussing over and falling in love with roses, sometimes to the exclusion of all other worldly claims, is by no means a new phenomenon. It has consumed humans for thousands of years. We know that the genus Rosa has been on the planet some 70 million years, with over 100 species occurring naturally — all in the Northern Hemisphere. These “species roses,” as they are called, often produce simple, open-faced flowers with five petals and frothy clusters of stamens in the middle. Most bloom only once in the spring. In southeastern North Carolina, where winters tend to be mild and summers hot and humid, there are a number of species roses that do well for us. The pink Swamp rose (Rosa palustris) is one of our native plants. More often we will see two other species roses used extensively in public and private gardens. Both originating from China, these climbers bloom only once in the early spring and are virtually carefree in the garden. The first is the thornless Lady Banks rose (R. banksiae) with clusters of either pale yellow or creamy white, tightly-petaled flowers. The other favorite, the Cherokee rose (R. laevigata), is thorny with broad white open petals and a showy tassel of bright gold stamens in the center. For many centuries humankind’s love affair with the rose would have been restricted to these hundred-some naturally occurring species roses in shades of white, red, pink and yellow. We know that at least 5,000 years ago the Chinese were cultivating roses, and slightly later the Minoans in Crete were incorporat-

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ing them into their jewelry designs and wall frescoes. A long line of civilizations, including the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, Turks, Greeks, Egyptians and Europeans, celebrated the beauty of roses in their gardens, in their artwork, in their poetry, music and literature, and often used the flower as a symbol of what they valued most highly, whether it be love, beauty or religious purity. Certainly throughout ancient times, the cultivation and trade of roses was widespread and lucrative. Ancient Assyrians, in addition to pillaging and plundering their neighbors’ cities and towns in all directions, stopped to pick up plants along the way — most notably roses. Alexander the Great had a similar, one might say contradictory, ability to lay waste his enemies and appreciate their gardening prowess. He particularly admired Persian gardens and brought back with him the idea that Greeks might use plants, including roses, for decoration and not just for medicinal or culinary purposes. In ancient times, rose petals, when amassed in enormous quantities, went hand-in-hand with displays of extravagant wealth on the one hand and worshipful piety on the other. Wealthy Romans, for example, showed off by suspending baskets full of rose petals over the heads of their dinner guests, showering them with luxurious cascades at the appropriate moment. Cleopatra is said to have carpeted her floors eighteen inches deep in rose petals. Centuries later, when the Pantheon in Rome was converted to a church, thousands of rose petals were dropped from the oculus above. Although in Greek and Roman times the rose was closely linked with mortal love, spring and erotic pleasure (being the flower associated with Aphrodite and Dionysus), it was fully embraced by both the Moslem and Christian faiths as a symbol of the highest faith and purity. Mohammed is said to have shed a drop of perspiration on his ascent to heaven, and where this fell, a rose grew up. The rose has been a symbol of the Virgin Mary and her union with God for many centuries. All of this rose fervor at the highest levels of church and state led inevitably to an appetite for more and better varieties. Hybridizing occurred naturally and then, over time, with human intervention. Although practiced modestly for many centuries, hybridizing really took off in the latter part of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and has continued unabated from that point forward. We are now at a point where many thousands of varieties and cultivars are available to the average home gardener. Possibly, if the little-known General Alexandre de Beauharnais had done a better job of hanging onto the besieged The Art & Soul of Wilmington

May Salt 2016  

The Art & Soul of Wilmington

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