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Rethinking the rose

Most gardeners are compelled to prune, fertilize, spray -- all in pursuit of more blooms. Here's a radical idea: Why not let it be?

April 22, 2004|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Beauty is a dangerous thing. Witness the rose. It was plucked from shrubdom because of the bloom. Its fragrance gave Egypt rose water, Persia attar, France candied rose petals. It sweetened the medieval apothecary cabinet and became a symbol of passion for poets, purity for Christians and nobility for kings. In short, until a burgeoning garden industry got to it in the Victorian era, the rose symbolized all things fragrant, passionate and brave.

Now glory is sold by the gallon can, with names so cute you could gag on them: Baby Doll, Candy Cane, Giggles. Garden centers are full of rose fertilizers, rose pesticides and rose care books on how to prune the plant to force more bloom.

Beauty, like love, does not always bring out the best in us.

As Southern California reaches the peak of spring bloom, a flush that even the best repeat-flowering specimens will not rival again until next year, it merits stopping as we find ourselves in the throes of helpless admiration. Now is the time to look at the rose, but really look at it, not just the flower but the whole plant, and to ask: What would happen if we stopped fertilizing them so much; watering them so heavily; forcing, then pruning, forcing again and pruning again, all in pursuit of blooms, blooms and more blooms? Would the world fall apart if we let a rose be a rose?

The toughness inherent in even the showiest rosebushes might surprise us. The rose is at heart a bramble, from the genus Rosa, from the family Rosaceae. Its cousins could stock a fruit shop: strawberries, raspberries, plums, pears and, sigh, cherries. Most roses are deciduous. Most have thorns. There the similarities end. There might be another genus of plants with a greater variety of cultivars -- orchids, perhaps. But roses range from 6-inch miniatures to ground cover, to shrubs, to ramblers, to trees, to climbers. The bloom might have five petals, it might have 100, it might have 350. It might be chaste, ruffled and girlish, pointed and regal, or a rouged whorehouse on a stem. Roses can look like cabbages, chrysanthemums and hibiscuses.

There is so much variety in form alone that an infernal language has evolved to cope with it. "Single" rose blooms have eight petals or fewer, "semi-double" eight to 20, "double" 20 to 30, and "fully double" 30 or more.

Scent is no less varied. Roses range from sweet to spiced to citrus-sharp to musk. Our largest school of garden roses, the "teas" and "hybrid teas," were so named because of the fanciful notion that the blooms smell like a newly opened pack of tea leaves. As for color, roses come in every shade but blue.

The variety is more the work of man than nature. Depending on who's counting, there are 100 to 200 wild species from throughout the Northern Hemisphere north of Mexico and south of the Arctic. Britain has its fragrant old dog brier roses, France its gallicas, America its pasture, marsh, desert and mountain roses. Los Angeles has the discreet flowering shrub Rosa californica, so often dismissed as beneath notice by fans of big-leafed, big-flowered hybrids.

No place has roses like China does. Only after Chinese roses reached Europe and the Middle East in the wake of the tea, porcelain and opium trades did the rose enter its modern era. Armed with plants selected by the Chinese for generations to flower not once but repeatedly throughout the summer, French breeders quickly crossed these with roses from Europe, North Africa and North America to create showy new hybrids. "Hybrid perpetuals," followed by "hybrid teas," had new, deep crimson reds, big showy blooms and the ability to keep them coming.

Thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte's first wife, Empress Josephine, we have an exquisite snapshot of the period. Creating a garden at Malmaison chateau near Paris, she hired botanists, plant collectors and the now famous French flower painter Pierre-Joseph Redoute. It led to a treasure trove of botanical art: Redoute's 1817 book of engravings, "Les Roses."

After China roses prolonged the bloom and bumped up the size, in 1900 a stunning copper and yellow rose from Persia, Rosa lutea, set the tea rose palette aflame. Meanwhile, scent came and went. Breeders, scandalously for some, blessedly for others, realized that while floral perfume is a divine thing outside, it can be suffocating in a closed room.

Looks, however, were never optional. The Victorians made the flower a captive to beauty, says Scott Lohn, founder of the Corvallis, Ore., nursery Uncommon Rose. "That's the period when they started using cut flowers in competitions in shows," he says. "As that became more of a fashionable thing to do, there was less attention paid to things that were shapely garden shrubs instead of mere bloom machines."

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