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The History of Roses: Living Legends

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Catherine Boeckmann
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Roses, besides being magnificent flowers, have a long history.  Roses’ links to antiquity are strong, which is why many gardeners love them.

The oldest rose planted today was in existence some 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. Rosa gallica var. officinalis migrated from Persia (Iran) through Turkey to France and finally into England in time to be renamed ‘Red Rose of Lancaster’, which figured prominently in the Wars of the Roses during the 15th century. It’s also known as ‘Apothecary’s Rose’, because during the past thousand years it has been used by herbalists, including the fictitious Brother Cadfael (lead character in a series of books by Ellis Peters).

The intensely fragrant ‘Desiree Parmentier’, a Gallica rose, was named after the Frenchwoman who became queen of Sweden. As a young woman, she financed Napoleon Bonaparte’s second campaign with her jewels after her father had refused his plea for money. When one of Napoleon’s marshals was crowned king of Sweden, Bonaparte introduced Desiree to the king, who was in the market for a wife.

Souvenir de la Malmaison’, first grown in Josephine Bonaparte’s chateau garden at Malmaison, near Paris, was beloved by Catherine the Great, who filled the Imperial Garden at St. Petersburg with these pale pink Bourbons.

Charlemagne’s favorite rose, R. spinosissima ‘Plena’, or Scotch rose, still graces gardens in northern climates today.