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For the Library: a horticulturist’s homage to roses explores the power of the flower

A new publication, taking in the historical and cultural significance of the rose across thousands of years, leaves Inigo tickled pink

For the Library: a horticulturist’s homage to roses explores the power of the flower

What did Gertrude Stein mean when, in 1913, she wrote “A rose is a rose is a rose”? On first reading, one supposes it may be about the indelible nature of any given thing, that it is what it is. But that line also seems to beg the question: can it be more? Can you separate the word from the thing? Shakespeare clearly thought so – just think of Romeo’s immortal line to Juliet. Another great poet, Robert Frost, also believed as much. In a playful little love poem published 15 years after Stein’s, he suggested that “The rose is a rose/And always was a rose/But the theory now goes/That an apple’s a rose”; by that tenet, so was the beloved object of his affection. As far as Rosa, published by Yale University Press, is concerned, the theory now goes that the rose is more mutable perhaps than even that; greater than the sum of its parts. It is, to misquote another poet raving about roses, Louis MacNeice, “incorrigibly plural”.

This handsome publication works its way through the idea that the story of the sprawling shrub – extant for a staggering 35 million years – is inextricably tangled with the history of art, literature, even culture itself. It’s less a thorny issue than a many-petalled one. These layers are explored by author Peter E. Kukielski, a garden designer and horticulturist by trade, whose knowledge and experience of handling the rosaceae family is remarkable. Together with Charles Phillips, he has written a book not so much for rose-growers as one for rose-lovers, less instructional on botany than on beauty. The cast of fellow devotees in this book is as starry as it is diverse: Stein and Shakespeare naturally get a mention (Frost and MacNeice are sadly overlooked); so do Edith Piaf, Plutarch, Alexander the Great, Georgia O’Keeffe and many more.

It is hard to find a reason not to want to pick up Rosa. Even flicking through its sumptuous illustrations is a treat. That said, the facts that populate almost every page are equally as jewel-like. Surely not many will know that rose oil was discovered by chance in the 17th century at the wedding of a Mughal empress after she filled the canals with rose water. The precious oil floated to the top as the heady scent suffused the air. Others may be interested to learn that the sweat of the prophet Muhammad, who holds the flower as a symbol, purportedly smelled of roses. Details like these spring forth from each of the short but illuminating chapters, which wend and climb through history, at one turn examining the rose as a symbol of sybaritic paganism in early Christianity and then, a few pages later, exploring how “roses, once sacred to Venus, now also became Mary’s particular flower.” Tangled indeed.

That this plant, resilient yet delicate, perfumed, richly varied and so exquisitely beautiful has played a part in religions, myths and medicine, as well as in paintings, politics and poems, is perhaps unsurprising. Without a cohesive history such as this, however, it would be hard to fully comprehend the extent of its impact. This is flower power for the ages.

Further reading

Rosa: the Story of the Rose, by Peter E. Kukielski with Charles Phillips, is published by Yale University Press

Image credits: RosaQuietness’, no date, Peter E. Kukielski; The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888, Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Wiki PD-Art Musée Jacquemart-André; Rosa damascena ‘Celsiana’, Georges Jansoone; Madonna of the Rose Garden, 1420-35, Michelino da Besozzo or Stefano da Verona. Wiki PD-Art patriziasanvitale.com; Vase of Roses, 1890, Vincent van Gogh. Wiki PD-Art The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1993, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002; Flowers in a Wooden Vessel, 1603, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Wiki PD-Art Google Cultural Institute

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