Roses of the Middle East
Would that it were possible for a flower like the rose to overcome hatred and war, simply as a beloved symbol held in common by so many people all over the world! Would that by the veneration in which the rose is held in both Islam and Judeo-Christian iconography it could show that we are all bound together in this way, and not only in this way but in many, many others!
In Christianity, the rose is the ancient symbol of both Christ's passion and the purity of Mary. In Islam, the rose was believed, at least up until the twentieth century, to have sprung from the sweat of Muhammad's brow. Moreover, it had been venerated for centuries before Muhammad by the Zoroastrians in Persia (now Iran). As a symbol of completion, it was often shown as the mystical center of the labyrinth. In fact, the rose has held a special place in the hearts of human beings since long before Zoroaster, as mentioned again and again in The Ultimate Rose Book , The Companion to Roses , and elsewhere, and by Graham Stuart Thomas, Peter Beales, and others.
Moreover, both Islam and the Judeo-Christian traditions can trace their origins to the Middle East. And the Middle East, in turn, is the source of many ancestors of our modern rose – among them, the Rosa gallica, Rosa damascena, Rosa foetida, and from evidence produced first by Graham Stuart Thomas, most likely the intensely fragrant Rosa moschata, the Musk Rose. So it's no surprise that the rose should hold so much significance in both religious traditions.
A Name Derived from the Scent of a Rare Antler-less Deer
Interestingly enough, the ancient roses of the Middle East are among the most fragrant in the world, which may be one of the more important reasons for their mystical significance. (One writer suggests that the reason the rose is not nearly so beloved in China as is the peony is the lack of scent in the early China roses.)
The fragrance of R. moschata, the Musk Rose, is of particular interest because its styles (stalks that supports the stigmas) tend to grow together in a single column. It appears to be this column from which the musk perfume is dispensed rather than from its petals as is true of most roses.
Thus the Musk and Hybrid Musk roses are members of the Synstylae group in which Graham Stuart Thomas found this peculiarity of scent and which has the refreshingly light fragrance of the earliest musk used in the perfume trade. Thomas describes the original source in his Rose Book as that of the scent gland of the small antler-less male Musk Deer ( Moschus moschiferus) of central and eastern Asia. "This over-hunted animal," he explains, "is solitary and far from prolific; genuine musk is accordingly very costly."
The result of this scarcity and cost is that much of the musk used in the perfume trade today comes not from the vegetarian Musk Deer but from the carnivorous and cat-like Civet, chiefly from the Indian Civet (Viverra zibetha) of South Asia. This animal produces a much heavier scent. As Thomas points out, this latter musk resembles more closely the cloying scent of the Crown Imperial than the light sweet scent of the musk rose.
Descendants of the Musk Rose – a circuitous path
The road leading from the ancient Rosa moschata to the modern Hybrid Musk Rose is long indeed; it includes many intervening byways and is related to its ancient predecessor almost solely through its Synstylae characteristics and its musk fragrance. The group is relatively young, having been developed and introduced during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from R. moschata by way of the Noisettes. It also blooms all summer long. Peter Beales in his excellent book, Classic Roses , lists 31 varieties of Hybrid Musks, six of which (along with one plant of the ancient R. moschata) we grow here in our Cache Valley garden. Many of these 32 varieties are illustrated in his book, including an outstanding representation of the R. Moschata itself, shown at right above.
Aside from our own Musk and Hybrid Musk collection here in Utah, the pink 'Ballerina,' shown at left below in Ethy's and Steven Cannon's garden, does well in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hybrid musks grown in Northern Utah's Cache Valley, however, while not needing to be especially coddled, do die back every winter, unlike their hardier neighbors. Consequently, they don't grow as large as they would in a more benevolent garden. I treat them, more or less, as hybrid teas, trimming the dead wood back to six or eight inches above the ground in early spring. Also, I've gradually moved some of them from the Old Rose Border to a place of their own, in order to keep them from being swamped by the vigorous rugosas. 'Bishop Darlington', especially, was engulfed to near-death by two Rugosa neighbors, one on each side.
Meditation on a Rose
It was while admiring the photograph of our Hybrid Musk Rose, 'Penelope,' last week that I'd thought with some sadness how closely linked all of humanity is by lovely things in this world, like roses, and yet how easy it is to banish such ties from our minds in times of hatred and chaos. Should we destroy ourselves in a worst-case scenario, should war escalate, that is, to a nuclear holocaust, vaporizing both buildings and culture and humanity itself, the rose will remain to bloom and thrive without us.
'Penelope,' pictured at left, is representative of this delicate continuation of nature and, in fact, does especially well here in semi-arid Cache Valley with its frigid winters. Blessed with dark green, ruby tipped foliage and large, semi-double, creamy pink flowers with frilled edges, it seems to me very near a talisman of a garden's ongoing life and beauty. After trimming back in early spring, it rises geyser-like – one might even say phoenix-like – into an arching vase of stems by June, generous with blossoms.
The Hybrid Musk, 'Buff Beauty,' reacts the same way as 'Penelope' after its pruning, and its long trusses of double, very frilly buff to apricot blossoms fill the air around it with with a penetrating fragrance.
This past late summer, I'd moved another Hybrid Musk listed by Beales, 'Cornelia,' to a sunnier location. After three seasons in its first home, the plant had refused to bloom in the shade of maturing trees close by. This is a beautiful rose and I hope it will reward me for the move next year with at least a flower or two – I had yet to see any by the time I transplanted it.
I also moved the year before three plants of the Hybrid Musk, 'Kathleen,' to a sunnier location, and was rewarded this past summer with a pleasant sprinkling of light lavender, near-single blooms. 'Kathleen' has a lighter green foliage than that of 'Penelope' and 'Buff Beauty' and has a rather sparse growth here, though bundling three closely together produces a good- sized showing.
Judging from my experience with these last two roses and with my ancient Rosa moschata, I take with a grain of salt the statement that Musks and Hybrid Musks will tolerate light shade or dappled shade. Here in Cache Valley I've found that shade spells mostly a disaster to any gardener wishing for blossoms on her roses.
The last Hybrid Musk listed by Beales, 'Will Scarlet,' has been in our garden for several years – an enduring friend. The first two or three years we had it, planted in full sunlight, it produced its bright crimson, near-single blooms exuberantly. Then, in its fourth year, it sickened with iron chlorosis and threatened to die. The soil here is alkaline, though it's never bothered our other roses that much. Then we came to the conclusion that the bed in which I'd planted this and other roses may very well have been built up over a limey gravel road, and that the roots of 'Will Scarlet' finally reached this extremely alkaline layer and it was too much for the plant to handle. What clued us in on this possibility was that all the roses planted in that particular bed started turning yellow. Perhaps these roses would not have resurrected themselves had I not been there to give them generous applications of Ironite, so I'll be wandering off-message here for a bit – it could be that these plants really did need a human around to correct a difficult situation (though the human herself put them in that difficult situation in the first place). The important thing is that the applications of iron brought 'Will' and its neighbors back to blooming health.
Would that Musk roses and the more recent Hybrid Musks might act as ambassadors for peace and beauty. An online essay like this on roses is just a small cry for understanding and conciliation among all people in the world, especially among the millions being posted online for and against the war in Afghanistan, for and against bin Laden, even among the numberless essays posted on the beauty and culture of roses that ignore the whole bewildering and frightening topic.
On the other hand, I know I'm not the only one thinking this way. It's a human trait to reflect with sadness on the fact that life with both its loveliness and its grief will eventually end. Indeed, life will always end. Bernard, the Catholic Bishop of Cluny, felt that the rose symbolized the silent passage of the glories of the world as well as the brevity of human life – in short, the rose reflected the infinite sadness of mortality. Omar Khayyam's celebration of the rose and the nightingale -- a recurring theme in Islamic verse – is a meditation, as Macoboy points out in his The Ultimate Rose Book, on the transitory nature of life and happiness.
But would that this transitory life could move to its inevitable finish without war to help it along.
Books mentioned in this essay:
The Companion to Roses - a fascinating source book for both botanical information and the lore of legends; it's one of my favorite reference works on rose culture and history
The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book - a distillation of the world-famous rosarian's knowledge of the world of roses. Truly a treasure of information, drawings, and photographs
Classic Roses by Peter Beales - this is a book that, if you've declared a moratorium on buying any more roses, you should never open. Wonderfully erudite, yet easy to read, and filled with some of the best rose photography I've ever seen. Beales talks about roses here as part of the garden
The Ultimate Rose Book - A sumptious collection of more than 1600 roses with their full color photographs, descriptions, breeders, and years of introduction
Link for browsing for more rose books:
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