The Noble Rose

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Queen of Flowers in the Kitchen and Home Pharmacy

“Whereas there has long represented love, friendship, peace and the devotion of the American people to their country…that the flower commonly known as the rose is designated and adopted as the national floral emblem of the United States of America.”  …. the Joint Resolution of the Senate and House of the 99th Congress

Acting on the above resolution in 1986, President Ronald Regan declared the noble rose to be the National Flower of the United States of America.  And since proof abounds that the rose has graced American soil longer than any human, a better choice could not have been made.  Indeed, rose imprints on slate deposits in the Florissant Fossil Beds near Cripple Creek, Colorado have been identified as being around 35 to 40 million years old—a lineage old enough to warrant that this stately blossom be crowned queen of the land.

The roses that were blooming near Cripple Creek during the Oligocene epoch were ‘wild species’ roses that probably originated in Central Asia.  They were hardy, with simple single flowers growing on shrubs or climbing cane-like shoots.  Their rose hips were almost as big as the flower itself.  Wild Species roses are the plants from which all modern roses descend. Rosa rugosa is the best modern-day example of wild species roses (see Rose Classification).

It is believed that some 5,000 years ago, the Chinese began cultivating the rose (Oriental species roses had one advantage over the European/Mediterranean group of species: they were remontant, or repeat bloomers).   Throughout antiquity the rose was associated with the simple pleasures of life, with myths and legends, and with the rituals and ceremonies of religions.  Egyptian tombs have revealed wreaths of Damask-like roses dating to about AD 170, Minoan frescoes (c. 1700 BC) in Crete at Knossos feature roses in their design, and the Romans developed the first hot houses in order to feed their voracious appetite for the floral monarch. It was the Roman goddess Venus whose amorous indiscretions prompted Cupid to bribe the God of Silence with a rose making it the symbol for secrecy. The term ‘sub rosa’ (now well-known thanks to the popular novel, ‘DaVinci’s Code’) has survived from Roman times (when ceilings were decorated with roses to remind diners to guard the secrecy of dinner conversations) and to this day means confidentially.

The focus on religion and herbal medicine during the Middle Ages defined the use of the rose for medicinal purposes.  Monks developed and perfected distillation techniques and were using roses for eye ointments and salves, syrups, powders, oils, conserves, scented rosary beads, candied condiments and in baked products.  Crusaders, Gypsies, artists and artisans were spreading the reign of the rose from the Middle East, northern Africa and Eastern Europe.

Royal connections to the rose were strengthened in the 15th century during England’s War of the Roses.  The House of York adopted a white rose (possibly R. alba) and the House of Lancaster took a red rose (thought to be R. gallica) as its emblem.  After 30 years of civil war, Henry VII emerged victorious, married a York princess, and united the families in a new Tudor dynasty.  He merged his Lancastrian rose with the white rose of his York bride and thus created the Tudor Rose, the Rose of England.

The 19th century marked a dividing point between ‘old’ roses and ‘modern’ roses.  The Dutch began systematically growing roses from seed and in the early part of the 1800s introduced the first hybrid roses, among them, the Centifolia varieties. The French painter, Pierre-Joseph Redoute immortalized the rose in his paintings for Empress Josephine who also encouraged the hybridizing of new roses.  Working mostly with Gallica, Damask, Alba and Centifolia roses, French breeders Dupont and Descemet developed several hundred new cultivars using controlled crossbreeding techniques.  Around this time, the highly prized continuous-blooming roses were introduced to Europe from China and India.   The Oriental roses arrived by ship along with another precious cargo, that of tea—from which the term ‘Tea rose’ derives.  But the eastern roses were far too tender to survive the temperate European climate and were crossbred with winter-hardy varieties and in 1867, the first ‘Hybrid Tea’ roses were introduced.

In 1972, an English garden consultant by the name of Graham Stuart Thomas planned and laid out the rose garden at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire England. The abbey itself dates back to the second century when William the Conquer owned it.  Its name is derived from the font or spring that can still be found on the property. Mottisfont was an Augustinian priory right up until the Dissolution when it slipped into private residence around the mid-1700s. The last private owner transferred Mottisfont to the National Trust in 1957.

The rose garden at Mottisfont Abbey is remarkable due to Thomas’ foresight in planting pre-1900 roses.  The collection has now been registered as ‘The National Collection of Shrub Roses prior to 1900’ by the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens in England. I had the privilege of visiting Mottisfont’s rose garden, at its best in mid-summer.  It is spectacular.  With provision for some 300 varieties, it has a good selection of species roses from different parts of the world and a generous representation of the early 19th century French hybrids.  The coloring, style and fragrance of these roses have never been surpassed and they are displayed brilliantly at Mottisfont.

Surrounded by high red brick walls that once contained the abby’s kitchen garden, the garden’s four large quadrants are defined by two main lavender-lined paths. The central focus is a circle of arches exploding with alternating  light pink (‘Debutante’) and dark (‘Bleu Magenta’) blue-magenta blossoms.  Under-plantings of herbs and perennial flowers give the garden depth and character while extending the color throughout the season.

Standing in the very center of the rose-draped arbors at Mottisfont Abbey, one absorbs the history of the majestic rose almost as one inhales the fragrant perfume, and begins to grasp the tremendous reign of power this old-as-time plant has wielded.


Red rose petals from R. gallica have been the only recognized petals to be used in medicinal preparations—a fact reinforced by the British Pharmacopoeia of the early 20th century.  Maude Grieve, in her book A Modern Herbal (circa 1930), notes that any scented roses of a deep red color may be used, “the main point is that the petals suitable for medicinal purposes must yield a deep rose-colored and somewhat astringent and fragrant infusion.”   Grieve goes on to say that rose petals for medicine must be collected before they are about to open.

Once used to treat all types of ailments, from weak heart, stomach and liver, to increasing the brain’s capacity, the use of rose petals gradually waned until their main purpose was that of flavoring other preparations.  North American first peoples used the bark and roots of wild rose plants to treat dysentery, diarrhea, and worms.  A tea of rose petals was taken as a tonic.  Rose water is still used for cosmetics, eye lotions and in cooking.

Seeds of dog rose hips were discovered in the skeleton of a 2000-year-old neolithic woman unearthed in Britain.  The ancients used petals, bark, roots and hips from the wild ‘brier’ or ‘dog’ rose in Britain and North America.  Rose hips are known for their vitamin C content—it is higher in hips than in citrus fruit—and have been brewed as a tea or made into wines, jams, jellies, preserves, conserves and syrups for coughs and to treat scurvy.  Vitamin C is highest in hips from the dog rose and the further north the plant is found, the higher the vitamin C content.  Rose hips also contain a high level of calcium, phosphorus, and iron, making them ideal as winter tonics to help increase the body’s resistance to infectious diseases.

Gather hips in the late fall just after the first frost.  Handle gently and use fresh in syrups, jellies or preserves, or split and dry rapidly in a well-ventilated place.  Store in a dark-colored jar in a cool dry place and use within one year. E.G. Hayden gives the following recipe for rose hip marmalade.  Use this marmalade as a sweetener for desserts and as a base for a tea—stir one tablespoon rose hip marmalade into one cup boiling water.  Take two cups of Rose Hip Tea per day when colds or flu threatens.

Marmalade from Rose Hips — To every pound of hips allow half a pint [1 cup] of water; boil till the fruit is tender, then pass the pulp through a sieve which will keep back the seeds.  To each pound of pulp add one pound of preserving sugar and boil it until it Jellies.— E.G. Hayden, Travels Round our Village


4 cups rose hips, green calyx removed

4 cups water

3 tbsp lemon juice

2 cups sugar

In a medium, heavy-bottomed pan, combine rose hips, water and lemon juice. Bring to the boil, skim and gently boil until the fruit is tender. Place a sieve over a large bowl and pass the fruit through, mashing the pulp with the back of a spoon. Return the pulp and juice to the pan, bring to a boil, stir in sugar, adjust heat and continue to boil until a thermometer reaches 220° F.

Spoon into sterilized jars, cap and label. Store in the refrigerator.


2 cups rose hips, green calyx removed

1/2 cup coarsely chopped peppermint

1/4 cup coarsely chopped hyssop leaves

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped sage leaves

2 tablespoons thyme leaves

4 cups water

1-1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup honey

In a large pan, combine rose hips, herbs and water. Cover the pan, bring to the boil, reduce heat and lightly simmer for 15 minutes.

Remove from heat. Place a sieve over a large bowl and strain off the hips and herbs. Return the infused water to the pan, bring to the boil. Add sugar, stir until dissolved, cover with the lid and lightly boil the mixture until it thickens and reaches about 220° F.

Remove from heat, stir in honey and pour into sterilized jars, cap and label. Store in the refrigerator up to one year.


Classification of roses can be daunting, even to the passionate rose gardener.  Roses belong to the third largest plant family, the Rosaceae Family.  Plants in this group are characterized by five petals and the shape of the hip, and include hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata), meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), creeping cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans), plums and cherries (Prunus genus), salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor), along with apples, pears wild strawberries and raspberries.

The genus name of roses is Rosa. Roses can be found on bushes or on long canes known as climbers.  They may bloom only once in a season or continually throughout; they may be brilliantly perfumed or virtually non-odiferous; the number of petals ranges from five to hundreds; and their color ranges from white to orange to red and purple and every shade in-between.  Those physical attributes are now being used by landscapers and nurseries as a way to group roses (because they pinpoint the purpose to which roses may be used in gardens).  However, there is an older, more established system of classifying roses that places them into three basic categories — Wild Species Roses, Old Garden Roses and Modern Roses.


One to two hundred (some say there are around 120 true species roses and about the same number that are classified as species but are generally garden forms or hybrids) wild rose species exist today.  Species roses are truly the first flowers still in existence with the following characteristics:

• thought to have evolved perhaps as long ago as 60 million years and spread from central Asia to all parts of the Northern Hemisphere (North America, Europe and Asia)

• genetically pure strains from which all roses descend

• tough, disease-resistant; some are cold-hardy; many thrive on impoverished soil; most have large fleshy hips; most bear small flowers with 5 petals in a single layer—called a ‘single’; most bloom only once (China and Tea roses being the exception as repeat bloomers)

• good for herb, wild or naturalistic gardens or shrub borders

• may be climbing (rambler or climber) or non-climbing (shrub)

Gertrude Jekyll was a great fan of species roses. Her 1920 book, Roses for English Gardens describes 38 species roses.  A dozen species rose varieties are listed below (note that some of them also fall into the Old Garden Roses class; dates in brackets are discovery dates):

R. blanda – North American native (1773); large pink flowers; also called Hudson’s Bay or Labrador Rose

R. canina – British native (1737); known as Dog Rose; hips high in vitamin C

R. centifolia – the type of the Cabbage or Provence Roses

R. damascena (Damask) – from Damascus is a hybrid between Rosa gallica and R. phoenicea; several varieties, red, white and striped.  It is now used in Bulgaria for the extraction of rose-water and attar for the perfume industry.

R. eglantaria – European native (1551) grows up to 10’, single pink flowers, apple-scented foliage; known as Sweetbrier

R. gallica – France to Persia native (1310); deep pink, medium sized semi-double flowers; the type of most of the older garden Roses. It was thought to be a religious emblem of the Medes and Persians in the 12th century BC.  Gallica officinalis was brought from Damascus by the Crusaders and spawned the medicinal rose industry in the medieval town of Provins France, thus called ‘Apothecary’ Rose. A striped red and white sport* appeared during or before the 16th century and was dubbed ‘Rosa Mundi’.  Gallica and damascena are the forbears to the modern Hybrid Perpetuals.

R. glauca – European native (1830); tiny 1” bright pink single flowers, gray/purple foliage turns red in autumn

R. lucida – North American native; large bushes, rose-colored flowers

R. multiflora – Eastern Asia native (1810); large bushes; the parent of many rambling roses

R. rugosa – far north Pacific Rim regions native; extremely hardy with showy hips; ‘Hansa’ and ‘Rose a Parfum de l’Hay’ are two purple varieties

• R. virginiana – North American (1640); single, large medium pink flower on upright and bushy growth with light green glossy leaves; good scent

R. wichuriana – Japanese native (1891); trailing with small leaves and white flowers

*sport – a spontaneous mutation that generates a new rose.


The American Rose Society defines Old Garden Roses as those types that existed before 1867, the year the first Hybrid Tea was introduced. Here are a few of the hundreds of Old Garden Roses in existence today:


R. albaR. damascena crossed with R. canina, it is reputedly the White Rose of York; large branching shrubs with clusters of double white flowers; ‘Madens Blush’ and ‘Celeste’ are popular varieties

• Bourbon – Rosa damascena bifera crossed with hybrid China roses on the Ile de Bourbon in the Indian Ocean; vigorous, open, repeat-flowering shrubs with fragrant double flowers

R centifolia (Cabbage or Provence) – Dutch hybridized; excellent sweet-smelling double flowers (centifolia means literally, 100 petals).  It has been used on cretonne and wallpaper, thus is known as ‘Rose des Peintres’ (rose of the painters)

• China (Rosa chinensis) – small to medium shrub roses with small mostly double flowers, single or in clusters; spicy fragrance

• Damask (R. damascena) – fragrant blooms in clusters of 5 – 7 grow on loose, large shrubs; examples:  ‘Madame Hardy’ (white) and ‘Omar Kayyam’ (lilac)

• Gallica (Apothecary) – see above; once blooming brilliant, dense and shrubby, disease-free fragrant roses; examples: ‘Agatha’ (pale pink) and ‘Constance Spry’ (pink)

• Hybrid Perpetual – Rosa damascena bifera crossed with hybrid China roses; pink and red flowers, often re-blooming; vigorous tall shrubs

• Hybrid Sweet Briar – see eglantaria above

• Moss – a ‘sport’* of R. centifolia that appeared in the late 17th century; named for the velvety growth on stems and calyx; many-petaled blooms; generally winter-hardy

• Portand – usually re-blooming, fragrant, double flowers; upright dense bushes

• Scotch- (pimpinellifolia)

• Tea (Rosa odorata gigantea) – Burbon Roses crossed with hybrid China roses; re-blooming sweetly-scented double flowers


• Boursault

• Climbing Tea

• Climbing Bourbon

• Noisette – re-blooming, graceful climbers (up to 20’) with large clusters of small fragrant flowers

• Rambler – usually have many smaller, once-blooming flowers in large bunches; rapid growers, ideal for covering large areas


All modern roses can trace their geneology right back to a few—some say only 10—species roses.  Hybridizers develop new varieties using time- tested methods of crossbreeding.


• Floribunda – compact (2’), adaptable; produce quantities of flowers in clusters; one of the best types of roses for landscaping

Grandiflora – Introduced in 1955, the hybrid ‘Queen Elizabeth’ created a new category of Modern Roses.  Bigger (to 8’) and hardier than Hybrid Teas, they bear single or clustered flowers on long stems.

• Hybrid Tea – beautiful long-stemmed flowers ideal for cutting; this has been the most popular type of rose bush

Polyantha – small compact re-bloomers with small delicate flowers in large sprays


Shrub roses are tough and have a prolific bloom. They are excellent choices for hedges and landscape plantings.

• English Rose – David Austin of England introduced his hybrids in the 1960s and created a new category of rose. English roses are a combination of Old Garden Roses offering beauty of form, color and fragrance, and repeat-blooming, disease-resistant Modern Roses.

• Hybrid Musk

• Hybrid Rugosa

• Unclassified Modern Shrub


• Large-flowered

• Cluster-flowered


Miniature roses are tiny replicas (6 – 30”) of full-size rose plants; small, abundant flowers; ideal for small spaces, containers, edging plants

• Miniature Climbing

• Miniature Micro-miniature


Roses that fall between Miniature and Floribunda in size.


Trailing or spreading low-growers, mostly re-bloomers with small leaves and flowers that cluster.



The Canadian Rose Society —

10 Fairfax Crescent, Scarborough, ON, M1L 1Z8, (416) 757-8809

The Royal National Rose Society — Chiswell Green, St. Albans, Hertfordshire, Great Britain, AL2 3NR

The American Rose Society – founded in 1899, with now over 20,000 members in local affiliates throughout the United States

P.O. Box 30,000, Shreveport,LA, 71130-0030, (318) 938-5402

The Heritage Rose Group—shares information on old garden roses 100 Bear Oaks Drive, Martinez, CA, 94553


500 Popular Roses for Canadian Gardeners. 2000, Raincoast Books, Vancouver, BC.

Krussmann, Gerd, The Complete Book of Rose Bible. 1981, Timber Press, Portland OR.

Reddell, Rayford Clayton, The Rose Bible. 1994, Harmony Books, New York.

Walheim, Lance, Roses for Dummies. 1997, IDG Books, Foster City, CA.  An excellent reference for gardens, nurseries and equipment.

Web Sites   – a site devoted to roses; includes a reprint of Gertrude Jekyll’s 1902 classic, Roses for English Gardens  – good site for information; mail order plants in Canada only – good site for information  – good photographs of many varieties


The following is a short list of nurseries specializing in old garden roses:

Pickering Nurseries (now located in Port Hope)- 3042 County Road #2 RR #1; Local Phone: 905-753-2155  Toll Free: 1-866-269-9282;

Palatine Fruit and Roses – 2108 Four Mile Creek Road, RR #3, Niagara-On-The-Lake, ON; phone: 905-468-8627

Martin& Kraus Mail Order – P.O. Box 12, 1191 Centre Road, Carlisle, ON; 905-689-0230

Rose Gardens

Millennium Memorial Rose Garden – 205 Lakeshore Dr., Barrie, Ontario (beside the South Shore   Community Centre)


Royal Botanical Gardens –  680 Plains Rd. W., Burlington, Ontario

University of Guelph Arboretum – Hwy. 6, Guelph, Ontario

Rosetta Park – Kingston Road East (east of Birchmount on the south side)

Casa Loma Historical Garden –  Spadina at Davenport Rd., Toronto, Ontario

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