Roses, Roots and Routes, Part I : Glimpses of a botanical saga

It is likely we will never know where the first Rose blossomed, nor how roses started to disseminate.

Biologists have shown that roses actually can quite easily hybridize naturally in the wild, with a tendency producing over time blooms with more and more petals and headier scents. In short, it is an amazingly vivid and adaptive plant. Wild roses clings to life in very inhospitable places and unlikely contexts. Their main defining features are a great asset for its survival strategies : the thorns protect it from predators and pollinators are attracted by the heavenly fragrances of the flower

Over millennia different roses evolved in the wild or returned to the wild after human domestication to cross fertilize with the wild ones.

This history is extremely difficult to trace, because the mixing up started much before recorded history and then continued on an unprecedented scale over 3500 years. Nowadays DNA testing (and to a minor extent archeology) is changing the picture of what was held true for very long, but controversies, debates, blind zones and questions are numerous.

Current research doesn’t allow to determinate where the first rose blossomed, and it is likely we will never know.

An illustration, of course indicative only
of what is thought to be the original distribution
of the Rosa Genus (in green)

China claims to be the and “origin” of the entire genus. It was long held true by botanists and the information is still very widely reproduced but current research starts to show another picture: the natural reach is the whole of the northern hemisphere from Japan to Mexico, covering Himalayas, central Asia, Caucasus, Siberia, Europe, north Africa, north America, etc. without any particular locus of origin or “distribution epicentre")

Fossils estimated 40 millions years old have been found both in China and Alaska, but the plant is thought to be much older. Very old Fossils have also been found in Japan and numerous sites across Europe

Rose fossil circa 35 Mio years

Another origin story, promoted by many scholars, is that cultivated roses originated in Iran, from where it would have travelled to ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt,  Palestine, and Greece (etc.), accompanying the spread of agriculture. First grains travelled, then olive and date palms, then grapes and figs (by 3000BC), and fruits (pears, cherries plums etc in the first millennium BC. The rose is speculated to have followed somewhere between 3000BC and 1500BC.

That both the ancient Greek rhodon and the Arab ward are related to the ancient Avestan word varedha, seems to at least confirm Iran being, if not the original, at least a very early center of distribution for the Arab and western worlds.

It seems then that different kind of roses never ceased to be traded, cross-fertilized and planted all along the reductively called "silk road" and other ancient trade routes, which were at least as much, aromatic routes and thus from much older times, but also plant routes, gem routes, stories routes, knowledge transfer routes, and so on.

When Alexander the Great invaded India, on its north-west border, in 327 B.C., it is said that he was amazed at the wealth of plants he beheld, and among others he sent back some rose plants to his mentor Aristotle. The Greek and Roman world had their native rose: Rosa gallica.

It is likely also many in his returning troops (or surrounding personnel) carried plants and seeds with them, mostly for commercial purposes, as Roses were already appreciated and valued in ancient Greece and in different places on the return path. Levantine traders, known to load their camels with anything of potential commercial interest were part of the procession.

The conquests of Islam eastward to Persia and India, westward along the Mediterranean basin carried new roses as far as Spain and Morocco, or Southern Italy. It would be no major exaggeration to state that the spread of rose-cultivation across the world is one of the great legacies of Islam.

18th century Ottoman illumination
with the 99 Names of God and the names of the Prophet

Perhaps because of their desert origin, many early Muslim rulers where great collectors of plants (but also of birds, animals, books, ideas, etc.) and fond of gardens. They would send agents to all the corners of the known world to bring them back interesting specimens.

But beyond those instances, sometimes recorded historically, uncountable merchants, pilgrims, travelling scholars, and migrants etc. also greatly helped the spread of new species in new territories and the emergence of new cross-fertilizations.

Alexandria, Baghdad, Damascus, Byzantium, the Levantine coast, Shiraz, etc. remained important carrefours between East and West.

The “crusader’s” story, making them responsible for bringing the Damascus rose to Europe, seems to have been invented in the XIXth century. But by opening up and protecting the pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem, they did facilitate the flux of merchandises and boosted trade between Asia and Europe, roses included, after the recession of the Muslim presence in Europe,

Later, Venice, Genoa and Pisa, Amalfi (who all had their “comptoirs” on the levantine coast) were the main entry doors in Europe,

When the British came to India in the 17th century, originally as The East India Company, their ships from China carrying merchandise to England stopped for refuelling at the port of Kolkata (Calcutta), on the east coast. Nearly every ship would carry live plants, including lots of roses, which were becoming hugely popular in England and France. They would be kept in the Botanical Gardens of Shibpur / Howrah, a suburb of Kolkata on the banks of the river Ganges, to recover before continuing on their journey to England. Some plants from each batch would be planted down in this garden founded in 1786. These gardens still exist today (as shown in the picture below(, under the name Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, covering 273 acres area and  home to 12,000 species of plants, including very rare ones and of course a lots of roses... and a 200 years old Banyan tree.

The Chinese roses that Europe was about to discover were first planted there, thus greatly enriching species cultivated in India. It is also why several roses have acquired the epithet “Bengal” in their name, having reached Europe by way of Bengal; the reference is consequently unreliable in representing a distinct variety, or a precise geographical origin.

The “new” Chinese roses took Europe by storm from the XVIIIth century onwards, offering radiant new colors, elegant buds, light silky petals and, crucially, repeat flowering during from spring to autumn. They started a total craze for rose-breeding all over Europe which led to an explonential b(l)oom in new cultivars. Most of them were not that interesting fragrance wise, but for the famous “tea-roses”  (that offer a delicate hint of tea).

As times passed, more and more cultivars very engineered, and grand scale production occurred, with the priority on visual appearance, and physical resilience, but at the detriment of fragrance.

This is why so many roses today have no smell at all... a complete crime against nature and beauty, in my eyes.

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