I may belong to one of the smallest groups in history — people who don’t love roses. It’s not that I don’t love the look of many roses, or their subtle variations of color and intricacies of form, or the voluptuous softness of their petals, or the way they hold light in their layered bowls. I love the deep, complex, sensuous perfume of those with scents. I love the natives, those simpler, wilder roses that grow on the edge of the woods, climb mountains, thrive on the outer coasts and survive arctic winters. With fossils dating back 40 million years, and a likely history of 70 million years, the wild roses are the ancestors of all of the more complex roses in our gardens.
In all this, I join an endless line of rose lovers, the first long lost in antiquity. Presumably, our forebears enjoyed the same things we do: their beauty, their scent, their touch. Perhaps their use as food or medicine, since rose hips, the fruit following the flower, are very high in vitamin C and bioflavonoids. Only when they settled into houses on their farms, 10,000 or so years ago, could our ancestors begin to think about growing roses for the pleasure of it. And, just as they discovered that corn, for example, is stronger if its pollen comes from a variety of strains, they discovered that they could breed preferred characteristics into roses.
Thus, by 300 BCE, the Greek writer Theophrastus, in listing all known roses, included varieties with as much as 100 petals per flower. And Confucius, writing around 500 BCE, noted that there were many varieties growing in the imperial gardens, as well as hundreds of books on roses in the emperor’s library. But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that roses from China began to be crossbred with roses from Europe, creating larger flowers and longer bloom time. The descendants of that marriage constitute most of today’s cultivated roses.
Despite my appreciation for their beauty, I am deeply aware of the thorn in all of this hybridization: it has created a lot of needy plants. The hardiness of the wild roses is long gone from their cousins, who, though undoubtedly beautiful, with more complex flowers and, for some, the ability to bloom all season, need crutches like pesticides and fungicides to prosper under standard gardening conditions. And a lot of both. I once heard a man with a famous rose garden describe the weekly sprayings and soil drenchings needed to keep it going. He lived above an aquifer that is the only source of drinking water in his area, but stood in front of a group of gardeners advocating routinely soaking the ground with poison in support of his passion.
He was not remotely an evil man. He was in love with roses, and willing to do what it took to keep them beautiful in a damp climate. This is one of our complex human challenges: reconciling the desire for beauty, or at least a certain type of beauty, with what it takes to obtain it. And it’s not new. The ancient Romans loved roses so much they insisted that the peasants grow less food in order to make more land available for roses. Today vast rose farms in Ecuador and Colombia, providing the 1.5 billion roses needed for the US florist trade annually, destroy the health of the farm workers and poison the rivers that irrigate peasant farms downstream.
Hybridizers work tirelessly to come up with vigorous plants that provide us with what we want, in food and aesthetics, without needing to be propped up by chemicals, but it’s a slow and chancy process. Shrub roses, in particular, made progress toward fungal resistance. Then, in 2000, Will Radler, an amateur hybridizer in Wisconsin, launched Knock Out roses, one of the few roses I was happy to use as a landscape designer. At the end of a muggy Long Island summer, they were as green and vibrant as they were at the beginning, something unheard of with rose cultivars until they came along. Since I like the look of the simpler wild roses, I like Knock Outs. Apparently, others are also willing to forego the lush look of the exquisite Manito Garden roses pictured here, because Knock Outs are now the best selling roses in the country.
It’s possible to grow roses organically. That’s how everything was grown until a few decades ago. One way to start is to choose plants strategically. My friend Cara, who was clearly put on earth to grow and paint roses, was mystified when I talked about all the fungal problems roses present. But I’m from humid New York, and she’s used to dry California summers. She has many more options for growing roses than does an east coaster who doesn’t want to spray fungicides. From there, the usual organic practices apply: create rich soil, irrigate efficiently, use biological controls when needed. It’s not complicated or arduous. Nor is it complicated to buy organic cut flowers from easy-to-find suppliers like Organic Bouquet or the floral members of Fair Trade USA.
At this point, despite its exponential growth in recent years, organic production is not remotely scaled to meet our massive demand for either flowers or food. Nor is the mindset there, or the willingness to pay any extra cost upfront, at the grocery store or florist, rather than have it buried in unintended consequences. Organic gardening and agriculture are not simply lists of alternative steps to take, but a way of thinking, a different relationship to the earth, to soil, to water, to insects and animals, as well as to our fellow human beings. It’s sympathy for workers and concern for children. It’s understanding bees are just as much a part of the cycle of life as we are. It’s the realization that three things keep us going on this earth — air, water, soil — and degrading them is ultimately deadly to all life, including our own.
This is a vast topic, and it may seem a little unfair to pile it on roses’ soft petals. But people often wonder what they can do to help heal the environment, given the damage done. Supporting organic production is something that can be done every single day, in our own gardens, and with every dollar spent on organic food or flowers. As small an action as it seems, it’s part of dismantling the poisonous idea that it’s okay to do whatever we want with the earth, or to ask certain people to face more of a toxic burden than we ourselves are willing to bear. It’s acknowledging that we are not in charge of the earth, but are one part of — and utterly dependent on — the richly varied life our planet supports.
I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.