A Rose by Any Other Name:
The Little-Known Lore and Deep-Rooted History of Rose Names
By Douglas Brenner and Stephen Scanniello
Of late several books have descended on the market, providing us with the history and narrative backgrounds of roses. In 2008 first Molly and Don Glentzer’s lovely and informative book was published: Pink Ladies and Crimson Gents: Portraits & Legends of 50 Roses; Roger Mann’s Naming the Rose: Discovering Who Roses Are Named For appeared shortly thereafter, a handsome volume that includes over 100 rose histories—though some are rather cursory at best. Now in 2009 we have a truly remarkable book written by Douglas Brenner and Stephen Scanniello, A Rose by Any Name: The Little-Known Lore and Deep-Rooted History of Rose Names.
Brenner, a former editor of Garden Design and of Martha Stewart Living, is also a writer on gardens and their design. Scanniello is president of the Heritage Rose Foundation. He has written three other books on roses, and recently was honored as one of two Great Rosarians of the World for 2009.
The number of roses the authors address is astonishing. Included are stories and references to vanished roses, commercially rare roses, Old Garden Roses, as well as the latest hybrid teas and miniature roses, all numbering to more than 1000.
We are told the imbricated history of ‘American Beauty’; the seesaw tale of ‘Blaze,’ whose marketing pitch “transform[ed] a mediocre rose into a best seller”; the myth and truth of ‘Rosa Mundi’; the legend behind ‘Nur Mahal’; the complicated background of ‘Harison’s Yellow’ and its segue into the ‘Yellow Rose of Texas.’ We become rather well acquainted with the real Constance Spry, an antiquarian who “refused to accept that modern is invariably better than old-fashioned.” Through her—the chapter on ‘Constance Spry,’ that is—we get a nodding introduction to Graham Thomas, Gertrude Jekyll, Ellen Willmott, and the roses named for them, as well as a number of parsons: J.H. Pemberton, Reynolds Hole, and other less prominent rosarian clergy.
Indeed, each chapter, despite the focus of its rose title, is a divergent path through the garden that leads also to other roses. Thus, the chapter “Barbra Streisand,” after a tale or two of its namesake, finds us in a bed with stardom, discussing Greer Garson, Helen Hayes, James Mason, and other actors who also loved roses. (Though not mentioned in the book, Greer Garson once wrote an article or two in the 1940s for the American Rose Annual.)
So it is that while some chapters provide us with histories that bred the rose, others rely rather more on a list approach with an occasional aside. A case in point is the chapter on china roses. The writers list Chinese appellations of given roses: ‘Jin Niao Fan Lu’ (‘Golden Bird Splashing in Water’), ‘Drunk Green Lotus,’ ‘Tipsy Imperial Concubine,’ etc. The chapter “Chrysler Imperial” launches into a list, sometimes with no or only a brief commentary, on roses named for technological or scientific advances: the radio, radium, Nautilus, Sputnik, Thomas A. Edison, Lindbergh, and the like. Accordingly, the book’s subtitle is somewhat misleading, for though the history of many rose names is given, just as many names offer no “little-known lore” or “deep-rooted” background. But then, in spite of its 1000 or so rose names, the book is not meant to be an encyclopedia.
Clearly the book is meant to be entertaining. And it is! Take, for example, the droll opening sentence on the damask rose: “Lustrous though they are, the flowers known as damask roses do not take their name from heirloom linens . . .”, or this rather campy beginning of “Hebe’s Cup”:
Poor Hebe. She seemed to have it made on Mount Olympus as cupbearer to her fellow Greek gods.A double nectar for Athena, a refill for Ares, a nice desert wine to go with Poseidon’s ambrosia.Everything was fine until—damn it to Hades!—Hebe suddenly slipped on the golden floor andfell…. Her replacement was a mere mortal: Ganymede . . . , boy toy of Hebe’s own father Zeus.This book is not short on humor. At times, however, like the Glentzer’s book, it verges on cute: “If you believe in fairies, clap your hands, but if you want to grow ‘The Fairy,’ put on your thickest gloves.”
More seriously, Brenner and Scanniello present some of the inner workings of nurseries and rose societies. Though they claim that “naming rights are fiercely guarded,” the evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, those rights to rose names seem carelessly, even indifferently guarded. While they assert, “Name duplications are verboten, although a previously registered name can be reassigned if the new rose’s grower proves that the original plant is extinct,” the evidence again shows otherwise. The issue may lie in semantics (or perhaps irony). What is meant by “extinct”? Merely the fact that the rose is no longer sold in the United States? International as roses are, what if it is still sold in Europe? What of gardeners who still grow it? And propagate it? And pass it on to others? Numerous roses, many of the same class, bear the same name, a fact Brenner and Scanniello themselves attest to (four ‘Adonis’ roses, two ‘Bacchus” roses, etc.). We have two ‘Marco Polo’ hybrid teas (1971 and 1994), two ‘Moonlight’ hybrid teas (1984 and 2004), not to mention a hybrid musk, a patio mini, and a climber all with the same name. I needn’t go on.
Despite this contradiction, A Rose by Any Name is a wonderful book. It entertains by highlighting special topics and categories: roses related to “Hair and Make-up,” roses named after “Decorated Veterans,” roses pertaining to “Royal Woes,” roses named for famous authors. Where the latter is concerned, the authors write, “One of the two ‘Saint-Exupéry’ hybrid teas bred in France provided pollen for the breeding of ‘Vol de Nuit’ (‘Night Flight’) named after the author’s poem with that title.” Here the latter fact is wrong: Vol de Nuit is a novel—prose—not a poem. But I digress. This rose book even contains a section on “How to Make Rose Water.” In addition, short biographies on rose breeders deepen the content, biographies on Gene Boerner, Dr. Robert Huey, Wilhelm Kordes, Dr. J.H. Nicolas, Pernet-Ducher, and Harry Wheatcroft. One wishes Walter Van Fleet, Francis Lester, and a few others had joined the pantheon.
A word on the illustrations. The book contains old sepia as well as old black and white photographs, some in cameo style, and contemporary photos in color; reproductions of old advertisements and catalogue covers; famous paintings; and stunning pictures of roses by Henry Curtis, Paul de Longpré, Redouté, and others. One unfortunate choice, however, is of the ‘Cherokee Rose’; the flower is white, but the painting shows it buff yellow. Poor color reproduction by the printer? Still, “reading” the illustrations is as delicious as reading most of the text.
This book is rich in information. At just above 300 pages, it closes with a helpful glossary and bibliography. Any rosarian who enjoys biography and history will enjoy this little volume. I had heard of it four months prior to publication and ordered it immediately. I awaited it with excited anticipation and was not disappointed. You won’t be either.
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