There are lots of reasons to love roses… the amazing scents, the beautiful variety of flower shape and colour, even the history and lore about them.
I think, though, that the thing that most amazes me, (and this is especially true when I’m holding an old rose), is when I realise that I am holding, literally, a living piece of the exact same rose as the person who first created it.
You see, roses reproduce a lot like humans in that when the “papa rose” and the “mama rose” have seedlings, each seedling is unique and different from the two parents. They will usually inherit some of the characteristics (scent, shape, colour, size) of both parents and also some of their genetic ancestory. Each and every rose grown from seed is unique.
But when we buy roses, we don’t buy unique seedlings. We buy “clones”. Thousands of seedlings are grown each year by rose breeders and of them just a few very select roses are chosen for introduction (David Austin, for instance, usually releases about 3 new roses each year).
These special roses that are chosen are then propagated by taking cuttings off the original plant and grafting the cutting onto some generic rootstock (these rootstocks are known for their ability to grow well and absorb nutrients from the earth). Although it’s true that some nurseries will instead take the cutting and allow it to grow its own roots, it is much more labour intensive and far more unusual.
To make more roses, more cuttings are taken. Because of this, when you see a picture of a rose that you like on a website or in a catalog, you can be sure that when you order it the plant and flowers will look exactly the same (but vary a bit, of course, based on the environmental factors of your garden). Your plant is, basically, a cutting of a cutting of a cutting of a cutting of a cutting of a cutting… etc.. of the original rose.
Now, think about that when considering old roses and it gets really amazing. For instance, Louise Odier is one of my favourite roses, it was bred in France in 1851 by Jacques-Julien Margottin. When I’m holding this rose in my garden, I could, in theory at least, trace the cuttings of my rose all the way back to him and his original plant. This rose in my hand is a living piece of exactly the same rose as his and has been kept alive for 167 years. I’m holding a living piece of history.
So, when I grow these old roses I think about this. Even when I grow David Austin’s English Roses, I’m aware that the Jude the Obscure I grew in California is genetically identical the the one I’m growing in Oxford and both can be traced to the original plant released in 1989.
You may even begin to ask yourself, well, who was Jacques-Julien Margottin anyway? Or more likely who was Louise Odier? These are excellent questions, but the answer leads to yet another reason to love these old roses!