The ancient origins of roses are lost in time and antiquity, but early literature, paintings, and botanical art reveal what roses were in cultivation prior the age of artificial hybridization.
There were only two types of roses cultivated in the western world up to the 18th century: species roses and crossed species, those created through accidental or natural hybridization.
From Wild Rose Species to Hybrids
Bartholamaeus Anglicus, 15th century author of De Proprietatibus Rerum, wrote simply of the two rose types saying that “… one is tame and groweth in gardens, another is wild and groweth in woods.”
The wild roses were species roses, local natives or roses moved with the Crusades and along the early trade routes. The “tame” roses were natural hybrids, crosses between two or more species, due in part to the pollination efforts of bees. They were more refined, richer in scent and beautiful in bloom; all desirable attributes in roses. They were the mothers of old roses — the treasured cultivars bred in the late 18th century and more prolifically in the first half of the 19th century.
European rosarians didn’t fully understand the process of fertilization and pollination until the last decade of the 18th century. They simply propagated a rose from seed or by striking a cutting. Those methods often resulted in a different rose from the parent until growers took up the new practice of grafting a rose onto a hardy root system.
The Dog Rose (R. Canina), a common native species found throughout most of Europe and Asia, was the ideal hardy root-stock. The graft promised a rose would be “true to form.”
That practice also led to the possibility of artificial sexual reproduction, creating hybrids by pollinating rose blooms by hand and waiting for the seed-rich hips to ripen. Their hybridizing methods have since blurred into history, but by 1810, there were at least 200 new rose cultivars available.
The Great Rose Breeding Rush
Two things greatly impacted European rose cultivation in the 1700s. First, there was a gradual trickling of Chinese roses into Europe throughout the century. The China roses were extremely complex in origins; natural hybrid crosses from species that evolved with 3000 years of genetic drift, garden selection and cultivation.
Chinese rose culture suggests they had advanced techniques and many of the roses discovered there in the past 100 to 300 years may have been deliberately crossed. They were certainly hybrids, whether by natural means or created with human assistance.
The introduction of Chinese roses and the later tinkering with grafting and sexual reproduction were key elements in the development of new cultivars. It was the beginning of the great rose breeding rush of the 19th century.
French nurserymen were major players in the development of new roses. In 1867, Jean-Baptiste Guillot created what experts widely believe was the first hybrid tea rose, “La France.” All the roses created prior to La France were, and still are, considered “old roses.” By 1870, they had 6000 new varieties in cultivation. They included shrubs, climbers, floribundas, polyanthas, grandifloras and, of course, hybrid teas.
More Than 100 Species of Roses
The history of rose cultivation has been a long and winding road. There are slightly more than 100 known species roses, with the majority originating in Asia and a few in temperate zones such as North America and Europe. Cultivators have used only ten of those 100 species in modern artificial hybridization. The forty-thousand plus rose cultivars available today have very old pedigrees.© Copyright 2014 Lorraine Syratt, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Plants