On the discovery of rose attar in seventeenth-century India: “There is no other scent of equal excellence to it. It restores hearts that have gone and brings back withered souls . . .” A Rose by Any Name, p. 201
Mankind’s fascination with the genus Rosa spans ages and continents. A Rose by Any Name: The Little-Known Lore and Deep-Rooted History of Rose Names by Douglas Brenner and Stephen Scanniello introduces the reader to an extraordinary variety of rose cultivars, their often entertaining nomenclature, and their hidden pasts.
Marie Antoinette slept on fresh rose petals the night before her wedding. “Before falling on his sword,” the authors note, “Mark Antony asked Cleopatra to perform the proper floral ceremony at his tomb.” From Persia to France to our grandmothers’ gardens, at once exotic and familiar, roses are inextricably entwined with the lives of both the great and the forgotten.
The ‘Tipsy Imperial Concubine’ rose, according to one historian, recalls “the ‘precious consort’ of an eighth-century Tang emperor whose fatal obsession with her beauty plunged him into a life of debauchery.” No less dramatically, ‘Grace Darling’ was named after an English lighthouse keeper’s courageous daughter who, with her father, braved a storm in 1838 to rescue survivors of a shipwreck.
Other rose names range from amusing to racy — ‘Mutant Charisma’, ‘Pest’, 'The French Strumpet', and ‘Four Inch Heels’. Celebrity roses abound: Marilyn Monroe, Charles Darwin, Helen Keller, Audie Murphy, Princess Diana, and Elvis Presley all have roses named for them. In 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the rose as the national flower of the United States despite pressure from the Marigold Society of America (one can only imagine the backroom politics).
The ancient Greeks, Romans, and early Christians remembered their interred dead with roses; and the Victorians, who elevated the art of mourning to unprecedented extremes, carpeted the graves of loved ones with Rosa wichurana, the ‘Memorial Rose’ imported from Japan.
No other flower is so universal a symbol of love, of spiritual comfort, of mystique, and of beauty. A Rose by Any Name is a dense compendium of rose-colored history, mythology, and popular culture in a deceptively small package. I call it ‘Thoroughly Delightful’.