Buds of history bloom in tales of rose names

January 31, 2009|By SUSAN REIMER

One of the many perks of being first lady is getting a rose named after you.

At some point during Michelle Obama's term in the White House, a grower will bring over a truckload of roses that have been in testing and cultivation for a decade and ask her to choose one to bear her name.

Laura Bush chose a coral rose with a spicy fragrance from among those suggested to her by the growers at Jackson & Perkins, which has a First Lady Series of roses and others honoring such luminaries as Diana, Princess of Wales; Billy Graham, and Pope John Paul II. (Mother Teresa's people declined the honor.)

It seems pretty straightforward, naming a rose after the first lady. But in the long history of naming roses, there has been plenty of guile and gossip, according to a new book by Douglas Brenner and Stephen Scanniello titled A Rose by Any Name: The Little-Known Lore and Deep-Rooted History of Rose Names.

According to the authors, there are more than 15,000 rose species and cultivars in the world and thousands more, extinct now, that live on in old catalogs. Every one has a name and a story about how that name was acquired.

Rose people are a special breed - excuse the pun. I have roses in my garden, but frankly I consider them too much work. But reading about the scandal, duplicity and myth behind their naming was delightfully easy.

Naming roses is about more than sentiment. The authors report that the 'Knockout' variety would probably not have been such a wild success if the growers had gone with the first name suggested: 'Razzleberry.'

And there are rules for naming roses put in place by the International Cultivar Registration Authority. Though they do not have the force of law, the rules are widely observed: a maximum of 10 syllables and 30 letters or characters. (This helped stifle the trend toward naming roses after highfalutin royals with half a dozen ancestral names.)

Among the lore and the list of names in the book is 'Baltimore Belle,' a white rose adopted by the abstinence movement in 1842 and named for the little girl who traveled with her father, a Baltimore hatter, as he preached against the evils of drink.

She had helped her father, John Hawkins, give up the bottle when she said to him one morning, "Father, don't send me after whiskey today."

The notorious perfectionism of Barbra Streisand was in evidence when it was proposed that a rose be named after her. She selected three hybrid teas and added them to her own California garden where the tryouts lasted for two years.

Normally, honorees drop by a nursery, pick a rose and have a photo taken. But not Babs. Only after observing the trial plants "in every season, from every angle and in every light," did Streisand choose a lavender rose touched with purple.

(Also worth noting: The first Tournament of Roses Parade was held long before there was a football game to go with it, but there is a rose named 'Rose Bowl' and a red miniature rose named 'Touchdown.')

But there are stories and myths around the naming of roses that are tinged with tragedy, and that is true of the Cherokee Rose.

There is a Cherokee legend that the immortal Spirit People protected the maiden Dowansa during a tribal massacre by turning her into a rosebush with snowy petals as chaste as her heart. To further protect her from careless passers-by, including her bereaved lover, the Spirit People armed her canes with hooked thorns.

In the early 19th century, the Cherokee people had set up their own nation in northern Georgia, complete with a constitution. But after gold was discovered on their land in 1828, the U.S. Army rounded up all 17,000 Cherokee and forced them to march to Oklahoma. At least 4,000 died of hunger and disease on the march, according to Brenner and Scanniello.

Along that 1,000-mile route, clumps of Cherokee Rose can still be seen growing wild, and tribal storytellers say that the Great Spirit comforted his people along the way by allowing a rose to grow wherever a mother's tears moistened the soil.

Even if you are not famous or touched by tragedy, you can have a rose named for you. All you need is a checkbook.

Brenner and Scanniello tell us that all the major rose companies have seedlings that are available for naming - for $15,000 or more.

First ladies are not charged.

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