NATURE: Roses by Diane Ackerman

Roses by Diane Ackerman

From A Natural History of the Senses 

I am holding a lavender rose called “Angel Face,” one of the twenty-five rosebushes planted around my house.  For the first few years, the deer that frequent my yard would steal in at dawn and eat all the buds and succulent new growth.  Once they ate the bushes right down to the dirt, leaving only small knobs that looked like the velvet of incipient antlers.  I am used to embezzlers in the garden.  The first summer of grape arbor, I watched two vines evolve from flowers to succulent purple fruits, sense-luscious and nearly bursting with fragrance.  Each day, I watched them, waiting until the perfect moment of ripeness, imagining how it would be to roll the grapes around on my tongue, fresh, sweet, and quenching.  One day the grapes’ purple sheen changed to a taut, robust iridescence, and I knew the next morning would be the earliest day to pick.  Such knowledge was not reserved for me alone.  When I awoke, I found every single grape sucked dry, the skins littering the ground like tiny purple prepuces.  This scene, left by raccoons, has repeated every autumn ever since, despite cages, cowbells, barbed wire, and other “deterrents,” and frankly I’ve given up on grapes and raccoons.  The roses pose a trickier problem.

I love the deer as well as the roses, so I decided to use smell as a weapon – after all, plants do it – and sprinkled a mixture of tobacco and naptha around the rosebushes.  It worked, but made the air raunchy and caustic.  Unless you crave the smell of baseball players at winter camp, their mouths full of chewing mess, their pockets full of mothballs.  This year I have another plan: lavender.  Deer hate its strong nose-scrubbing smell; I’ve ordered dozens of bushes to plant around the roses and day lilies, hoping they’ll make an olfactory fence when the deer come calling.  Still, we’ll divide the spoils.  I have left them the luxuriant raspberry bushes, which I no longer try to harvest, and the twin apple trees.  The raccoons get the grape arbor, the rabbits get the wild strawberries.  But the roses are sacrosanct, because they so drench my senses with exquisite smells.  The most expensive perfume in the world, and one of the enduring classics, Joy, is a blend of two floral notes: jasmine and lots of rose.

Roses have tantalized, seduced, and intoxicated people more than any other flower.  They’ve captivated homeowners, swains, flower addicts, and sensuists since the ancients.  In Damascus and Persia, people used to bury jars of unopened rosebuds in the garden, and dig them up on special occasions to use in cooking – the flowers would open dramatically on the plates.  In Jean Cocteau’s film version of the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, all the mischief and magic begins when a man picks a rose for his daughter, her sole desire among a sea chest of riches.  Long ago, Europeans raised a tough mongrel rose that was loud, obvious, and very hardy, and whose fragrance could embalm a statue.  But, in the 1800s, they began importing elegant Chinese tea roses, which smelled like fresh tea leaves when crushed, and also frost-delicate, ever-blooming Chinese hybrids with bright yellow to red flowers.  Breeding the hybrid Chinas with the European roses as carefully as racehorses, they produced subtle and sophisticated offspring roses, charmed into a seemingly endless array of colors, shapes, and scents.  They called them “hybrid tea roses.”  Since then, over twenty thousand varieties have been bred, and at one time the rose’s fragrance was nearly lost through overbreeding.  Fragrance seems to be a recessive trait in roses, and two deeply fragrant parents may produce a petal-perfect but smell-less offspring.  Now the trend is toward perfumed roses, thank heavens.  The most popular hybrid tea in the world is “Peace,” a stunning multicolored pastel with sunset hues that shriek at noon, grow muted at sunset, and record all the other phantoms of light during the day.  Its egg-shaped buds open into large, pale-yellow ruffles with translucent tips that are often flushed with pink.  And it smells like sugared leather dipped in honey.  Of all my roses, “Peace” seems to have an almost human complexion and human moods, depending on the moisture and light of each day.  An experiemental rose, it was named on May 2, 1945 (the day Berlin fell), at the Pacific Rose Society in Pasadena, because “this greatest new rose in our time should be named for the world’s greatest desire – Peace.”  Many presidents have had roses named after them (Lincoln’s is blood red, John Kennedy’s pure white), and there are wittily named roses to honor movie stars or celebrities (Dolly Parton’s is flamboyantly pungent, with knockout-sized blossoms).  Though roses symbolize beauty and love, their colors, textures, shapes, and smells are difficult to describe.  “Sutter’s Gold,” one of my favorite hybrid tea roses, produces a flat ruffled flower of yellow petals tinged in apricot, fuchsia, and pink, with a fragrance like sweet wet feathers.  The floribundas, thoroughly modern roses, cascade with flowers all summer long.  “The Fairy” has hardly any scent, but is a constant explosion of dainty pink flowers from spring until winter, despite light snowfalls.  Roses are already considered ancient when the Greek botanist Theophrastus wrote about “the hundred-petaled rose” in 270 B.C. Fossilized wild roses have been dated as far back as forty million years ago.  The Egyptian rose was what we now call the cabbage rose, renowned for its many petals.  When Cleopatra welcomed Mark Antony to her bedroom the floor was covered in a foot and a half of such petals.  Did they use the floor, and make love in a swamp of soft, fragrant, shimmying petals?  Or did they use the bed, as if they were on a raft floating in a scented ocean?

Cleopatra knew her guest.  Few people have been as obsessed with roses as the ancient Romans.  Roses were strewn at public ceremonies and banquets; rosewater bubbled through the emperor’s fountains and the public baths surged with it; in the public amphitheaters, crowds sat under sun awnings steeped in rose perfume; rose petals were used as pillow stuffing; people wore garlands of roses in their hair; they ate rose pudding; their medicines, love potions, and aphrodisiacs all contained roses.  No bacchanalia, the Romans’ official orgy, was complete without an excess of roses.  They created a holiday, Rosalia, to formally consummate their passion for the flower.  At one banquet, Nero had silver pipes installed under each plate, so that guests could be spritzed with scent between courses.  They could admire a ceiling painted to resemble the celestial heavens, which would open up and shower them in a continuous rain of perfume and flowers.  At another, he spent the equivalent of $160,000 just on roses – and one of his guests smothered to death under a shower of rose petals.

Islamic cultures found the rose a more spiritual symbol, one that, according to the thirteenth-century mystic, Yunus Emre, is supposed to sigh, “Allah, Allah!” each time one smells it.  Mohammed, a great devotee of perfume, once said that the excellence of the extract of violets above all other flowers was like his own excellence above all other men.  Nonetheless, it was rosewater that went into the mortar for his temples.  Roses mix unusually well with water, making fine sherbets and pastries, so the flower has become a delicate staple in Islamic cooking as well as being much used to scent apparel.  Hospitality still demands that a guest in an Islamic household be sprinkled with rosewater as soon as she or he arrives.

Rosaries originally consisted of 165 dried, carefully rolled-up rose petals (some of which were darkened with lampblack as a preservative) and the rose was the symbol of the Virgin Mary.  When the crusaders returned to Europe, their senses sated by the exotic indulgences they discovered among the infidels, they brought attar of roses with them, along with sandalwood, pomander balls, and other rich spices and scents, plus a memory of harem women, sensual and languorous, who awaited a man’s pleasure.  The scented oils the knights returned with became instantly fashionable, suggesting all the wicked pleasures of the East, as seductive and irresistible as they were forbidden.  Pleasures as sense-bludgeoning as a rose.

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