Growing against the friendly grey stone wall of our garden is a perfect Mothers’ Day gift of 2013. Dog roses. They are new but already showing great promise. The rose, in all its forms, has always pleased me – except, perhaps, for the poor blue rose which no one has been able to perfect – no matter how intricate a breeding programme is set up. It is a sad reflection on human intervention in the natural world. Not as sad as hunting animals to extinction but, even so, it makes one ponder.
The true rose is not hailed as a prize winner in any gardening catalogue. The dog rose was adopted by Henry VII as his emblem and, between late Spring and July, it peppers the fields’ edges and roadsides with its delicate petals. No hedgerow can resist its advances and it is the ancestor of all garden roses. The dog rose is the same flower as the wild rose and, in the language of flowers, it symbolises pleasure and pain. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German writer, artist and politician, in his “Heidenroslein”, illustrates the pleasure and pain in a brutally honest way. A boy saw the beautiful rose and wanted it, he snatched it and he wounded himself as a result:
“Roughly then he snatched his prize
On the moorland growing,
After this he’ll be more wise,
There before his very eyes,
Blood was freely flowing . . . .”
The translation of Goethe’s poem was taught to me as a song when I was in Primary School and has remained with me ever since.
Much symbolism is attached to the rose. It used to be placed over the confessional box as a symbol of silence. After Charles Edward Stuart’s defeat at Culloden, his followers could only express their support SUB ROSA or risk death. The rose is much associated with Prince Charlie. In Kelso to this day, it is believed that the descendants of a rose planted by the man himself on his march south, still thrive in the gardens there.
I look for the first wild rose as I look for the first hawthorn blossom and, later in the year, the first ripe conker – with the eyes of a child. No artefact, no technology nor anything made by man can compare with treasures such as these. There have been many gifted writers whose strengths have been in their written appreciation of the natural world but there is none more haunting than Richard Jefferies:
“The sound of summer is everywhere – in the passing breeze, in the hedge, in the broad-branching trees, in the grass as it swings; all the myriad particles that together make the summer are in motion.”
The beauty of Jefferies is that he creates a scaffold on which our own images of the subject are aired. Jefferies has colour-washed summer with green and invites the reader to contribute personal associations and remembrances.
There are several species of dog rose and they are not easy to distinguish – especially as they grow in amongst other things and the height is one differentiating factor. The downy rose is quite common, for example, but is shorter than the rosa canina, with prickles which are straight. The flowers are a deeper pink but the dog rose’s colours vary from pink to almost white so that is not always helpful for identification purposes. A rose by any other name, however, would smell as sweet – with acknowledgement to Will Shakespeare. A rose is a rose is a rose. Each of the five petals of the dog rose is a cloud of angel blushes. The freshly opened rose reflects the exquisite rebirth of a season for ease and wellbeing. The breath of colour has the power to refresh and give new heart. Its sweetness has ascendancy over other wild flowers.
“Roses” by George Eliot:
“You love the roses – so do I. I wish
The sky would rain down roses, as they rain
From off the shaken bush. Why will it not?
Then all the valley would be pink and white
And soft to tread on. They would fall as light
As feathers, smelling sweet: and it would be
Like sleeping and yet waking, all at once.”
The power of the rose has been recognised in signs associated with Saint Therese of Lisieux. She said that after her death she would let fall a shower of roses and many people have been certain that important changes in their lives have been linked with roses – either their perfume or the rose itself. Such is the magic of the rose. But there is an order in magic. The roses have their own order of appearance. The burnet rose – a creamy white one – is the first of the rose flowers to appear; sweetbriar follows and then our dog rose with its long overhanging branches. The most common rose growing wild in Scotland is the downy rose, the next to appear – and finally the field rose – back to the creamy white again. It favours shadier nooks and blooms as late as August.
Perhaps the single word which has most significance, when considering the dog rose, is “delicacy”. The shell-pink of many of its flowers is matched by the tantalisingly discreet perfume. The power of the rose is snowflake-like in its accessibility. Yet it has its own armament against invaders. My late mother-in-law’s Christian name was Rose and our first born daughter has Rose as one of her forenames. How musical to speak the word. Both beautiful and bold.
I am very excited at the prospect of dog roses flowering in our Scottish garden. They are not absent in the countryside here but the downy rose dominates. The florists make a great deal of money from death. I don’t begrudge them their income but how much more lovely it would be to have a handful of wild rose petals scattered as they lowered one down, than to be surrounded by sculpted arrangements of forced flowers. For this, one would need to leave in the beautiful months of the year though – and who would wish for that?
“Gather ye rose-buds while ye may
Old Time is still aflying
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.” (Robert Herrick)
I suspect Herrick had one or two hidden intentions when committing these poetic thoughts to record but, nonetheless, they have been quoted extensively over the centuries. In the folklore of the rose the fallen petals represent a bad omen, but since the flower needs to die in order for the fruit to form, I would query that particular part of the rose’s symbolism. The orange-red and oval hips are a delight in the autumn when the fiery shades of the ageing year warm us into cold winter.
An oil painting of a wild rose, done by my mother many years ago, is an exquisite representation of the flower. Sometimes a created piece stimulates the observance of the natural world – this is one such work of art. If you should look at the painting and then look at a wild rose growing in a hedgerow for example, you would be amazed at the intricacy of the rose’s design. The sight of the same hedgerow ablaze with orange hips in October is stunning. Country people believe that the hips are at their best for wine-making after a frost has been on them. For my part, I would like to SEE the frost on them – complete with spiders’ webs and a general tinselling of the lane or roadside. When I was small in the 1950s, we were given rose-hip syrup because it is rich in vitamin C. The wartime scarcity of oranges prompted utilisation of this very British resource and the regular dosage for the young carried on well into the post war years.
There are moves afoot to create more wild gardens as an alternative to the manicured plot. It would seem that we will be aiding wildlife if we take a less cultivated view of our little areas of green – and the rose has its part to play. This thinking isn’t new though. In Victorian England, William Robinson wrote about “The Wild Garden” and its benefits:
“Many climbing Roses and various other climbers have been planted at the bases of trees and stumps… In another part of the grounds there is a high walk quite away from trees, open and dry, with banks on each side – a sun-walk, with Scotch Roses, Brooms, Sun Roses, Rock Roses, and things that love the sun…”
Here the rose is in a partially controlled landscape.
In Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Song”, the other flowers droop and decay but he describes the rose simply as
” . . . .the year’s last rose.”
The rose remains without corruption.
My dog roses WILL grow in our northern garden, reminding me of the deep thought and love of the giver and reawakening an awareness of our island’s timid blushing in late Spring and early Summer.