roses, victorian
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VICTORIANA - Enjoy articles relating to the Victorian Era. A regular column in each issue of The Tea House Times. Written by Patrice LePera - Authority, Victorian Era, Historical Writing -

February 2011 Posts


Blog Entry

Rediscovering the Lost Roses by Patrice LePera - JanFeb2011

posted by TeaHouseTimes Admin, ADMINMonday, February 14th 2011 @ 4:07 PM

England cherishes its roses.  The cliffs of Albion were so called by the Romans for the profusion of white roses they encountered there; to Britain’s native varieties, the Norman invasion added the ancient Gallica roses from France in 1066.  The 13th century Crusader Robert de Brie returned from Damascus with the Damask Rose, and when the Houses of York and Lancaster fought for the British throne, they chose white and red roses, respectively, as the symbols their troops wore into battle.  History has named their conflict the Wars of the Roses ever since.

During the Victorian era, as Britons expanded trade across the globe, they discovered many varieties of roses growing in far-off lands, particularly in China.  Chinese roses had an intriguing peculiarity:  They re-bloomed continually, shedding any fruit, ensuring a constant show of blossoms. To survive they also needed humans to propagate them through cuttings, but this seemed a minor drawback to the rose-besotted English.  The British Horticultural Society coveted those roses, and sent ships, headed by Robert Fortune, to plunder China’s gardens.  Disdaining the Emperor’s laws, Fortune resorted to climbing over the Mandarins’ walls to steal cuttings of vivid red roses, huge climbing yellow varieties, and others that smelled like ripe apricots.

1867 marked a turning point in the cultivation of roses in Britain.  That year, hybridized tea roses were introduced, and British rose societies, eager to promote them, withheld prizes for roses that resembled dahlias, or grew larger than dinner plates, or were scented like port wine.  Suddenly gardens of ancient scented old roses were torn out to make room for tea roses; the fever for the new hybrids spread across the Atlantic, and soon plantation owners in America were ordering their slaves to rip out old roses to make room for the new.  

Not surprisingly, rose lovers in England and America eventually grew frustrated by the annual death of hybrid plants, and by the loss of so many noble old varieties.  Groups of ‘old rose’ hunters formed, including the colorfully named Texas Rose Rustlers, who discovered roses in abandoned churchyards, planted years earlier to adorn gravestones.  These hardy plants had not been cared for in ages, yet flourished all by themselves!  The Rustlers also discovered that slaves bidden to destroy old roses had instead re-planted them in remote spots and hidden gardens. ‘Rose rustling’ soon spread across America, particularly to California, where settlers had once brought their own beloved varieties.  

Gregg Lowery, owner of Vintage Gardens in Sebastopol, California, is a renowned ‘rose rescuer.’  One of his prizes, a simple, five-petaled white Eglantine with apple-scented foliage, found in an old garden on the Russian River, is the same long-lost rose mentioned in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

A visit to Lowery’s garden makes clear the value of modern ‘rose rustling.’  Hopefully other rose lovers will follow Lowery’s lead and rediscover old rose varieties--and that these lovely plants will grow again in our gardens.  

Thanks to Gregg Lowery and his online catalog of historic roses at

by Patrice LePera ~ Authority, Victorian Era, Historical Writing ~


From the January/February 2011 issue of The Tea House Times.  To view the most recent issue, please register / log-in at for free access.

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