As Rome declined in the wake of excesses, barbarians sacked the city. They destroyed the rose gardens of species brought from around the world as medicinal plants. Roman medicine and a love of rose flower scent sent placed them in great demand all over the city. Sadly those collections were lost with decline, their remnants surviving only in the abandoned Roman buildings that soon became monasteries. Monks kept the plants in continuous cultivation so many of the earliest we have are descendants of these rescued Old World roses.
Roman medicinal knowledge was also preserved in monastic libraries. In those dangerous times of intermittent warfare, the peasants came to the local monastery for cures made of rose flowers, hips or leaves, all inherited Roman remedies.
Many species roses originate in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Asia Minor, all of which were once under Roman occupation. When they grew the species in close proximity the first time, natural hybrids resulted. These would yield a wealth of genetic material that is the foundation of modern rose breeding. Therefore, to find the true essence of the rose and the intense fragrance that so appealed to the Romans, grow an apothecary rose of your own.
The apothecary's rose, Rosa gallica (Zone 4) is native to the Middle East, first collected and lost by the Romans and rediscovered during the Crusades. Reintroduced by Thibaut le Chansonnier in the 13th century and brought to France from Damascus, Syria, this form known as Rosa gallica 'Maxima' is closest to the species apothecary roses of the monastic hospitals. It's often referred to as Old Red Damask to describe the large semi-double magenta flowers with bright yellow stamens at the center.
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Species roses have characteristics that make them different from all other roses in the garden. They become large and sprawling with time and naturalize easily because they are still relatively wild plants able to survive a changing climate, as they've done for millennia. Above all, the species and early hybrids called "old roses" bloom heavily in spring or early summer. The blooms last about a month, offering a large single harvest of petals or whole flowers for making medicine and fragrant crafts.
If left to fade, the flowers become fruits that are another important medicinal byproduct of roses. Each fruit is called a hip. Ounce for ounce, it contains more vitamin C than citrus, so the monk's rose hip cures elicited miraculous recoveries from winter bouts of scurvy. The hips of Rosa gallica are smooth, bright red and very decorative. They clean easily to separate the flesh from seeds compared to the "moss" roses that have tiny spines all over the fruit.
Species are the oldest of the old roses, so they developed a strong resilience to pests and disease as well as weather extremes. This makes an ideal choice for a changing climate. They grow in just about any soil and do best if left on their own roots because Rosa gallica is a 4-foot-tall suckering rose that spreads widely via side shoots. This characteristic is lost if the R. gallica is grafted. Suckering ensures you get a big, floriferous plant that yields a huge crop year after year when cutting grown.
High Country Roses, highcountryroses.com, has an excellent website that features the best selection of gallicas. They display them in excellent close photos to show the floral differences. Among them is R. gallica 'Officinalis' aka 'Maxima' and its popular variation, pink and magenta striped petals of R. gallica 'Versicolor.'
Old roses ship bare root for dormant season planting. If you buy, do so immediately, as supplies of popular plants run out quickly. If you order R. gallica, make sure you give it full sun in your garden and lots of space, but keep as a distance view. After flowering, a once-blooming rose won't give you any more color until hips ripen bright red in the fall. Leave them for beauty or go out and harvest for winter teas before the snow flies.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.