From the ground up: Roses take center stage in history, gardens

Winter Tree ID at Wickiup Hill on Saturday

Published: December 8 2013 | 7:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 12:36 am in
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Iowans appreciate a good history lesson. We look for references from the past when we plot our future. It is no different when it comes to farming or gardening. This week Linn County Master Gardener Lori Klopfenstein explores the rose and its place is history.

Q: Why are rose references so popular in history?

A: Listening to a favorite Christmas carol the other day, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” I finally began to wonder: Why a rose? It turns out that the rose in this 15th century German hymn is a symbol for Mary, mother of Jesus. Hence I began wondering about other biblical references to roses, and whether it is native to the Middle East. Perhaps the most widely recognized Biblical rose reference is the rose of Sharon mentioned in Song of Solomon. That flower is not believed to be a rose at all, but is more likely a crocus, narcissus or tulip. However, there are two varieties of rose which are native to that region, the pale pink dog-rose (Rosa canina) and white Phoenician rose (Rosa Phoenicia). Both are single-flowering varieties.

It was a student of Aristotle who brought roses to the scientific forefront. Aristotle, who lived and taught in Athens during the 4th century B.C., included in his teachings activities of the garden at his academy. That garden contained plants common to the Mediterranean region and Asia. When Aristotle retired, he passed on the study and supervision of this garden to his student Theophrastus. It was Theophrastus who wrote two treatises, Historia plantarum (History of Plants), and De causis plantarum (On the Causes of Plants). One of the topics Theophrastus pursued avidly was proper rose planting techniques. He promoted the flower highly for its scent, which may have secured its popularity in classical Greece (though it was the Egyptians who managed to corner the rose trade throughout the Mediterranean region).

It was roses that allowed the artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute to uncommonly achieve success during his lifetime. Redoute was hired by Marie Antoinette as a draftsman but was eventually put to work painting the gardens of Petit Trianon, her private palace at Versailles. Unlike many other members of that court, Redoute managed to survive the revolution and continue his artistic documentation of French gardens. He is best remembered for “Les Roses,” a book published between 1817 and 1824 of images printed using a technique called stippled engraving. He did not invent this technique, but he was widely regarded as its master. This book earned Redoute the nickname “Rembrandt of roses.”

Enough random socio-historical facts about roses? Here is some legitimate, horticultural advice. Now is the time to mound the crowns of your roses with compost as it should not have been done before the ground froze. Wait until spring to trim canes. Tie up any canes that could potentially sustain wind damage, and if you need to cover canes, do so with burlap. The secret to sustaining roses over the winter is not to keep the canes warm, rather to keep them frozen so that they remain dormant. Any pruning should be done in the spring once the canes begin to green and die back is apparent. Also level the mounded soil at the crown once it thaws. To download free pamphlets on roses and their care, visit


  • Winter Tree ID, 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Wickiup Hill Learning Center, 10260 Morris Hills Rd., Toddville. Take a leisurely hike (or snowshoe). $2.50, adult, $1, child 16 and under, or $5/family.

Questions on gardening, land use or local foods? Contact Michelle Kenyon Brown, community ag programs manager at Linn County Extension,

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