Friday, October 16, 2009

Book Review: A Rose by Any Name

It’s no secret that I love roses, especially heirloom roses. I love their gorgeous flowers. I love their heavenly scents. I love their toughness. And I love their names. Residing in my garden are Baronne Prevost, Cecile Brunner, General Jacqueminot, Mme. Pierre Oger, Mme. Plantier, Therese Bugnet and Zephirine Drouhin. Who were these people and why were roses named after them?

Douglas Brenner and Stephen Scanniello set out to solve those mysteries. They initially chose about four dozen roses with interesting histories. But the problem with roses and their stories is that when you start out discussing one tale, it leads to another story about another rose which leads to yet another story about another rose, etc. By the time the authors finished, the four dozen roses had become over 1200.

It’s those stories that make this book so fascinating. Rather than a dry list of names each followed by a short explanation of the person/place/thing for which the rose was named, we are treated to tales of danger, intrigue, humor and pathos, all with historical tidbits thrown in to put it into context.

We visit gardens that no longer exist and gardens that are still going strong. We learn about the game “Rose Alphabet” wherein players must come up with rose names for each letter of the alphabet. Also included are several recipes using rose petals or hips along with the story of the discovery of rose oil in India.

Most of all, it’s the people and their stories. Gods and goddesses, kings and queens, saints and sinners. Presidents, war heroes, painters, fashion designers, actors and actresses. Humbler folk such as family members of rose breeders.

The authors debunk a few legends. My personal favorite is the quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: “I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall.” Not true, unfortunately.

A glossary of rose and gardening terms is included as well as a bibliography, both very helpful. The lack of an index was the one glaring omission in this otherwise wonderful book. There is no way to look up a specific rose.

As for the “people” growing in my gardens? Five of them are covered, but you will have to read the book yourself to find out which ones and the stories behind them.

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