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Original Essays

A Rose by Any Name

by Stephen Scanniello and Douglas Brenner
  1. A Rose by Any Name: The Little-Known Lore and Deep-Rooted History of Rose Names
    $19.95 New Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[T]he authors provide plenty of arcane facts and tantalizing revelation in an equally entertaining and educational foray into the competitive, complicated, and frequently comical world of rose naming." Booklist

    "[A]n engrossing topic....This captivating compendium of historical miscellany will appeal to rose lovers as well as history buffs." Library Journal

It was war! At a Texas benefit auction, which Stephen chaired for the Heritage Rose Foundation, the bidding had become downright fierce. The prize: naming rights for a newly hybridized rose from the Antique Rose Emporium near Houston. After bids soared well over $3,000, the field narrowed to a retired U.S. Navy officer, who reportedly planned to name the rose for himself, and a Dallas mulch magnate whose wife, sitting at his side, looked ready to burst with anticipation. Insults flew — "Tugboat!" "Cowboy!" — when Mrs. Magnate, defying auction protocol, jumped in to place a bid. Fearing a fist fight if the contest went on, Stephen slammed down his gavel and shouted, "Sold for $5,000!" And that's how this golden yellow shrub rose came to be christened "Lady Pamela Carol," a double-barreled homage to Mr. Magnate's wife and one of the couple's best friends.

So many people ask us how to get a new rose variety named after a loved one or — in the spirit of amour propre — themselves, that we sometimes joke about re-titling our book "This Bud's for You." The desire for floral recognition makes perfect sense, especially around Valentine's Day, and self-esteem certainly knows no season.


Fame ruled rose beds long before our celebrity-obsessed era bred the likes of "Patsy Cline" and "Whoopi." (One sought-after West Coast hybridizer laughingly styles himself "pollen pimp to the stars.") Writing at the middle of the 20th century, the American rosarian Harriett Risley Foote told of a retired British Army officer who silently doffed his hat when she pointed out her red hybrid tea "Kitchener of Khartoum," a tribute to the field marshal killed during World War I. After saluting the rose, Foote's guest said, "Madam, I fought under Kitchener." Such beaux gestes mingle in gardens with keepsakes like "Cary Grant," commissioned as a Valentine's Day gift by the actor's fifth wife. Once they go public, of course, intimate mementoes often encourage a nosiness that has nothing to do with scent. A French hybridizer, citing the plethora of women's names in a 1906 global rose-name roster (he counted more than a thousand "Madames" alone), noted, "many of those roses are tokens to some lady love or peace offerings from erring husbands."

Romantic lore shrouds much ancient rose nomenclature, although there were early hints of a profit motive. The seed of this idea may have been planted more than 2,000 years ago by the Chinese emperor Wu Di. He likened a concubine's smile to his loveliest rose and underscored the compliment with a gift of gold. From then on, that particular flower has been called "Mai Xiao," or "to buy a smile." In late-19th-century France, the dressmaker Caroline Testout became the first entrepreneur to purchase a rose name solely for advertising. The result, fragrant pink "Madame Caroline Testout," spread word of its namesake as far as Portland, Oregon — "The Rose City" and Powell's hometown — where bushes of this variety lined sidewalks by the 1920s.

Nowadays, the procedure for naming a rose is strictly business. Anyone with enough money can buy a name and have it officially registered. Rose companies large and small often maintain a stock of anonymous rose seedlings that are available for a price: on average, $15,000 or more for rights to all U.S. sales. To patent the rose — a two-year process required for public sale of the plant — breeders generally demand an extra fee. Public release also entails a search to ensure that a name isn't already in use, after which it may be submitted to the International Registration Authority for Roses. To list a custom-labeled variety in a retail catalog, most growers require a minimum initial order, typically 250 plants.

It can take a year or more before the client receives shovel-ready bushes. Even then, rosarians suggest waiting a season or two to see how they perform in a private garden before introducing seedlings to the world at large. Heaven forbid that a namesake turn out to be "A rose of shocking bad manners," as a Victorian clergyman pronounced a French cultivar whose petals wadded up in the humid British climate. Queen Alexandra herself became enamored of a new, as-yet-unnamed rose she spotted at a 1917 flower show. By royal request, the Irish breeder dubbed it "The Queen Alexandra Rose," though he later rued this honor, "as the plant turned out to be of bad habit and difficult to grow." Horticultural failings caused opera singer Helen Traubel's eponymous hybrid tea to acquire the sobriquet "Hell 'n' Trouble," and Julie Andrews ruefully discovered that her thirsty namesake drooped in her dry Los Angeles garden.

The great Midwestern rosarian Griffith Buck recalled that, when he offered to dedicate a promising hybrid to his friend Fleeta Brownell Woodrow, an editor at Better Homes and Gardens, "She told me that she would not let anyone name a rose for her because she didn't want to hear, 'Fleeta has a weak neck, Fleeta blackspots, Fleeta wilts, Fleeta fades.' Since she was called the queen bee of garden writers, I...called this rose 'Queen Bee.'"


Little wonder that Barbra Streisand, a notable perfectionist, personally auditioned three "Barbra Streisand" wannabes among the 1,200 rose bushes already in her garden. Only after she had observed the trial plants in every season, from every angle, and in every light, did she select the lavender variety that became her floral stand-in.

Regardless of performance in garden or vase, rose names easily become casualties of international conflicts. While Allied troops fought the Kaiser, Yanks on the home front patriotically naturalized "Frau Karl Druschki" as "White American Beauty." And at the start of the Third Reich, German-bred "Geheimrat Duisberg" became "Golden Rapture." Some names simply crash into language barriers. Tongue twisters like "Madame Soledad de Ampuera de Leguizamon" and "Mevrouw G. de Jonge van Zwynsbergen" provoked the French-born American rosarian J. H. Nicolas to say, "I do not deny to a foreigner the privilege of naming roses in his own language, but if the rose is worthy of universal distribution the name should be equally universal or at least easy to pronounce in all languages; if not, a grave injustice is done to the rose."

Reputation-conscious rose marketers make short work of names blotted by scandal. Case in point: the Northern Irish "Duchess of York." Rumors of Fergie and Andy's marital troubles, and photos of the duchess's topless sunbathing, made news well before the rose came out in 1994. The scandal and divorce ultimately convinced many nurseries to sell the plant under the trade name on its New Zealand patent, "Sunseeker." It was a close call for "Jeanne La Joie," a charming pink miniature rose named for a young Texan whose parents named her after a Catholic missionary in Canada. Gossips whispered, wrongly it seems, that the flower's label in fact paid homage to a well-known Parisian prostitute.

Human nature being what it is, relatively unknown names stir curiosity, too. Who wouldn't yearn to hear the story behind "Brenda of Tasmania" or "Just Joey"? Such non-celebrity plant markers are as potently evocative as the small-town epitaphs in Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology. It indeed felt as if hallowed ground had been desecrated on that morning in 1984, shortly before Valentine's Day, when Stephen — then the newly appointed director of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Cranford Rose Garden — arrived to find that vandals had pulled up hundreds of plastic rose labels and scattered them around the beds. Without any bushes in flower or an up-to-date planting plan, he could only stick the markers into the soil helter-skelter, and wait until spring bloom revealed their correct locations. For a moment, with "Maria Callas" virtually indistinguishable from "Bing Crosby," bare stems mocked the vanity of immortal names.

We're eternally grateful for roses bearing real people's monikers like "Madge Whip," "Spong," "Ita Buttrose," and "Climbing Archduke Charles" that bring a perennial smile to the garden. Still, they also remind us that anyone gripped by the urge to tell a rose to "Be mine!" should think it over. There are some names that only a true rose geek could love.

÷ ÷ ÷

Douglas Brenner writes about gardens, antiques, and architecture for publications such as the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, and Country Living. He is the co-author, with artist Nancy Stahl, of Real Art: The Paint-by-Number Book and Kit. Formerly the editor of Garden Design and Martha Stewart Living, Brenner divides his time between New York City and the New Jersey shore. He inherited his first rosebush, 'Climbing American Beauty,' from a previous owner of his house, who planted it there around 1910.

Stephen Scanniello is best known as the gardener who transformed the Cranford Rose Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden into one of the world's most acclaimed rose gardens. President of the Heritage Rose Foundation and a member of the American Rose Society, he is a judge for the international rose trials in Europe and the United States. Scanniello has written three books on roses, including A Year of Roses. He lives and gardens in New Jersey. spacer

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