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Roses from A to Z Column 16
September 1, 2007

With roses, be a name-dropper

Rose Names

Rosa Graham Thomas

By Carolyn Parker

A ROSE FRIEND once told me that she received an amusing remark while introducing her roses to a visitor.

"Oh, you name your roses," her guest exclaimed. "How quaint."

My friend explained that all roses have names, and hers were labeled DOLLY PARTON and BETTY BOOP when she purchased them.

Another friend told me how comforted she was as a child to know that the lively red climber peeking through the windows of her bedroom actually had a name -- BLAZE.

Names have long been a topic of discussion in the rose world, having filled many pages in books, newsletters and journals. Recently, the first of a two-part article about roses named after military men from the 19th and 20th centuries appeared in the American Rose, the monthly publication of the American Rose Society.

And for the ladies, the Vintage Gardens Book of Roses lists eight names that begin with "Mlle." and more than 80 that start with "Mme." Oh, those French hybridizers knew how to market their roses after famed persons-of-the-day. And most of the soldier rose names also were French.

Rose history

Twelve names begin with "Duchess," and since I'm keen to acquire a most gorgeous tea rose, DUCHESSE DE BRABANT, I was curious about her place in history. The Duchesse, born Marie Henriette of Hungary, had a loving, happy childhood, until her politically expedient betrothal to the Crown Prince of Belgium, the Duke of Brabant.

Her husband's flagrant affair, shortly after their honeymoon, caused her to write: "If God hears my prayer, He will not let me live much longer." They were married for 49 years.

That might be more than I want to know about the prolific rose that turns out armloads of blowzy pink blooms. But how about this? The "Duchesse" was Teddy Roosevelt's favorite and can be seen on his lapel in many photos.

Bringing a rose to market is only half the battle. Naming is almost more important than the rose itself. It's a given that a name like SEXY REXY is more marketable than NARROW WATER.

Royalty always seems to sell. California hybridizer Walter Lammerts honored the Queen of England with his famed QUEEN ELIZABETH rose, which now waves to passersby throughout England and the United States.

As a garden writer, it's more fun to research roses named after people who actually had something to do with plants, if not roses. In my recent book, I had the pleasure of learning about the men whose names grace roses BANKSIA LUTEA, TRADESCANT and GRAHAM THOMAS. I even interviewed Mr. Thomas before he died at age 92.

Joseph Banks embarked on -- and financed -- many 18th century plant-hunting expeditions. He also helped in the founding of England's renowned Kew Gardens.

Learning about John Tradescant, another plant hunter, led to the reading of fascinating historical novels about him (Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth) by Philippa Gregory.

Graham Stuart Thomas

The wish to know a person behind a rose name was granted when Graham Stuart Thomas invited me to tea at his Surrey cottage. He was responsible, among many other accomplishments, for the resurgent interest in heritage roses after World War II.

Graham Stuart Thomas in his office

Graham Stuart Thomas in his home office in 2001. Photo Susan Donley.


David Austin's desire to honor Graham with a namesake rose was an ingenious marketing ploy. Graham actually chose the rose, a fragrant golden beauty, and when he personally introduced the GRAHAM THOMAS rose at the 1983 Chelsea flower show, Austin's 14-year-old business, English Roses, catapulted into the mainstream.

Rose rustlers

In America, many of Europe's lost roses have been found and identified by plucky rose rustlers. On the other hand, when it comes to names, their avid interest in searching out what have been called lost, old or heritage roses has resulted in much confusion. Indeed, one rose might innocently re-enter the marketplace under three different names, by as many nurseries.

Different people discovered a favorite climber of mine growing in three California cemeteries. The first two, found in 1980 and 1987, were given "study" names -- MANCHESTER GUARDIAN ANGEL and GEORGETOWN LEMON-WHITE TEA. The more recent was named LEGACY OF JOSEPH MARCILINO.

Once the confusion unraveled, the marketing name became MANCHESTER GUARDIAN ANGEL because it was the first foundling. Who knows if the original moniker will ever reveal itself?

Roses are also named after loved ones. CECILE BRUNNER was the daughter of a French nurseryman, and JUST JOEY was named affectionately after the hybridizer's wife. Some names are fanciful. How about the China roses WHITE PEARL IN RED DRAGON'S MOUTH and MATTEO'S SILK BUTTERFLIES? Hybridizers also seek inspiration from the rose itself to carry a message.

Rose alphabet

As I was poised to begin writing this piece, my neighbor, Sharon, came by to pick up a print of the "N" rose from my rose alphabet series. The N is her husband's initial, and she already had the S, her own initial.

Sharon, her husband and their three daughters were moving that afternoon to Washington state. She had mixed feelings about leaving and said "I love the S, not just for the rose, but for its name -- SWEET SURRENDER. I tend to want to be in control, but know I must give in and move forward, and the name reminds me."

The lush pink rose, when fully open, tends to nod, as if in surrender.

I've always thought that roses have much to offer in an intimate or spiritual sense. Their names, and all the fuss surrounding them, seems to confirm their special gifts.

Rose labels

Gardeners often want labels for their roses and are dismayed by the inadequate products generally available. Recently, I ordered a wonderful product from AAA Quality Engravers in New Orleans. They are made of long-lasting black or dark green plastic, engraved with white letters. You send your rose list, and they do the printing at a very reasonable cost. E-mail for samples.