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Nom de Plume - A Look at the Strange and Sublime History of Naming Roses

Frenchman Paul de Longpré's 1896 painting of American Beauty roses, a variety whose name outshone the plant.
Frenchman Paul de Longpré's 1896 painting of American Beauty roses, a variety whose name outshone the plant. (Algonquin Books)

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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, February 12, 2009

How fitting around St. Valentine's Day to eavesdrop on the two greatest dreamers of pure love, Romeo and Juliet. "What's in a name?" asks Juliet, oh she of the wrong clan. "That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet."

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Enter Stephen Scanniello (a rose grower). "You gotta be kidding me." Or words to that effect.

Scanniello, who lives in Barnegat, N.J., is also a rose historian who has been pondering rose names lately with co-author Douglas Brenner in their enchanting little book called "A Rose by Any Name: The Little-Known Lore and Deep-Rooted History of Rose Names" (Algonquin Books, $19.95).

And there were some dogs. What about the white miniature rose named Angel Dust by a breeder unversed in drug culture? Or Mutant Charisma, described as a smoky red floribunda. We can only hope that where there's smoke, there's fire. A Hungarian hybridizer wanted to celebrate the sister city of Buda, but would you buy a rose named Pest?

Scanniello breaks into guffaws when he mentions Flush o' Dawn, which for him at least conjures not so much the sky at daybreak as that first trip to the bathroom.

Oh, sure, it's easy to laugh, but do you know how hard it is to come up with a name for a rose?

Most of them must be taken by now, with more than 15,000 registered varieties. More are added each year.

This phenomenon has a number of causes. As rose species from around the globe arrived in the West, breeders capitalized on the plant's willingness to produce incredibly varied offspring, giving an endless range of colors, forms, vigor, fragrances and fruit. And the idea of giving them alluring (or not so alluring) names rests in large part with Josephine Bonaparte. While hubby Napoleon was off conquering Europe, the Empress amassed the finest rose garden in the world in her suburban Paris Chateau de Malmaison. She gave her roses such enticing names as La Belle Sultane, Grand Turban and Manteau Rouge. After that, no one could go back to dull botanical epithets like Rosa pimpinellifolia.

Even after she died, Josephine inspired French breeders to create some of the best roses, including Gloire de Dijon, Roseraie de l'Hay, Madame Alfred Carriere, Madame Caroline Testout and, of course, Souvenir de la Malmaison. I have grown them all for their exquisite forms and colors and sybaritic fragrances. And for their names.

Josephine's love of roses also inspired artists, including the botanical master Pierre-Joseph Redouté and Henri Fantin-Latour, who rendered vases of old garden roses with as much voluptuousness as Renoir did his nudes.

Soon, rose growers and nurseries everywhere could see that a particularly evocative name could be as effective a marketing ploy as the name of a new car model. Indeed, in the 1950s, a splendid crimson red rose was released as Chrysler Imperial in honor of the stylish automobile of the same name. Today, the rose might be called Bailout Blues.

As a Valentine's Day gift to a loved one, a rose for the garden keeps on giving long after the high-priced bouquet withers. If your sweetheart lives in Baltimore, so much the better: In the 1840s, a nurseryman in the city named Samuel Feast introduced a pale-pink to white climber he called Baltimore Belle. The English rosarian Peter Beales wrote that this variety "seems to crop up everywhere one goes in America, and a great deal of pleasure it gives."

Scanniello has been thinking about rose names since his days as a rose grower at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Once, he heard a son ask his father why roses were named for such people as Dolly Parton and Santa Claus. The dad replied, "They gave money for the garden."

Many a dud rose has been lifted by a great name, Scanniello says. He thinks of John F. Kennedy, a white hybrid tea that suffers in cold winters and is a shy bloomer. Judy Garland is a yellow and red floribunda introduced after the death of the singer-actress. Scanniello recalls her fan club members struggling to grow it on a wind-swept site in Brooklyn. "They had to keep her on drugs," he says, "to keep her going."

Some good roses suffered for their names. Misty was a fine hybrid tea until the grower tried to sell it in Europe, unaware that "Mist" is German slang for BS, says Scanniello. And roses with German names were not exactly hot sellers here during the two world wars. In World War I, a magnificent white flowering rose named Frau Karl Druschki became White American Beauty, and in World War II, Direktor Benschop morphed into City of York.

The rose Herbert Hoover is a lovely hybrid tea, soft orange and pink, but during the Great Depression, you could hear people ripping it out of their gardens.

Celebrities lend their names to roses, and you could cut short phone calls by saying that you had to go now and feed Barbra Streisand, or Rosie O'Donnell, or Andie MacDowell. Elvis lives in the form of a suitably over-the-top orange-pink hybrid tea. You could revive other stars, too: Marilyn Monroe, a creamy apricot hybrid tea; Audrey Hepburn, a light pink hybrid tea; and Helen Hayes, a yellow hybrid tea. Hayes, the actress, "really loved gardening and roses," Scanniello says.

Celebrities have to sign off on a rose named for them, which became a problem for a breeder in the early 1970s when he asked Pablo Picasso to lend his name to a mottled pink floribunda. Picasso wouldn't sign the release, knowing that back then his signature alone could be sold for $10,000. His manager signed instead.

This spring will see a new raft of roses as growers and nurseries try to keep consumers interested. Scanniello wonders if this conveyer belt of roses is necessary: "I think they're getting boring. There's nothing novel about them; everybody is doing the same thing." He worries that classic varieties will be crowded out. "To me a really fragrant rose was Oklahoma, velvet red. It's getting hard to find that rose," he says. Another classic is Mister Lincoln, a deep red hybrid tea that "grows so well all over the country. It's a rose that will probably survive."

Not every rose has a story, but a lot of them do, and that's what makes this plant the most mesmerizing in the garden.

When Douglas Brenner moved to his house on the Jersey Shore in 1984, his elderly neighbor told him about a rose he had inherited. A climbing form of American Beauty, it was planted when a previous owner, Thomas Galvin, moved to the home in 1909. Galvin was an Irishman who worked as a conductor on the Central Railroad of New Jersey. When the rose bloomed, he would cut stems, box them up and have them sent down the line to his daughter, May Galvin, who worked as a teacher 40 miles south. The neighbor, who knew May, gave Brenner a photo of the conductor's daughter at a window with the rose.

For Brenner the rose embodies an immigrant father's pride in and love of his New World daughter, his own American beauty. "The idea that I could let anything happen to that rose was unthinkable," says Brenner, former editor in chief of Martha Stewart Living. "I felt like a steward of this heirloom."

The bush form of American Beauty, a mauve-tinged pink hybrid perpetual, was introduced in 1886, and it soon became a hit on the basis of its name alone. It is a difficult plant to grow, says Scanniello, and had fallen out of favor with commercial rose growers by the 1930s. People still ask for it by name, he says, even if they end up, unwittingly, with something else. Mutant Charisma, perhaps.

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