How roses get their names.

How roses get their names.

How roses get their names.

All things green.
June 28 2006 4:15 PM

Who Smells Better, Ron or Nancy?

How roses get their names. Plus, the latest installment of the beginner's garden.

Click  here  for the fourth installment of Slate's guide to planting a beginner's garden. Click here, here, and here forthe first three installments.

Click here for a slide show

Walk through a big rose garden and you may find yourself asking odd questions, like whether Barbara Bush smells better than Barbra Streisand. In this category, Streisand wins. Known for being exacting, the singer tested several candidates in her home garden before settling on a highly fragrant lavender hybrid tea as her namesake.

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Every year American rose breeders turn out ever more complex crosses. Many are named not for the qualities of the rose but for a person. (Here's how you could become one of them.)

Barbara Bush sells not because of its coral-pink color or disease-resistance but for the perceived personality of the former first lady. Here's how its producer, Jackson & Perkins, the biggest U.S. rose-breeding company, appeals to prospective buyers: "Her down-to-earth style, intelligence, and genuineness have won her the respect and admiration of millions of Americans." And indeed, a rose bush undoubtedly has the quality of being "down to earth."

It takes about 10 years to research, develop, and introduce a rose. Out there in trial fields there are tens of thousands of rose bushes growing, labeled with numbers or codes. Marketers lay the groundwork for personality battles. I'm rooting for this year's Julia Child to overtake recent big sellers Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan. Catalog copy describes his rose as "upright, energetic and noble" and hers as "profoundly graceful."

Julia Child was chosen by the chef herself at Weeks Roses, a company in California's San Joaquin Valley. The blossoms start out butter yellow, fade to rich cream, and smell of anise.

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According to the rules set out by the registration committee of the American Rose Society, the breeder of a rose gets to name it. Committee member Marily Young says the committee requires a letter of authorization from the person after whom the rose will be named. (Difficult in the cases of Mr. Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.) You can't use the name of another plant genus, so no Dahlia rose. The committee will not approve names containing profanity. But in 1933, they did approve "Nigger Boy" (a velvety maroon). The name remains unchanged in the 11th edition of the society's Modern Roses.

Before the 1950s, roses named for people mostly honored royalty, relatives of the grower, and a few deceased notables. Early in the 20th century, one of the founders of Jackson & Perkins, Charles Perkins, named a rose after his granddaughter, Dorothy. Her pink climber bloom was grown in the United States and England. In Noel Coward's 1930s musical Shadow Play, the heroine asks a young man she's just met on the terrace, "Are you good at gardens?" He responds, "I'm not good, but I'm persevering. And I can tell a Dorothy Perkins a mile away." (Coward scholars, forgive me if I don't have the line exactly right.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, American rose growers decided that gardeners would rather have Bing Crosby in the back yard than Mr. Perkins' granddaughter. They named waves of roses after Hollywood and TV stars: Arlene Francis, Bob Hope, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Carmen Miranda, Lucille Ball, Eva Gabor, and Ingrid Bergman. Most are no longer found at your local garden center, but they may still be blooming away in someone's garden; Ingrid, dark red and fragrant, has serious staying power.

Royalty still sells. Queen Elizabeth, introduced in 1954 to honor her coronation, still appeals, even to us colonials. The combination of royalty, hyper-celebrity, and tragedy led to a brisk scuffle over naming honors after the death of Princess Diana. Jackson & Perkins emerged as the U.S. winner with Diana, Princess of Wales, a white touched with pale pink.

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Our presidents may serve as homegrown royalty. You could create a rose garden consisting of nothing but Republican ones. (Come out to the garden, love, and gaze on my Herbert Hoover, plus my McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Eisenhower, Reagan, and two Lincolns and Tafts.) But only three Democratic presidents have roses named for them—Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. The JFK rose, alas, is stiff, tight white, and scentless.

There's a myth in the world of rosarians that a Richard Nixon rose got pulled from the market after Watergate. Not so, says Peter Schneider, whose Combined Rose List is the leading authority. I asked Schneider what the preponderance of Republicans says about the rose world. "Just go to a rose meeting and listen to the conversation," he replied.

Of course, there have been more Republican presidents (19) than Democrats (14, if you count Andrew Johnson). But there is also a decided Sun Belt tilt in the rose-naming establishment. (The American Rose Society is based in Shreveport, La.) Roses, after all, need a lot of sun, and very few enjoy a cold winter. Many rose growers are people who have moved south to retire.

As for first ladies, there is a rose for Pat Nixon but none for Jacqueline Kennedy, creator of the White House Rose Garden. Rosalyn Carter's rose is fading from the market, though Tipper Gore had it planted in the garden of the vice presidential residence. A gaggle of rose bushes recently went from Jackson & Perkins to the White House for Laura Bush's selection. Give the current first lady points for originality. It's not official yet, but she chose a brown rose, with yellow on the underside of the petals.

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There is a Hillary Clinton rose, but it was bred in—gasp—France, on the occasion of a meeting there of world leaders. It's Hillary First Lady, no comma, a currant red. Not many roses are named for African-Americans. There is a Satchmo for Louis Armstrong, a Whoopi for Whoopi Goldberg, and the Temptations (a happy surprise) for the band. But no Martin Luther King Jr. and no Aretha.

The rose named for Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers, is "a bright vibrant rose, with the warm color we tend to associate with Latin cultures," according to its grower. When Cesar didn't sell, the name was changed to Beloved. (Perhaps a tribute to the Toni Morrison novel?) "The most famous case of a rose being actually pulled from the market is that of Mrs. Lovell Swisher in 1927," writes Peter Schneider in an e-mail. "Mr. Lovell Swisher was a prominent California businessman who had arranged for a rose to be named for his wife. A year or so later when he discovered Mrs. Lovell Swisher sleeping with the chauffeur he attempted to purchase and destroy every Mrs. Lovell Swisher rose on the market." But he didn't succeed—Mrs. Swisher is still for sale and on display at the Huntington Library Rose Garden.

The most recent trend in naming is to invoke a higher power. Thus the Billy Graham, a surprisingly feminine light pink. Jackson & Perkins sent a delegation to Rome, to gain Vatican approval for the Pope John Paul II. His rose is pure white, as was his customary attire. The company also pursued a Mother Teresa, but her representatives declined to have a product, even a rose, named for her.

It might add to the already considerable burden of growing roses to have to care for a preacher or a pope. Similarly, I wouldn't expect the Barbra Streisand to be low-maintenance. And I can imagine the Barbara Bush reproaching me for skimping on water or fertilizer.

Though who wouldn't be tempted by an Elvis? I admit, however, to a fondness for roses that are not fettered to people. Carefree Delight and its cousin, Carefree Wonder, are undemanding and unpretentious. And we could probably all do with more Compassion, Grace Abounding, and Peace. These are available in the United States, though none was bred in our country.