a rose history lesson, with peter kukielski

ROSES ARE ANCIENT plants with a 35-million-year history on planet earth, so maybe it’s no surprise then that they have been a fixture in nearly every culture and many religions, too. In his recent book, “Rosa: The Story of the Rose,” rosarian Peter Kukielski tells lots of the stories of this beloved flower and our relationship to it, and its place in our cultural history.

Kukielski is former curator of New York Botanical Garden’s Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, where in 2008 to 2014, he implemented a new mission: to plant and trial roses for disease resistance and less chemical usage. He’s the author of an earlier book “Roses Without Chemicals” (affiliate link), and the designer of a recent garden at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Ontario, Canada, a chemical-free province. And these days Peter gardens in Maine–where he is a big believer in the power of mulch to support the soil, and those beloved roses.

Read along as you listen to the March 29, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Plus: Enter to win a copy of “Rosa: The Story of the Rose” (affiliate link) by  commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page. (Photo of Kukielsi, below, by Drew Hodges.)

some rose cultural history, with peter kukielski

Margaret Roach: How are you up there?

Peter Kukielski: Doing great up here. Thank you, how are you?

Margaret: O.K. So 35 million years on the planet, that’s a long time [laughter]. This new book—it’s quite different from the earlier one. It’s sort of more culture than horticulture. And as I said in the intro, it tells about the cultural connections we have with the roses throughout history. And I wonder if having completed it, did you sort of finish and say, “Oh, those are my two favorite stories.” Or a couple of highlights that really stuck with you or surprised you?

Peter: Yeah, I think what you just mentioned in the introduction about the 35 million years, it’s very interesting whenever I gave tours or lectures about the rose garden, people seem to be more interested in the stories about roses than they were about dates and things. It’s just always fun to say, “Are you aware that roses existed 35 million years ago?” And then people kind of stop in their tracks. They said, “No, I had no idea.” And so the idea that it’s such an ancient plant and it’s survived the millions of years, is just an amazing fact to me. And it kind of gives me joy about working with these plants to understand their strength, I guess, and their resilience.

Margaret: Yeah. And we’ve done a lot of intervening as well—as of course, climate shifts and all kinds of things over that many years. We’ve tinkered with them for a really long time, a tiny amount of time compared to 35 million years, but for a long time. How long have we been humans kind of been intervening, breeding and selecting and so forth tinkering with roses?

Peter: I would say we had roses exist throughout the Northern Hemisphere and way back when… You have China roses and you have European roses. And when China started trade with Europe, a great rose expansion occurred, I would say, because the China roses are remontant, which means they have the re-blooming characteristics and the re-blooming genetics. The European roses were only once-blooming with one exception.

So when the China roses and the European roses came together, because again, trade routes and things, people started crossing roses, because they got the second bloom or the third bloom finally, because of that genetic crossing. And then bring it up to the late 1800s, 1867, as a matter of fact, the first hybrid tea rose was kind of crossed by Guillot, and it’s named ‘La France’ and the kind of big advantage of this rose was the high-centeredness. We see these high-centered roses in our floral displays today, and it became all the rage. I think at that point, really a lot of people got into the game of hybridizing roses, particularly for the flower form. And it was those kinds of genetics that brought us into the 20th century.

Margaret: Right. It’s interesting to think that something that’s so hot in recent years in roses, the re-blooming, is a consequence of trade routes opening a couple of hundred years ago or whatever with China. That that’s where those genetics came from and that’s how they traveled, the genetics traveled with explorers, right? [Above, a modern hybrid China rose, ‘Archduke Charles.’ Photo by Peter Kukielski.]

Peter: Exactly.

Margaret: And tradesmen.

Peter: In fact, in the book, it talks about… I enjoyed learning that Alexander the Great, who’s known for his conquering of vast lands, was actually a lover of roses and he sent back roses to the Roman times, Virgil and all of those people back in Rome. He sent plants back to them so that it would kind of expand the base. Alexander the Great’s kind of given a lot of credit for bringing roses around the world.

Margaret: I didn’t know that; I didn’t know that. There’s so many tidbits like that of rose knowledge in the book, big and small. And even just the simple reminder that… I think there’s a little side box or something that lists some of its cousins in the rose family. There’s not just roses the genus Rosa, but there’s a whole rose family. Maybe other gardeners don’t make the connection between them. Let’s just mention some of them.

Peter: Yeah. It’s so fun to know that. It’s interesting that the commonality of a family of plants is the bloom, and rose has existed for millions of years as a simple flower form, only five petals. They kind of lay flat and they have five petals. And what other plants have, that have that same bloom, if you think of raspberries and peaches and cherry trees and boysenberries and plums, all sorts of those have that very simple flower form. That flower form groups them all under the same family of plants.

Margaret: Right. The hawthorns, as you said like Rubus the different canes, the brambles. And Prunus and Malus, the apples, and you said strawberries and mountain ashes. It’s quite something.

And I think one of the reminders, I as a gardener in an area where both old orchard remnants exist and modern orchards, apple orchards especially, and Eastern red cedar is an important native tree, evergreen here, a conifer. I got that lesson first-hand because I have a lot of old apple trees and I have eastern red cedar and if you have cedar apple rust, this disease, it affects both the apples, as well as all my roses defoliate and my shad bushes defoliate early—rose family members defoliate early, like the apples do. Do you know what I mean? It infects them all because they’re cousins. I don’t know if you have that there, if you have either of those things there, that you’ve ever seen that.

Peter: We don’t, not in my backyard, at least.

Margaret: [Laughter.] We’ll talk about your backyard later. Another funny thing, there was a little section of the book and I sort of had a giggle because I learned that the things I’ve been calling thorns and cursing when I get one in my thumb, are not exactly. Tell us about them.

Peter: Right. And I think a common thing is to say, “Are we unhappy that a rose has thorns, or happy that a thorn bush has roses?” It’s kind of an old saying. But they’re really called prickles and prickles are kind of an extension, are of the outer growth or the layer of the cane. And they’re meant to provide protection, and a lot of them are kind of hook-shaped, so hence catching you in the garden, but that kind of aids them to grow tall and to climb and to become more of a dominant presence in the garden. But yeah, the thorns are it’s not accurate to call it a thorn bush, it’s really a prickle.

Margaret: Huh. Prickles. And I think that section that that was in where I got that little bit, that tidbit, was called prickles and hips. Let’s talk about hips because I frankly, some of the most beautiful roses I’ve ever seen are the ones in fruit late in the year. I know that’s silly to say because the flowers are so beautiful, but sometimes the hips are extraordinary.

Peter: Oh my gosh, yes. They can range in color from orange-yellow, to reds, to deep reds and burgundy, almost black. And I think that’s a wonderful thing that the rose bush can offer to the landscape is the winter interest, and actually the food for the animals during the winter. And there’s so many great roses that offer the really unique, beautiful hips, and they’re super-easy to grow. It might be something for the home gardener to consider adding one or two.

Margaret: Do you have some favorites among roses that make hips?

Peter: I really love the rose ‘Geranium,’ even though geranium is the name for another plant. There’s a rose called ‘Geranium.’ It’s a hybrid moyesii. And it has a beautifully elongated hips that are really interesting. The color of the flower itself is a deep red, almost burgundy, very silky, very velvety, but it’s only a once-bloomer, but then it comes fall in all of those blooms it had just provide this wonderful, unique interest in the garden.

Margaret: Even just the plain old sort of rugosa roses, they’ve got some big, almost tomato-colored sometimes, they look like a misshapen cherry tomato or something [laughter].

Peter: Yeah. The birds love them, too.

Margaret: Yeah. Now do, this is a stupid question, sorry for my ignorance, but do only single-flowered roses or close to single produce hips? Or do some of the really double ones, the more modern-looking ones with tons of petals and so forth, can they? Is it mostly from the singles?

Peter: Yeah, I would say the single roses are more opportune because they’re easier for the bees or whatever insect might come to pollinate and gather nectar—they’re easy to get to the sepals and the petals. A very full, double rose would be harder for an insect to penetrate to get down to that pollen. Some roses are even considered sterile in that way. Yes, I would say the single roses and a lot of them that have 12, 15, 20 petals can easily produce hips, different than the very fully petaled ones.

Margaret: Right. I was just thinking about that off the top of my head, because I was thinking of my favorite rose of all is the one with the sort of bluish leaves, which I don’t know whether you call it Rosa glauca or rubrifolia, I see it both ways. And then again, those rugosas—and those both have the flowers are pretty simple. They’re not all puffy and fancy and double and all that. And yet they both produce hips. That’s why I was making the connection.

So 35 million years as we said, on the planet, but that wasn’t easy for scientists to sort of track the rose from its fossil history, right? And there’s a particular reason why it’s a little tricky to find roses in fossil records.

Peter: Yeah. I think there’s a word called chartaceous. I don’t even know that I’m saying it right. But roses are considered that. It’s kind of they have a texture or a feeling like paper. And of course when a fossil forms, it’s in a wet environment and the petals of a rose don’t necessarily last in a wet environment, so they decay and they don’t preserve. It’s very hard to find a rose fossil because of that very instance that the petals don’t last.

When they do find a rose fossil, it’s hard to determine what the rose might be, because they’re really kind of looking at the leaves and not a petal. And also depending on where the fossil is, you may have a very wet summer, or a very wet spring, and the rose is more voluptuous because it’s gotten a lot of rain, as opposed to a rose that has had a struggling year with no rain. So the leaf size—that all might be very variable depending on where the rose was and the weather for that particular year. It’s very, very hard to determine what the rose fossils are when they’re found. [A rose leaf fossil, above, by Michael Wolf.]

Margaret: Yeah. To skip forward to the modern day and get some not cultural, but horticultural, maybe advice, tips, etc. I want to say that, just to remind people that you and I worked on a “New York Times” column, one of my “In the Garden” columns for the Times a while back. And I was just staggered by your work near Toronto, at the botanical garden there, because it’s not rose garden, quote unquote, as one would think old-fashioned stuffy kind of rose garden, which is just thousands of roses in big blocks, maybe with some lady’s mantle underneath or a little bit of catmint or something.

But it was really like this effusive, packed, perennial-diverse mixture of things. Can you just describe, I think you once told me the numbers, how many perennials and how many roses were in that garden and I don’t remember how big the garden is. It’s about three years old now, I think.

Peter: The garden is about an acre and a half and we have about 3,000 roses and 18,000 perennials. [Perennial geranium, butterfly weed and roses mingle at the Ontario garden; photo by Alex Henderson.]

Margaret: Oh!

Peter: The idea there is that again, I like the idea of creating a garden that doesn’t require a lot of harsh chemicals. We wanted to create a balance or create a space that allowed for the balance in the garden. We don’t mind the bad insects, as long as we had the good insects to battle them out. And so pretty much the perennials that we selected are called insectivore perennials. They’re really kind of the plants that are host plants for the good insects. It was really critical that we pack that garden with homes for all the good guys, so that the bad guys could be taken care of in a balanced way. Thank you for mentioning that garden. It’s really fun.

Margaret: It’s so different, again, from the conventional “rose garden,” it just seems so different because it’s just this mass of color and bloom, again and again and again. Just these waves of bloom from extra-early, from the bulbs and giant alliums coming up among the roses, just as the roses come into bloom.

And really some unexpected things, and you even use a lot of native plants. And so if people want to have some roses—and there are native species of roses to North America, but not usually the most popular roses [laughter]—but if people want to have some roses, but also have a more native thing, what are some of the possibilities that you included there in Ontario, among North American native plants? Asters you had, I think, right? For instance.

Peter: Lots of asters.

Margaret: Did you use goldenrods? I can’t remember were there goldenrods [above, with the rose ‘Innocencia Vigorosa;’ photo by Peter Kukielski].

Peter: That allows for a lot of great fall interest in color. I want to mention the alliums that you just did, there’s a great book called “Roses Love Garlic.” And one allium is garlic, and when you plant the garlic in the garden, the longer it stays in there, it kind of exudes a natural sulfur into the soil. And the sulfur is a natural fungicide. That’s kind of an example of the balance. The early flowers there, like you’ve just mentioned the bulbs. We have quite an allium collection. One, they’re beautiful early spring, but they also provide a protection in the soil.

Margaret: Right. And you used a lot of herbs in that garden, and that surprised me. And you encourage us to let them flower, like chervil and so forth, again for their beneficial insect-attracting properties. Yes?

Peter: Right. We had talked about the tachinid fly before, you and I, and [one species of] tachinid fly is kind of a natural enemy of the Japanese beetle. It lays its eggs on the casing of the beetle, and therefore the beetle will eventually die, but dill and fennel and a carrot and all of those, they have the umbel type flower. It’s a very flat type of flower, and that was a great nectar source for the tachinid fly and other insects as well. We kind of let all of those herbs go to flower and they really add a wonderful texture and again, a host for the good insects.

Margaret: So unexpected, I just enjoyed that, learning about that so much. I presume the snow melted recently in Maine, where you garden, and you’ve gone outside and poked around maybe in the squishiness [laughter], like all of us are starting to do and in the north especially, and had a peek at the state of things. What would come first and what’s the trigger that tells you with your expertise, especially about the roses, when to time your first actions? And what are those first actions?

Peter: Yeah, it’s a great question because the listeners in the South, the southern states, are already going through this and here we are in Maine and I’m still on the waiting game, but I often kind of let nature tell me what’s happening. The first thing I look for is the forsythia blooming. That’s kind of an old tale my grandmother told me, that when you see the forsythia blooming, it’s time to cut your roses. It kind of means that the juices are flowing in the garden, spring is arriving, and cut those roses. The first thing—I went out yesterday, looked at the roses and they’re still pretty dormant, but you see a little swollen buds. And I was kind of looking at the canes to see what shape they were in. Did winter harm them? Did they get broken? And any possibilities there.

I think we’re just about there in Maine, maybe a couple of weeks out. I’ll do some pruning. And probably as an early benefit to the soil, I always say, I don’t feed my roses, I pay attention to feeding the soil. If the soil is alive and active then the plants are going to be alive and active and healthy. What I’ll probably do in the next couple of weeks is maybe do a soil drench of some fish emulsion or something like that. With the idea that I’m feeding the microbes in the soil, and giving them a little boost after the long winter, and therefore kind of encouraging the soil, the web, that that’s going on in the soil to wake up and become active again.

Margaret: I think in the book, in the new book, you remind us that you’re following a long example in your family, especially I think it was your grandfather, maybe, who used to eat a banana and then bury the peel out by his plants outside, right [laughter]?

Peter: Yeah. Each morning he would just stick a shovel in and put the banana peel that he ate for that morning breakfast. It was kind of an early lesson that sticks with me to just continue the soil with organics and stuff. And of course bananas are a source of potassium and roses love potassium.

Margaret: It’s funny. We’ll be looking to sort of see if they’re ready for their pruning. That’s going to be one of the first things, the soil thing. And then you are a consistent mulcher and you have a particular way of mulching and some number of inches and so forth that you stick to, don’t you?

Peter: Yeah. It kind of goes back to the Earth-Kind rose trials. And I learned that way back when, with Texas A&M University. The idea is that if you leave mulch on your garden, first at the depth of 3 inches, during the summer, during your growing season, the mulch is acting as a weed barrier, it’s acting as moisture-retention. And also if your soil is active and healthy, then what’s happening to the mulch is that maybe the bottom layer of the mulch is getting broken down and becoming humus, which is food for the soil and food for the plant.

The maintenance of the rose garden is just kind of maintaining that 3-inch layer of mulch. We’ll put some on in the spring just to kind of maintain that height. And then I’ll look again in the fall and see how much mulch has kind of broken down, and I’ll just keep that level going. It’s kind of a really easy way to provide health to the soil, and then the soil then becomes beneficial to your plants. When I started that program, it’s so easy, but when I started the program, my garden became healthier more than it had been in years past.

Margaret: Right. I’m a big believer in mulch, the power of mulch. It’s almost, if you use a good-quality mulch that’s been composted first and isn’t too coarse-textured—not those big, giant chips of wood, those huge bark chips or anything, but something that’s going to break down—it’s almost like you’re composting in place. You know what I mean? You’re letting the soil passively be improved, month by month by month, which I love.

Peter: That’s a perfect way to say it. Yes.

Margaret: Yeah. In the last minute, Peter, do you still shop for roses? [Laughter.] Are you ever adding roses to your garden or what? [Above, the rose named for Peter Kukielski, ‘Peter’s Joy;’ photo by Peter Kukielski.]

Peter: I’m truly adding roses to my garden all the time, but I think lately what I’ve enjoyed is giving roses away, give neighbors some roses and friends and just say, “Hey, just try some roses, and experience the joy that they’ll give you.” That’s been a lot of fun.

Unless I’m able to expand my little garden here [laughter], I don’t know that I’ll be adding a whole lot, but yeah, it’s fun to try some new things. It’s fun to see what works and if it doesn’t work, it’s an opportunity to try another rose. Yeah, it’s kind of an ongoing thing.

Margaret: You just can’t help yourself [laughter].

Peter: Yeah, that’s right.

Margaret: All right. Well, thank you so much for making the time today. Peter Kukielski, the author of the new book, “Rosa: The Story of the Rose,” about the rose’s sort of cultural history with humankind. Thank you and I’ll talk to you again soon, I hope.

Peter: It’s a pleasure, Margaret. Thank you so much.

more with peter kukielski

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 29, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Suzanne Burchell says:

    I am a tour guide at Royal Botanical Gardens in Ontario…I have watched our rose garden and companion plants flourish and astound us in the part four years. This June the beauty of this chemical free rose garden is incredible . Thank you Peter

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