Breeders of Note:
The Dutch!

Ed Cunningham

  In any gathering of newly acquainted rose afficianados, conversation often turns to trading stories about the seminal experiences which kindled their interest in roses. For Peter Beales, it is his "Grandpa's rose," an Alba known to us as "Maidens Blush." He vividly recalls "being drawn to her by her `expensive' perfume which seemed to pervade the entire garden each June."
Beales later was glad to be able to use budwood from this bush when he started his nursery; thereby being able to propagate this treasured bush to many new locations. And presently, he is comforted that his "Grandpa's" original rose bush looks ready to easily outlive him (1).

For others, a common shared memory is of large, fragrant, globular, almost cabbage-like roses that grew in the yard of a neighbor or relative. They would likely recognize it if they were able to see it again. But, absent the original bush, visual memories are often idealized or embellished over time. The actual rose may have been a Hybrid Perpetual, or perhaps a more modest Bourbon.

But, if their memory is true to the rose, the beloved rose may well have been, in fact, a "Cabbage rose." The more sophisticated among us call them Provence roses, or Centifolia roses (after the "hundred petals" in each bloom).

"It was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that man began to interfere with the progeny of the rose to much effect. The Dutch, in particular, did much pioneering work, especially in selected improved strains of R. x centifolia and its hybrids. Proof of this comes from the frequent appearance of these blowsy many-petalled roses in the works of the Old Masters, ..."(2).
For centuries, R. x centifolia was deemed to be a species rose. However, modern science has proven "beyond a doubt that it is a complex hybrid and not, as previously thought, a true species. Apparently, the Centifolias are made up of genes from R. gallica, R. phoenicia, R. moschata, R. canina and R. damascena" (2).

It is said that the "Dutch introduced over 200 varieties of Centifolias between 1580 and 1710..."(2). Beales understandably marveled at this prodigious production by such a small country in so brief and primitive a time. He also wondered to what degree this achievement might have been facilitated by the utilization of additional pre-existing, and possibly more sophisticated, varieties(2). <It should have been a much longer, harder, & less fecund road had they worked solely with the species roses listed above>. It is well to remember that, in those days, the Dutch were a major world power, both economically & militarily. They plied all the seas of the world; New Amsterdam with its Knickerbockers was just one of their far-flung ports of call. In all likelihood, their ships were bringing home all sorts of God-knows-what from everywhere, including roses, to good "Old" Amsterdam. In such a cosmopolitan environment, an infusion of "just right, new, exciting, and different" rose genes would have been much more readily available than to other located growers out in the farmlands of other countries.

Of course, there are always competing theories. HELPMEFIND.COM notes that Michael Gibson in his book, "From Fifty Favourite Roses," wrote that "Research seems to indicate that the centifolias we know originated somewhere in eastern Europe with both damask and alba blood in them and first appeared in Holland in the sixteenth century... as a race they are largely sterile. On the other hand, they throw out bud-sports with considerable freedom, and it was these that the Dutch breeders concentrated on until the group expanded enough to become widely known as Holland roses....."

Whatever their genetic provenance, they came on the scene in a time of artistic & cultural ferment. Even now, centuries later, most readers will recognize the phrase "The Dutch Masters," have a vague sense of what they were, and perhaps be able to name one or two, such as Rembrandt. The impact these painters had was both wide and deep. Their favorite, proudly home-grown roses were the Centifolias. That is what they painted. And, what they painted became widely fashionable. And then (since they actually are beautiful) they became embedded in the cultural consciousness as "good," and "desirable." The Centifolias place among the roses of history was assured.

The widely accepted fashion of the Dutch Masters may explain why these roses were selected to be planted. But, our contemporaries with the fond memories were not persuaded by the artists. Rather, those who grew up with "Cabbage roses," are simply treasuring their own personal memories and experiences of youth, when the world was young, and all things new. Amidst them all, these roses often rise to the top of beloved memories on their own merit.

So, what are these Centifolias which can generate such powerful memories in the young and unsophisticated ?

Firstly, they are "Centifolias;" that is, they are VERY double blooms with many petals. They have a globular shape, and their many petals tend to curve inwards like cabbage, and cover the center of the roses, a number of which have the green button-eye. The majority are some shade of pink. A small number, later introductions, may be red, white, or mauve.

Their hardiness is also an important factor in their widespread popularity. They are hardy throughout most of the US, growing in zones Zone 4 thru 9. This easily would have would have made them more universal than either the tender Tea roses, or some other OGRs, which have to be tricked into dormancy by leaf-stripping in warm climates, in order to get blooms. ( I read in Botanica's Roses that `Centifolia Variegata,' a creamy white bloom with lilac-pink stripes and a rich fragrance has naturalized in New Zealand for 80 years, making good hedges).

Every reference reports that most Centifolia cultivars boast a very pronounced and pleasant fragrance. Marcel Proust discovered that smell brings back more, and stronger, memories than other sensory stimuli. Alors ! Fragrance implants stronger/deeper memories; pleasant fragrance = pleasant memories.

Centifolias are once blooming, in the late Spring or Summer. Perhaps the fact that such strong, happy memories could be experienced only once a year would also have intensified the experience ? Consider how we today drive some distance in order to enjoy autumn's leafy color show, and are disappointed in a "bad" year. Autumn would not be so appreciated if it lasted 6 months. So it may also be with the Centifolias: less was more.

Most Centifolias are not stiffly upright, nor are they ground covers. For the most part, they have somewhat flexible canes which arch over gracefully, especially under the weight of all the "cabbages" they bear. They may be leggy, floppy, "untidy" or "disorderly" to some degree. While there are variations, and some "Dwarf Centifolias," most tend to grow between 4 to 6 feet in height, and a little less in width. They can be somewhat subject to mildew. Like the Hybrid Perpetuals, they were bred and grown for their blooms on short stems, not for their cultural virtues.

In the world of roses, there are classes of roses which are reasonably distinct. But then upon closer inspection, the boundaries (and the cultivars) blur and run together. Different authorities include different cultivars in many classifications. In with the Centifolias, some include their offspring, the Moss and Dwarf roses. The boundaries are fluid. Ask 5 experts to list all the Centifolias, and you will have 5 different lists, albeit with much overlap.

For those interested in more information, "Roses," and "Classic Roses" by Peter Beales give written & pictorial thumbnails of rose cultivars which he, in his expertise, places in the various rose groups. So also do Moody & Harkness in their "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Roses." The website HELPMEFIND.COM is also a good source of such information on roses by class.

Here is a very short list of a few good, generally accepted Centifolias. But be aware that most of them are called by MANY different names. And some different roses are called by the same name. If you wish to obtain one, be sure to check if what they are selling is the cultivar you want to buy.

1- `THE Cabbage Rose,' R. x centifolia, and "The Provence rose" - a fragrant, pink cabbage rose
2- `Centifolia Variegata,' `Village Maid,' and `Cottage Maid,' among many other aliases (Described above). This one is more upright than many; also, it may possibly repeat a little. The HELPMEFIND site has some beautiful pictures of it, especially ones donated by Jos‚e Prud'homme's Garden; but note the strikingly different photos by Lee Sherman's High Desert Rose Garden and by Annie Hernandez.
3- `Tour de Malakoff' the tallest, and very vividly colored. Magenta, fading to lilac gray. The photo of it at HELPMEFIND by Monika's Garden shows the appearance of the whole shrub; very nice.
4- `Rose des Peintres' Clear deep pink, about 6 feet tall.

There are many other good, well known Centifolias. Happy rose growing.

(1) - Peter Beales' "Roses," page 11
(2) - Peter Beales' "Roses," page 8





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Date last edited: 01/21/10
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