Red roses are traditionally the symbol of love but and for five years now, the rose has been the lens through which I viewed the world.
Paintings, books, music, philosophies, religions, entire countries and civilisations – all have been scoured for what they tell me about this most potent flower.
It began innocently enough with a commission to write a cultural history of the rose.
At first I hesitated.
With so much written already, did we really need another book about the rose? But then an ethereal white Damask snagged my curiosity, ‘Madame Hardy’ of the green eye and heavenly scent, raising the question that fuels all my writing.
Why? What gives the rose its power in cultures around the world?
My first interviewee taught me to take nothing on trust. An economic botanist at Kew, he asked if I intended to include that “old chestnut” about the crusaders bringing back the rose from the Holy Land.
I quickly buried my synopsis and spent months – then years – of research, sifting the truths from the chestnuts.
The British and Lindley Libraries became my home, with forays to Kew and to American collections in Washington and California where, in the serene surroundings of San Marino’s Huntington Library, I strolled at lunch through the roses or visited its agaves for a change of scene.
America brought other pleasures: an inspired afternoon with the curator of the New York Botanical Garden’s Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, who introduced me to his 600 rose varieties, and an evening drinking wine in the patrician gardens of Washington’s Dumbarton Oaks.
Roses even took me into the White House to consult archives in the dying months of the Bush administration. By good fortune, George W Bush was busy in the Press Room, so I was whisked into the Rose Garden, normally off-limits as it lies directly outside the Oval Office.
Although the head grounds keeper assured me that planting was not political, all the roses named after Democrats had vanished, while five of the 10 rose varieties honoured Republican presidents or their wives, among them the orange ‘Laura Bush’, flaring like a Texan sunset.
More roses came my way at Malmaison, Empress Josephine’s country house outside Paris but these are equally symbolic, planted to celebrate Josephine’s mythic status as France’s greatest rose lover.
Despite the “plan” drawn up many years after her death, she never had a rose garden at Malmaison, where roses bloomed in her cutting garden, and beside the stream that runs there still, many supplied by her favourite Hammersmith nursery of Lee and Kennedy.
She liked roses, I’m sure, but altogether preferred her giant heathers from the Cape.
As the chateau was closed when I visited the archives, I wandered the gardens on my own, looking for Josephine’s ghost.
Best of all my journeys was a visit to Iran in April 2009, a few weeks before the presidential elections threw the country into turmoil.
I travelled in a small family group of four, our interests spanning carpets, politics, archaeology – and roses, of course, which clearly triumphed.
By then I was convinced that Persia’s ancient garden culture and the later spread of Muslim rule as far as Moorish Spain had contributed more to the rose’s westwards diffusion than any returning Christians.
Centuries later, the crusaders’ imagined exploits were feted without a shred of evidence by men such as a French apothecary, Christophe Opoix, who sought to glorify the medicines and jams of his native Provins made from the Apothecary’s rose – a variety of the European native, Rosa gallica.
In Iran, we travelled to Shiraz, recognised by many as a crucible for the garden rose, and slept a night among snoring Estonians in a restored caravanserai close to the silk routes that surely carried rose seeds to the West, among them the three parents to the Damask rose that do not coexist in the wild.
The book is completed, but it’s hard to shake roses from the brain and all I learnt about their beauty and scent.