Jennifer Potter’s ‘The Rose’

Jennifer Potter’s ‘The Rose’

I have read quite a few books about roses over the years. Many hundreds more have been printed. But this is the book that I refer people to when they want a good rose history.


The Rose – by Jennifer Potter 
Atlantic Books

Jennifer Potter’s 2010 work is over 450 pages long but it is beautifully laid out and illustrated. She takes us through the origins of the rose – the 150 or so species of wild roses that grow from the Tropic of Cancer right up to the Arctic Circle.

We see early paintings of roses from 3,500 years ago. She tells of the uses of roses over time – in food and medicine. We learn that Pliny listed 32 rose remedies – from rose juice as a gargle for mouth ulcers, to the charred petals used as cosmetics for eyebrows. The Romans were so keen on roses they dedicated a festival to them. Rosalia was a time of drunken debauchery. Cleopatra welcomed Mark Antony with a dining room floor 18 inches deep in rose petals. The Syrian boy emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (also known as Heliogabalus) was said to flavour his swimming pools with essence of roses and once allegedly smothered some of his guests to death when he released rose petals from a false ceiling.

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – one of the beautiful illustrations in Jennifer Potter’s book “The Rose”

These venal associations may explain why the early church initially saw no place for roses, but from the 4th century the rose began to be rehabilitated and become part of Christian symbolism. Potter also explores the place of the rose in Islamic culture.

Rose development

Over the centuries roses travelled, they intermingled and developed. In subsequent chapters Potter untangles the strands of their progress and produces a family tree. She dismantles the myth of crusaders bringing back the Damask rose. She tells of the impact of the Chinese roses and the origins of purposeful breeding.

The book includes a strong section on the Empress Josephine, rebutting suggestions that she had eyes only for roses.Our friend André Dupont gets an honourable mention. As does Reynolds Hole later. And, towards the end she interviews Robert Calkin on scent.

The history of the rose is an epic tale that encompasses all parts of the Northern hemisphere, ancient history, cultural history. It is the Queen of Flowers. Potter’s achievement is to tell that story – lots of stories, in fact – and make it consistently engaging and digestible. Not surprisingly the project took her five years to research. It is an outstanding piece of work.

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden history blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.