As a rose nut- enthusiast- I almost always notice when period films include modern roses. You’ll see impeccable costumes and set decoration in a drama about Cromwell, or Henry the VIII but the roses are bright red hybrid teas that never existed before the twentieth century. Although plenty of roses grew, they just didn’t radiate the harsh aniline dye color spectrum which breeders, maybe imitating twentieth century clothing, introduced to the flower garden.
Elizabethans actually had a full cast of roses strutting and fretting their brief hour in garden beds. We know about them from Gerard’s Herbal, that very useful book written by a near contemporary of Shakepeare’s, John Gerard (1545-1611/12) who was in fact for a time a neighbor of Shakespeare’s, because Gerard was Master of the Barber Surgeon’s Company which was located in a hall nearly opposite Shakespeare’s lodgings in Mugwell (now Monkwell) Street from 1598-1604. So he may well have seen Gerard’s garden and all the roses there.
Gerard tells us in some detail about his roses. Some are white he says and these are often found wild in hedge rows in Lancashire (he’s probably referring to the tall white Alba rose) but of the garden roses he mentions Damasks, Province roses, a rose without prickles which he doesn’t possess and “The red rose,” which he says,”groweth very low…The flouers grow on the tops of the branches, consisting of many leaves of a perfect red colour: the fruit is likewise red when it is ripe…”
This is a pretty accurate description of a Gallica rose. One which we are nearly certain Gerard had in his garden is the old “Velvet Rose” because Gerard mentions it among the roughly ten types he grew. It’s better known to modern catalogs as “Tuscany” or its larger sport “Tuscany Superb”. This one old rose has so far escaped me but no longer, as it’s on the order forms for the season in its larger flowered form, Tuscany Superb.
I know I won’t get much of a sighting this year. A good rose planting usually doesn’t result in flowers the first season. Growl and grump. For one thing I really want to smell this rose which Clair Martin in his 100 Old Roses for the American Garden describes as smelling like “bell peppers and spice with just a nuance of attar.” Who wouldn’t want to catch a whiff of that on a June morning?
I have the intention of putting it into a bed near our little pond which has a nice black soil and a Japanese maple, and several fat complacent peonies. What that bed needs is something dark and dramatic to compliment the maple, and Tuscany will give it that darkness, together with the fragrance that always goes so well with peonies’ warm fur scent. The combination may turn out to be down right erotic, and if it isn’t, I’ll heel in some lilies for June as well. The lilles if they’re Madonna lilies, would have been familiar to Shakespeare too but my soil is too acid. I will have to grow Asiatics or coax a trumpet lily into bloom.
So I wonder if Tuscany is one of Shakespeare’s real roses? The sort that could be tucked into a doublet and deposited on the spinet of a dark lady? It certainly deserves a sonnet or two. Grow any old roses of your own, and if so, which ones?