Digging deep

17th August 2001 at 01:00
How can you be afraid of flowers? In the case of roses, it's really quite easy. For the rose is not so much a flower as an entire field of human endeavour, and its complexities can be terrifying.

There's one rose grower in England who offers no fewer than 1,200 varieties for sale. A visit to his nursery makes choosing a mobile phone tariff seem simplicity itself.

What are you looking for, exactly? A hybrid tea, a floribunda, a climber perhaps, or a rambler? We have patio roses, miniature roses, ground cover roses and shrub roses. And each of these groups has more options than a full English breakfast.

Blooms can be large or small, simple or complex, fragrant or otherwise, and almost any colour, bar blue. (You want stripes, Madam? Yes, we do stripes. Is Sir looking for a bush or a standard? Would that be a half standard or a full standard? Perhaps Sir would like a weeping standard.) To say that petals come in different shapes (choose from plain, reflexed, ruffled or frilled) is like saying that not all dogs are identical. But Sir really should decide whether he requires a repeat-flowering or once-flowering variety and, if the latter, then when he would like that once to be.

There's an alternative to all this carry-on, of course. It's called Rosa gallica. Sometimes known as the apothecary rose on account of its historical importance as a source of pharmaceuticals, this was the first rose to be cultivated in the West, finding favour with Persians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans alike.

No one is sure whether it survived the Dark Ages, or was reintroduced to Western Europe by the Crusaders. Either way, its fragrant red blooms were a source of colour and poetry throughout the Middle Ages, and indeed, the red rose of Lancaster was probably Rosa gallica.

Today, the most ancient of all garden roses (you're likely to see it sold as Rosa mundi) provides a simple and reassuring alternative for anyone who is scared silly by the sheer variety of its countless descendants.

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