Postcard from Iran: Roses

Every year in the second half of May a festival of roses and rosewater is held in Kashan, between Tehran and Isfahan. Unfortunately, we were too early for that but did get to see a small rosewater distillery where a kind young woman answered the questions of curious foreigners.

Explaining the rosewater distillation process and what the store’s ‘tonic waters’ (including rose, mint and cinnamon) are used for. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The store’s distillery waiting to come on line. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read a fascinating article about the rosewater tradition in the Kashan area. The town’s other claim to fame is that, as recorded for the West by Marco Polo, one of the Magi (Three Wise Men) was from Kashan, while the three of them are buried side by side in Saveh, northwest of Tehran.

The rose used for rosewater and perfume is Rosa damascene (Damask rose), known as the Mohammadi rose in these parts. Crusader ­Robert de Brie is believed to have brought the plant to Europe from Syria in the 13th century, hence its name, but the origins of roses are lost in the mists of time so it’s not outlandish to think the plant may have originated from Persia. R. damascene is a natural hybrid of R. gallica, R. moschata and R. fedtschenkoana. Sadly, the violent upheavals in Syria have affected the rose-farming tradition there.

A delicate climbing pink rose snapped at the Museum of Glass and Ceramics in Tehran. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Some roses definitely from Iran are the double R. foetida persiana, ‘Persian yellow’, which allowed European breeders to begin hybridising yellow shades, unknown until then, R. canina (dog rose, called Nastran in Farsi), while the beautiful R. Ispahan is named for the equally enchanting Persian city of Isfahan. Read an earlier posting about R. persica, once not considered a rose.

We saw many Banksia roses, native to China, looking lovely as they spilled masses of yellow flowers over walls and arbours.

This pretty, small rose, which our guide said is called the Seven-colour Rose in Farsi, was planted everywhere. The colour of flower changes as it ages and each flower has a different ratio and spread of colour. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Busy Friday or not, deliveries of roses keep coming to the beautiful Eram Garden in Shiraz. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Eram Garden is named after one of the four gardens of Paradise and on a sunny spring afternoon it felt a bit like being in Heaven! The site, which dates from 1823 in its current form, is now also a botanical garden and nominated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

A blooming good show in front of the house (not open) in Eram Garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Roses feature on this tiled panel in the Nasir al-Molk mosque in Shiraz, also known as the pink mosque. And yes, that is a church painted into the vase decoration, apparently inspired by the artist’s visit to Russia. Photo: Sandra Simpson



When is a rose not a rose?

Went over to Hamilton yesterday to spend a day at the Rogers Rose Garden enjoying the annual Pacific Rose Bowl Festival and the National Rose Show – and although the enjoyment factor remained high, the weather was decidedly dismal with, at times, lashing rain and strong winds. And when it wasn’t lashing rain, it was still raining!

So when 2pm rolled round and rose breeder Rob Somerfield and national Rose Society publicist Hayden Foulds turned up to give a guided talk, the Vege Grower and I were their audience of two. The guys were game and so were we, the little matter of brollies being blown inside out a mere trifle.

We eventually stopped in front of Eye of the Tiger, a small bush, albeit with vigorous, thorny new growth, that the Vege Grower and I had remarked on earlier, drawn by the colours and look of the flowers. And here we heard an unusual tale.

Eye of the Tiger, a rose bred in England. Photo: Sandra Simpson

One of the parents of Eye of the Tiger is Rosa persica (or Rosa berberifolia) which for a while was known as Hulthemia persica and not considered to be a rose! The plant is native to Iran, Afghanistan, central Asia and through to Siberia. It has a single, open rose-like flower with prominent stamens, is thorny but doesn’t have a rose-like leaf and as you can see from the photo below the buds are something else again. It has a suckering habit.

Hulthemia persica or Rosa persica … a rose by any other name. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But, rose breeders being what they are, some have been attempting to use R. persica, partly because of its hardiness – R. persica takes everything from drought to freezing in its natural habitat – but the plant is difficult to work with and has resisted many attempts to hybridise it. Breeders want to lose the single flowering, the thorniness, the suckering and the sterility, but want to keep that “eye” splash of colour at the centre of the flower.

This 1977 article by renowned English rose breeder Jack Harkness (who died in 1994) outlines some of the history of attempts to use the plant (it’s a little technical). Harkness Roses released three hybrids using R. persica in 1985 (Tigris, Euphrates and Nigel Hawthorne) and a later one, Xerxes, but none of them were repeat bloomers.

American Jim Sproul also took up the challenge and in 2011 released the first plants under the Eyeconic label. Jim blogs about his work with R. persica here.

Bright as a Button. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Bright as a Button, a rose by Chris Warner of Shropshire, England – who has also bred Eye of the Tiger (breeding name Chewbullseye) – also uses R. persica and is an award-winning rose in New Zealand, while his For Your Eyes Only (only 30 years in the making!) has won the 2015 Rose of the Year title at the Hampton Court Flower Show. Read a personal blog about a visit to Warner Roses.