I’m taking a slightly different turn on my blog today. I had submitted an article a few years ago for a contest on a gardening website where we had to write an essay based on the famous lines from Romeo and Juliet about a rose by any other name smelling just as sweet. Unfortunately the contest was called off as they didn’t have enough participants. Roses will be blooming soon in my garden. They are already awakening from their winter slumber and putting out new shoots and leaves. I thought it would be timely to post the essay I had submitted pertaining to gardening but inspired by literary lines.
What’s in a name? That which we call a roseBy any other name would smell as sweet;So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,Retain that dear perfection which he owesWithout that title. Romeo, doff thy name,And for that name which is no part of theeTake all myself.
Juliet declares these impassioned lines in Act 11, Scene 11 of Romeo and Juliet. There is a feud between the noble families of Capulet and Montague but for Juliet, Romeo would still be perfection incarnate with a different family name and she would still love him wholeheartedly. But would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?
Fragrance is not exclusive to roses. We just have to smell a jasmine or a hyacinth or get a whiff of a lilac or a sweet autumn clematis to know that there are other alluring scents in the world of flowers. Besides, the scent factor varies a lot among roses. A rose can be virtually scent- free or it could have the most intense and intoxicating perfume on earth. Take a look at any rose catalog and you would think they were describing the aroma of an old wine. A rose could have a spicy fragrance with hints of cedarwood and vanilla or a deliciously fruity fragrance reminiscent of raspberries.
Fragrance is not the only quality of roses. Color, form and habit are equally important to the gardener. Nowadays we can’t really say that a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. The name rose has become generic. There are thousands of roses in mind-boggling varieties: hybrid tea roses, grandiflora, floribunda, miniature, climbing, antique and rugosa to name just a few. How do we distinguish between the different varieties of roses? By their names of course. The names are often majestic and meaningful and reveal their outstanding characteristics.
I must confess that many a time I’ve bought a rose solely for its fancy name ignoring all its other attributes like disease resistance and hardiness. Who can resist the allure of a romantic name like ‘Moondance’ or ‘ Sweet Intoxication’? Or roses that transport us to faraway places like ‘April in Paris’ or ‘Tahitian Sunset’? ‘Mister Lincoln’ and ‘John F. Kennedy’ named after famous Presidents would appeal to history buffs. A religious person might be inclined to buy ‘ Pope John Paul II’ or ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’. I once bought ‘Queen Nefertiti’ from the David Austin Roses catalog only because the rose sounded regal and exotic. Her Majesty has certainly lived up to her name, rewarding me every year with exquisitely scented apricot blooms.
I also have a predilection for roses named after famous authors and literary characters and again, it is the David Austin collection that fulfills my fantasies. ‘Jude the Obscure’ and ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles’ fit the bill perfectly as I am a big fan of Thomas Hardy. There is ‘Gentle Hermione’ from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ named after Tennyson’s poem and ‘The Pilgrim’ from The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. Then there is the crimson rose ‘William Shakespeare’ named after the Bard himself.
However the sweetest smelling rose in my garden is ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’, a fuchsia pink antique French rose. It puts on a spectacular show every June in my zone 5b garden and continues blooming sporadically through the summer into the fall. The most remarkable characteristic of ‘Zéphirine’ is that it is virtually thorn- free and can grow in semi-shade unlike most roses which require full sun. The only drawback is that it is susceptible to black spot and powdery mildew. The very name Bourbon for this class of climbing roses conjures up images of powerful monarchs.
‘Zéphirine’ itself is quite a rare and unusual name. The word ‘zephyr’ could refer to a light breeze or remind us of ‘Zephyrus’ the Greek God of the west wind. This rose is also known by other names like ‘ Mme. Charles Bonnet’ and ‘La Belle Dijonnaise’ ( the beautiful lady from Dijon). ‘Zéphirine’ has the quintessential old rose fragrance. It is the distinctive scent of ‘attar’ or the essential oil extracted from the petals of a rose. I have my own pet name for ‘Zéphirine’. Madame Zeffy as we lovingly call her at home can be quite temperamental and moody. There are days when her perfume is elusive. She needs the perfect warmth and humidity to release her captivating fragrance.
I know that ‘Zéphirine’ will have an enchanting fragrance with any other name but it is her name that makes her sound ethereal. Despite Juliet’s fervent declaration, it is on account of their names that the story ends disastrously for the star-crossed lovers. A rose will always be known for its beauty and redolence but the short and sweet one-syllable name enhances the charm of a rose and imbues it with character. Could you imagine a rose being called a thistle? Somehow it doesn’t have the same effect.