I visit her every morning.
Each morning I open the door between my kitchen and the greenhouse in the hope that something wonderful has happened in the early hours of the morning, when the first bleak rays of sun start warming up the greenhouse. I’ve been begging her for a flower for weeks. Just one little rose before the long Nordic winter sleep. But she keeps protecting her swelling pink buds and doesn’t let them loose in the cold autumn air. She – to me it feels more natural to call a rose she than he – is ‘Rose Edouard’, a plant I found in India seven years ago and brought home to Sweden.
It wasn’t a happy move. She never liked my garden, losing a little bit of her strength and energy each winter; and in a bid to rescue her from a certain death, I dug up the plant and potted what was left of her and put the pot in a sheltered and warmer corner – and forgot her. Such things happen when you have 10,000 square meters that have been described by visitors as a lovely but ”jumbley” garden. I believed I had lost ‘Rose Edouard’ when I found her again, this summer. Did I deserve her? No. I was grateful to find her alive and brought the pot into the greenhouse. From now on ‘Rose Edouard’ would be treated as she should have been from the beginning, as a rare and very important guest.
But let me tell you the story from the very beginning: how my ‘Rose Edouard’, a rose plant from India, ended up in Sweden. I love roses. My passion for roses began in the late 1980s, and has always been linked to a strong interest in the origin and cultural history of the rose. I began to read everything I could find, I travelled in my mind to all the exotic places where early rose history had taken place, to China, Persia, Greece, Rome, Abbyssinia, Egypt and India. Ploughing through shelves of rose literature, I also ended up at Reunion, a tiny French island in the Indian Ocean, also known as Ile de Bourbon, which I learned was the birth-place of the Bourbon roses. I was introduced to an interesting story. Roses from China and Persia – supposedly Rosa chinensis, ‘Old Blush’, and Rosa damascene, ‘Autumn Damask’ – were planted in the 18th century by the farming islanders in two parallel rows, to form an impenetrable double-hedge. One day a monsieur Edouard Perichon detected a seedling in his hedges that looked different. He believed it was a hybrid of the two hedge roses and replanted the new variety in his garden. There the rose was discovered in 1817 by a French botanist, M. Bréon, who sent seeds to France. Edouard Perichon’s rose was renamed ‘Rose de Ile Bourbon’ and gave rise to a new class of roses, the Bourbons. This story has been retold so many times over the last 200 years that it has become the truth. In the beginning of 2000 I started to question the story. My “journalistic nose” led me to ask: “Why assume ‘Rose Edouard’ was born at Réunion, just because it was found there? Couldn’t it have been brought there, and arrived from overseas like the China roses that formed the hedges on the island? I still remember how excited I was when I read the following lines in Gerd Krüssman’s The Complete Book of Roses: “Shepherd casts doubt on the story of its origin in Réunion as he says there was a rose called “Rose Edwards” that had been growing for many years in the Botanic Garden, Calcutta.”
So, where should I go to find out more about ‘Rose Edouard’? I was seriously thinking of buying a ticket to Réunion when I was offered to train photojournalists in February 2008 in Sri Lanka. This gave me the opportunity to make a stop in India on my way back to Sweden. I arrived in a state of excitement to Kolkata, checked in at the Lytton Hotel, and took a taxi directly to the Botanical Garden. I left the chaotic city behind me at the entrance, and walked along the Hooghly River, visible as a blue ribbon through the greenery to my left, until I reached a small rose garden in front of an old building in the Garden. “Do you happen to have a sample of ‘Rose Edouard’ here?” I asked a man who came out from the building, as I introduced myself and explained why I had come to India. I could tell he was surprised; most foreign visitors probably asked him for directions to the famous Banyan tree, supposedly the biggest in the world. “Rose Edouard”, he repeated, “then I’m afraid you have come in vain. The Hooghly River flooded the gardens in 1978 and ruined almost the whole rose collection, and only these are left.” He pointed at the few bushes in front of us, to me unknown varieties except for Rosa viridiflora, the Green Rose, and suggested I visit the herbarium and the library with its large collection of rare books.
The Botanical Garden was established in 1787 by the British East India Company. Ships were carrying plants and researchers from one port to another, on route between Europe, Asia and Africa. Still, I was surprised to find several first print books by the great Swedish botanist and naturalist, Carl Linnaeus, at the library. When I recognized his Flora Lapponica from 1737 on the shelf, I felt a little swelling in my heart at being his countryman; but finding his works in India also proved to me that botany has no borders; the world of plants is wonderfully international. Flora Lapponica was the first modern book of flora to use Linnaeus’ classification system. Encountering the works of the “Father of Taxonomy”, also reminded me of one of his disciples, Per Osbeck, who went to China in 1751 and brought back the above-mentioned ‘Old Blush’ to his master in Uppsala, much to Carl Linnaeus’ disappointment since he had specifically asked Osbeck to find him a tea bush. Forty years later, ‘Old Blush’ was brought to London by a British plant collector and given the name ‘Parson’s Pink’.
Another pupil of Linnaeus, Johann Gerhard Koenig, dedicated his life to researching the flora of India. He arrived in Tranquebar (Tharangambadi) in 1768 and ten years later became the British East India Company’s first naturalist and botanist. It’s generally accepted that modern botany in India started with Koenig. He was a good friend of the Scotsman who was to become superintendent of the Botanic Garden, William Roxburgh, whose once grand, but now sadly dilapidated, villa I had passed on my way to the library, and spent a good hour photographing. It’s easy to get sidetracked and carried away in this environment, where long-passed botanists make you feel they’ve just left us. I put back Linnaues’ books on the shelf and made the leap from 1737 to 1887 and the book “Roses And How To Grow Them In India”, by R. Barton-West, editor of the “Indian Gardener, Calcutta”. The author, states that ‘Rose Edouard’, besides being used as stock in India, also states that it is a “grand old rose in itself.” He goes on warning: “it has, however, one unfortunate defect, which it too frequent transmits to the plants worked on it, that is, that during the cold season it almost invariably refuses to expand its blooms.” When I read this line, it sparked a thought of my own “refusnik” in the greenhouse, testing my patience by producing lots of pink buds but not a single flower.
The Garden’s library is a treasure trove of old rose information. “The Book of Roses or Rose Fancier’s Manual” by Mrs. Gore from 1838, published only 15 years after the discovery of ‘Rose Edouard’ at Réunion, lists 14 varieties under the new rose family, Bourbon Roses. The first on the list has three different names, besides being called ‘Isle of Bourbon Rose’ and Rosa Canina burboniana, Mrs. Gore also adds the name ‘Edwards’s Rose’. Further reading of Mrs. Gore’s list raises more questions about the origin of the Bourbon roses. Number 3 on her list of Bourbon varieties is the ‘Isle of France Rose’ (according to Mrs. Gore also known as ‘Bengal Dubreuil Rose’, ‘Full-flowered Bourbon’, and ‘Bengal Newman’), which she describes as having shorter branches and more full flowers of a paler pink, than ‘Edwards’s Rose’. “The seed of this rose,” she writes, “was sent from the Isle of France, from Monsieur Hardy to the Luxembourg garden, in 1822.” The roses ‘Isle of France Rose’ and ‘Edwards’s Rose’ are today considered to be the same. The Ile of France was captured by the British in 1810 who changed its name to Mauritius. The nearest island to Mauritius is Réunion. So, now I have two and not only one island in the Indian Ocean entangled in the mystery of ‘Rose Edouard’.
I continued to the cabinets where the herbarium was kept. Mountains of brown folders, impregnated by naphthalene, were shown to me. I browsed through sheets of dried Rosa involucrata (clinophylla), Rosa macrophylla, and then I found what I was looking for – ‘Rose Edward’, or as it more often appeared on the sheets from the 1940s, ‘Edward Rose’, which I noted was labeled as a hybrid belonging to the group Rosa centifolia and not Rosa bourboniana. I could have stayed in the library and studied its books and sheets of dried roses for weeks, but the heavy odor from the mothballs gave me not only a headache, I started to feel nauseous and was desperate for fresh air. But before I left the building I met with Dr. Giri, director of the Botanical Garden. On the wall above his desk, portraits of his famous predecessors, Col. Robert Kyd, Dr. William Roxburgh, and Dr. Nathaniel Wallich, the great Danish botanist, were watching over him. (And yes, a second swelling of my Swedish-Danish heart).
”I suggest you pay a visit to Mr. Mukherjee,” said Dr. Giri, when he heard I still hadn’t seen a living ‘Rose Edouard’, only the dried plants in the herbarium. I left the Botanic Garden, walking along Kyd’s Avenue towards the exit, uplifted by the thoughts of where this new address might lead; meeting people while I’m on the search for roses (or something related to my work as a journalist) is what I enjoy the most.
I found Mr. Mukherjee and his garden the next morning at a narrow road in the cluttered district of Baksara, not very far from the Botanic Garden. I had never seen such a rose garden. The entire roof (actually three roofs) was covered with all kind of roses in pots. “I was 14 years old when I first went to flower shows and got interested in roses,” said Mr. Mukherjee, an engineer by profession and a man with extensive experience of cultivating plants in pots, and who had also written a book about Bonsai, the ultimate pot culture. The roses looked surprisingly healthy and strong to be growing on a hot rooftop. Seven workers were engaged in taking care of the roses. In the hot season, I was informed, the roses needed to be watered three times per day. More than 250 varieties of roses were kept on the roof, but Mr. Mukherjee didn’t have ‘Rose Edouard’. He knew though where I could find it. “You should go to Jakpur, to the nursery Puspanjali. If you hurry you will be able to reach there in two and a half hours, and still return to Kolkata before dark.”
After an hour on the road heading west from Kolkata, I started to get worried. The Sikh proudly driving his white ‘Ambassador’ kept the speed at 40 km/hour. I pointed at the speedometer and tried to push him to drive faster, but to no avail. When I reminded him the third time to ”please hurry up,” he simply put a piece of dirty cloth on the speedometer, to prevent me from check it any longer. I gave up and started to watch the flat Indian landscape, its dusty villages, green rice paddies, orange marigold fields and cows, all seeming to pass by in slow motion. Truck after truck were leaving us behind; I could read the sign DRIVE SLOW on one of them – as if my Sikh taxi driver needed that kind of information. We arrived at Jakpur shortly before sunset.
Puspanjali Nursery and its many fields of roses appeared in a soft, mild light; it was truly a beautiful and well-kept nursery farm. The two brothers in charge of Puspanjali, Asoke and Pranabir Maity, introduced me to their roses; at that time they were cultivating 1700 varieties on 15 acres. They had started the business in 1978, with plants from Edward Nursery, Panskura, and were now selling roses to all of India. The brothers walked me between rows of roses, mainly Hybrid Teas and Floribundas, I even spotted ‘Else Poulsen’, the charming Danish rose from 1924. The brothers were, understandably, most proud of the Indian roses, and particularly their own crossings. “We also keep our eyes open to new chance seedlings and sports,” said Pranabir, and showed me two of his favourite roses, pink ‘Jamuna’ and yellow-red-orange ‘Radhanath’, named after their parents. Now it was the Sikh taxi driver’s turn to start stressing me. He wanted to get back on the road to Kolkata before it became too dark, and in the same manner I had pointed at the speedometer, he tapped his finger up and down at his watch on his wrist. So, I finally asked the crucial question: “What about ‘Rose Edouard’; do you happen to have it?” The answer was: “Yes, we have three plants left and you can have one of them.” The plant was brought in front of me. Tall, with slender and thorny branches, but no flowers. I was happy. Very happy.
Before I went back to Sweden I paid a visit to Kali´s Temple in Kolkata. I bought a garland with deep pink and very fragrant roses and placed it at her shrine, where roses are swimming in coconut milk. Did I know more about the origin of ‘Rose Edouard’? Had I solved the mystery? No, not at all. Actually, I had found more questions than answers. But my ”nose” still told me I was on the right track, and I knew I would return to India and its roses. It happened last year, 2014, when I went to Hyderabad to attend the World Regional Rose Conference. I was thrilled to see the Maity brothers of Puspanjali again, and to finally meet with Girija and Viru Virarghavan, whom I started to communicate with in 2008, after I had been given their address at the Botancial Garden in Kolkata. I was also given another piece to the ‘Rose Edouard’ puzzle at the conference. Mr. Bechet Ciragan, in his interesting lecture “Tulips, Traders and Roses”, revealed some new facts about Edouard Périchon, the man who supposedly found the seedling that established the Bourbon group. The Périchon family was not only to be found at Réunion; its members had moved between the islands of Ile de Bourbon (Réunion), Ile de France (Mauritius), and the French colony in India, Pondicherry. So, now, while I’m sitting here, in cold Sweden, still waiting for ‘Rose Edouard’ to bloom, I’ve started to think it might be a good idea to return to India. First stop will definitely be Pondicherry.
Mia Gröndahl November 2015, for publication in the Indian Rose Journal.