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Welcome to the July/August 2003 edition of my web site! The roses I write about are the Old Garden Roses and select shrub and miniature roses of the 20th century. For tips on rose culture, pruning, propagation and history, see the "Site Resources Guide" box in the navigation panel at left. To return to this page, click on the "thorn icon" in the margin at left. Articles from the previous months are archived and can be viewed by clicking on the listings in the left margin. This is an information site only, not a commercial nursery. If you wish to buy roses, see my sponsor, The Uncommon Rose.

The Mystery of the Musk Rose
by Graham Stuart Thomas*

I saw the sweetest flower wild nature yields, A fresh blown musk-Rose 'twas the first that threw Its sweets upon the summer; graceful it grew As in the wand that Queen Titania wields And, as I feasted on its fragrance, I thought the garden rose it much excelled.

John Keats, 1795-1821.

The only disappointment about a title such as this is that it gives too much away at the start. Few writers of detective stories would choose such a transparent title, but there was a mystery about the Musk Rose, and I am happy to say that part of it is now solved. The partial solution clears up several posers and will undoubtedly cause us to reassess the potentiality of the Musk Rose in the parentage of roses; it may well be that its influence was as great as that of R. gallica and the China Roses.

click on picture to enlargeWhen I began to study the Synstylae Section I had no idea that there was any real mystery about the identity of the Musk Rose, R. moschata. I had always accepted that the great rose which used to achieve some 40 feet on the pine stems in the University Botanic Garden at Cambridge, and the old giant of the rose dell in the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, were, both of them, R. moschata, THE Musk Rose, described in all the books and a well recognized and noted ancestor of the Damask and Noisette races of roses.

At right: R. moschata as painted by Joseph Pierre Redouté. (click to enlarge)

The more I delved the more difficult the problem became. This Musk Rose of Kew and Cambridge, Bean and Willmott, is a summer-flowering rose with long narrow leaves; one great crop of bloom and all is over. The Musk Rose of the ancient herbals was an autumn-flowering rose with oval leaves. Then there was the difficulty of reconciling either of these to the native Musk Rose of Shakespeare, Keats, and other poets. Lastly there was the indeterminate fragrance: What was musk, anyway? Why should a rose smell of it, and why should the little musk plant have lost its scent?

As so often happens in trying to unravel horticultural problems, botanical niceties—useful though they may be—were not of such value as the more outstanding characters of the various roses concerned. Let me make it clear that we are concerned in this mystery with no less than three distinct roses—one for Shakespeare, one for the herbalists, and one for the botanic gardens.

Though Shakespeare's is comparatively easy to define, I doubt if we shall ever know just where and how the other two originated.

Let us start with the English Musk of the poets. I think there is no doubt that both Shakespeare and Keats described in their well-known lines (at the heads of Chapters 2 and 3) a native rose, and, bearing everything in mind and allowing a little poetic licence (not much is needed) I am sure their rose was R. arvensis. It is a native of this country, frequents copses and bosky hedgerows, flowers with the honeysuckle, and is deliciously fragrant. Shakespeare refers to a summer-flowering plant (not autumn-flowering), as does Bacon, mentioning specifically the month of July which is the normal time of flowering for R. arvensis in the south of England. To me, this trailing rose with purplish stems, neat leaves, and clusters of creamy scented flowers is even more appealing and freshly delightful than R. canina, the Dog Brier, which flowers rather earlier and is by comparison a coarse thorny shrub.

Turning next to the herbalists' rose, the true (foreign) R. moschata of Elizabethan and Jacobean days did not flower until the autumn. John Gerard, in his Herball of 15 97, says that' the Muske Rose flowereth in Autumn, or the fall of the leafe: the rest flower when the Damask and red Rose do'. John Parkinson, in Parodist in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, 1629, describes R. moschata simplex and multiplex: 'The Muske Rose, both single and double, rise up oftentimes to a very great height, that it overgroweth any arbour in a garden, or being set by an house side, to bee ten or twelve foote high, or more, but more especially the single kinde, with many green farre spread branches, armed with a few sharpe great thornes, as the wilder sorts of roses are, whereof these are accounted to be kindes, having small darke green leaves on them, not much bigger than the leaves of Eglantine: . . . the double bearing more double flowers, as if they were once or twice more double than the single, with yellow thrummes also in the middle, both of them of a very sweete and pleasing smell, resembling Muske.' He adds that the single and double do not flower until the end of the summer and autumn.

John Ray wrote the second volume of his Historia plantarum in 1688 and mentions R. moschata minor, the Musk Rose, growing t a height of 10 or 12 feet with leaves like those of R. alba, glabrous above, hairy beneath; also R. moschata major, a bigger plant flowering in June. This, he says, on account of its flowering time can scarcely be considered the true and genuine R. moschata species, which flowers not before the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.

Johannes Herrmann's Dissertatio inauguratis botanico medico de Rosa, 1762, gives a full description in Latin of R. moschata and states that it flowers in autumn. Philip Miller produced the 8th edition of his The Gardener's Dictionary in 1768; he calls his Musk Rose R. moschata, with a synonym R. moschata major. The latter is a name used in a vague description by J. Bauhin in 1651 (Hisforiae plantarum universalis). Likewise Aiton, Horfus Kewensis, 1789; Jacquin, Plantarum rariorum borti Schonbrunnensis, 1797; we may go on, looking at Roessig, 1802-20; Andrews, 1805; Dumont de Courset, 1811; Redoute, 1817-24, and lastly at Loudon's Hortus Britannicus, 1850; all repeat the late season of flowering and, where such particulars are included, all state the oval leaf and the height roughly from 7 to 12 feet—sometimes not specifically given but compared with the Sweet Brier—and the native habitat is variously ascribed to Spain, Madeira, Barbary. Although many of the drawings are not recognizable and the descriptions are not careful in the oldest books, I think the above all amounts to a fairly clear picture of a Musk Rose imported from South-western Europe, North Africa or Madeira, grown in gardens for its sweet scent and late-flowering character and being used to cover arbours or to make a fair-sized shrub. Apart from a few Autumn Damask roses this would have been the only rose to have flowered late in the season, and as such would have been greatly treasured. To this we must add that R. moschata in any form was the only rose that could be called ' climbing' in those early days of gardening in Britain, for none of its Far East relatives had been introduced, and R. phoenicea, R. arvensis, and R. sempervirens, if cultivated, were of little value, though the second was well known in the hedgerows. It was therefore a very important garden plant, and was listed by nurserymen; W. Masters of Canterbury (1831) mentions the double form flowering in September and October, and William Paul (1848) writes 'abundant blooms, especially in the autumn'; Thomas Rivers (1845) includes R. moschata in his 'autumnal rose garden'. He adds some further details, stating that there was in the early days of the French Republic a rose tree at Ispahan (Persia), called' the Chinese Rose Tree, fifteen feet high . . . seeds were sent to Paris and produced the common Musk Rose ... large and very old plants of the Musk Rose may sometimes be seen in the gardens of old English country houses'. Other writers also mention this plant. Though it could have been a hybrid it was more likely to have been the original Musk Rose.

We cannot of course take every description as authentic; many old writers (like modern ones!) borrow from their predecessors, and there is not absolute unanimity about the time of flowering among writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Exaggeration also played its part: thus a rose whose leaves were less rough than others would be called smooth; a deep pink rose, red (before really red roses arrived in the nineteenth century); and one which produced a few late blooms after the main crop would have this character magnified.

It is here that the mystery makes itself so greatly felt. It will be noted that up to the present there has been no mention of a gigantic climbing rose whose shoots reach 30 to 50 feet, bearing long drooping leaves and a spectacular midsummer burst of large white fragrant blossoms. Such a rose was clearly unknown unless Ray has this in mind when describing his R. moschata major. Yet this is the type of rose described by Bean, Willmott, and the R.H.S. Dictionary, and is commonly found in rose collections today under the name of R. moschata. Rehder describes the old Musk Rose—not this big summer-flowering plant—but he does not mention its flowering time.

I found a few recent writings helpful in solving the mystery. A little book by Cochet-Cochet and Mottet, 1896, claims that R. moschata flowers in June and July, and compares it with R. brunonii, which diners by its villousness. Canon Ellacombe, in In a Gloucestershire Garden, 1895, states that 'the Musk Rose is not a very attractive rose, and is now very seldom seen, having been supplanted by its near relation R. brunonii from Nepal, probably only a geographical variety of the old musk rose . . .'

In The Shakespeare Garden, Esther Singleton gives a conversation from Mrs Gaskell's My Lady L,udlow, 1859: ' That is the old Musk Rose, Shakespeare's Musk rose, which is dying out through the Kingdom now.' This is a strange statement for a character in a novel to make. Furthermore, 'the scent is unlike the scent of any other rose, or of any other flower'.

E. H. Wilson, the famous gardener, botanist, and plant collector, writes: 'The original Musk rose, R. moschata, appears to have been native of the Pyrenees, but has long been lost to cultivation, and its name applied to a vigorous climbing rose (R. brunonii)... whose flowers have the odor of Musk.' This I culled from his book If I were to make a garden (1931), prompted by Mrs F. L. Keays in her Old Roses. She gives us the American picture, and adds that the Musk Rose of Gerard 'may survive in some old gardens'; further, 'while R. moschata continues blooming until frosts cut it, after once started, R. brunonii is summer flowering only'. Bailey's Qyclopedia, also American, mentions that 'the Musk Rose of the older writers, known since the sixteenth century, seems to have at present almost disappeared from cultivation; the plant generally cultivated under this name is R. brunonii. . ..'

R. brunonii was introduced in 1812 from Nepal. It is quite obvious that under R. moschata Miss Willmott was describing R. brunonii— a native 'from Afghanistan to Kashmir, Simla, Garhwal, Kumaon, and Nepal'. From these extractions we can I think conclude that what I have called the gigantic climbing Musk Rose of the botanic gardens is a nearly glabrous form or hybrid of R. brunonii. Just when and where it originated and usurped the position of the Old Musk Rose is still a mystery to me. Willmott's portrait appears to be of this usurper, with its long drooping leaves.

I had looked at many gardening books in the hope of further elucidation, and also with the hope of finding a plant of this Old Musk. Almost the last book I looked at was My Garden in Summer, by E. A. Bowles, 1914. Here I found: 'The true and rare old Musk Rose exists here, but in a juvenile state at present, for it is not many years since I brought it as cuttings from the splendid old specimen on The Grange at Bitton, and I must not expect its deliciously scented, late-in-the-season flowers before it has Scrambled up its wall space.' The Grange, Bitton, was Canon Ellacombe's home.

Now, whatever other opinions we might consider, I was prepared to treat Mr Bowles's with the greatest respect. He was an erudite, observant, and highly trained gardener; he had seen the canon's plant flowering late in the season, as he was a frequent visitor to that garden, and he would not have given just 'its wall space' to an enormous grower such as our present-day R. moschata, which would need the whole house.

All the above investigation took place during the winter of 1962-3. Many years ago, shortly after the Hitler war, E. A. Bowles had given me cuttings of several roses from his garden, and among Them was one he called 'Shakespeare's Musk'. The cuttings grew well, I thought, but eventually proved to be 'Rambling Rector'. My interest in ramblers in those days was not great; the cuttings may somehow have been mixed by my then nursery staff, for conditions were not easy. I had no idea then what the plant was supposed to be, but I remembered that the cuttings were given to me off the house wall. I resolved to go and see if the plant was still growing.

Through the kindness of Mr W. G. MacKenzie, who, together with the curatorship of the Chelsea Physic Garden combines the chairmanship of the committee caring for Mr Bowles's garden, now an outlying part of London University, I visited Myddelton House in late August 1963. And there on a cold north-west facing wall of the house was a rose just coming into flower. It was without doubt the Old Musk Rose. I had walked straight to it. A pencil drawing of this plant faces page 129 (Fig. 3.) Thinking to correlate things still further, when I was in the neighbourhood of Bath during the autumn I made my way to Bitton, to Canon Ellacombe's garden. The present owners kindly gave me permission to wander round. There was the great cut-leaf beech, the fine Tulip tree and Maidenhair tree mentioned in his books, together with many another shrub and tree, Photmia serru/afa, Xanfhoceras sorbifolia, parrotia, sycopsis, and wistaria . . . but no Musk Rose, unfortunately.

Besides making a drawing of Bowles's Musk Rose I pressed a specimen; both were compared with Herrmann's description and Linnaeus' specimens by my old friend Dr W. T. Steam of the Botany Department of the British Museum, who pronounced them all one and the same. Both Herrmann and also Miller, whose names are used in various books as the authority for the naming of R. moschata, take the species' name from prior publication by Caspar Bauhin, 1671. So far, so good.

The propagating material secured in 1965 was used partly for budding on brier stocks and partly for cuttings. The latter did not flower in their first summer under my care, but the three budded plants produced several flower heads, and judge of my surprise when every bloom turned out to be double! Here was a further puzzle: had I by chance used a twig for budding which during its year of growth had sported to the double form, or was the plant given to producing single and double blooms irregularly but constantly? Mr John Rogers, head gardener since Mr Bowles's day at Myddelton House, assures me he has seen only single flowers on the old plant; certainly the terminal flowers which I saw in the first place were simply five-petalled.

After carefully looking at portraits of double forms in old books I feel sure that my double compares exactly with the best illustration, that of Redoute. Other portraits are stylized and obviously inexact. I therefore conclude that the double form which has occurred in this unexpected way is a repetition of Parkinson's ' Coroneola'; in his Theatrum Botanicum of 1640 he states that' the Coroneola that beareth in Autume is generally held by all writers to be the Double Muske Rose, which cometh only at that time and is very sweet'.

On referring again to Andrews we read that the double form 'may justly be called the prototype of the former [single]; more especially as upon the single plant double flowers have sometimes been found, but not frequent'. Miller says that the Musk Rose varies with double flowers. Only the passing years will shew how constant my double form will remain.

Its actual status is extremely important when considering the origin of the Damask and other roses (see Dr Hurst's paper in my book The Old Shrub Roses). Nobody has yet explained how the Autumn Damask originated; why should a union of R. moschata combined with R. gallica produce flowers again in the autumn if both parents were summer-flowering only? The rediscovery of the Old Musk Rose will undoubtedly shed light here. Hurst put forward the idea that the Autumn Damask, grown in Roman days and still in existence, owes its recurrent habit to R. moschata. He had little but theory to confirm this, but he recorded having in his possession a dwarf sport of R. moschata which was recurrent. This I have not seen. It would be a great advantage if someone could collect seeds of R. moschata in the wild, but I must add that the Floras I have consulted are not very encouraging. Lowe in 1868 {A Manual Flora of Madeira, vol. i) criticizes Professor Lindley (Rosarum monographid) for saying that it is found wild in Spain; 'in Madeira it is certainly not indigenous and is indeed only a rare inmate of gardens shewing no tendency whatever to become naturalized or even common. ... It is confined to a few gardens in Funchal or Quintas'. Desfontaines in 1798 describes it as a cultivated plant in Tunisia, while Bonnet and Barratte '. . . consider it native or of sub-spontaneous origin at several points along the coast of the Mediterranean'. Jahandiez and Maire, 1931, state it to be cultivated and naturalized here and there in Morocco. Lazaro e Ibiza, in his Compendia de la Flora Espanola, 1921, does not mention it. It may well be therefore that our original old Musk Rose, described as a species, is a garden hybrid raised from that old tree in Persia; such a confusion is not without parallel in other genera. And so I must leave the matter to others with more rime and resources at their disposal.

Many old books mention R. moschata nivea, which is none other than R. dupontii. It is surmised that this is R. moschata X R. gallica, and therefore is, technically speaking, an Autumn Damask, but it flowers only at midsummer. It is very downy, which might point towards R. brunonit, but its date of raising (1817) would seem to preclude that. Another name we find is R. moschata damascena alba, which appears to refer to a double white form or hybrid of R. cinnamomea. It is not likely that R. chlnensis had an influence in the old Musks if they were hybrids, for in old pictures their stems and leaf veins are distinctly shewn as pubescent, and as a general rule China Rose derivatives tend towards glabrousness, and early as well as late flowering. But we cannot altogether rule out its influence, since, through Eastern trade routes. Far East roses may have crept into Europe, married and died out long before our rose histories lead us to believe.

We are left with the description 'Musk scented'. A fact which is little known today was observed by Parkinson, mentioned above, that the Musk Rose bears its scent in its filaments—the threads that bear the anthers, or stamens: 'some there be that have avouched, that the chiefest scent of these roses [the Musk roses] consisteth not in the leaves [petals] but in the threads of the flowers' (Parodist in Sole, etc.). I have found that all species of the Synstylae Section have this character; what the connection between it and their free-floating fragrance is I cannot say; one would need to test all flowers likewise to reach even a comparative conclusion. Parkinson in his Theatrum botanlcum also has something to say about Musk:'.. . the Moscheuton some take to bee the Musk Rose because the stalkes are greener than in other roses, like unto a Mallow, and that the name doth the nearest concurre therewith, but this hath not Olive-like leaves, and therefore it is much doubted of by divers as l^ugdunensis saith, and taketh that the name commeth not from Muske which was not knowne in Pliny his time, but hee rather thinketh it took the name from Moxus, because it riseth with many stemmes, or else from Moxus malleolis pangatur, because it was planted as well by slippes as vines are, as by rootes. . . .'

This I leave to my readers to accept or question according to their liking. If we take no notice of Parkinson we can but conclude that the name Musk was given to this one rose because of its resemblance to genuine musk. Here Dr Steam again came to my help: the source of genuine musk is a scent gland, known in the perfumery trade as a 'pod', taken from the little antlerless male Musk Deer (Moschus moschiferus) of Central and Eastern Asia.

This over-hunted animal is solitary and far from prolific; genuine musk is accordingly very costly. The little phial of tincture of musk which accompanied his letter was sampled and it certainly resembles very closely the delicious penetrating odour of the species of the Synstylae Section. 'Muskiness' seems nowadays to be applied to a heavy odour that one meets in Crown Imperials and 'mollis' azaleas, rather than the true refreshingly sweet musk of the deer and the rose. I was born too late to take note of the fragrance of the little Musk plant before it lost it, and so can offer no observations on this unfortunate occurrence.

*reprinted from Stuart's Climbing Roses Old And New, 1965.


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