Lahore and beyond  -

I have recently said goodbye to three friends. This trio stood by me through sunshine and hail, never flinching, never faltering, always ready to please me and the visitors to my humble home with their colour and form. They were three of my best standard rose specimens, which died from a recent pest invasion that no remedy could control.

The rose is a woody perennial of the genus Rosa that is part of the family Rosaceae. About a hundred species of this flowering plant have so far been discovered in various forms i.e. erect shrubs, climbers, or trailers. Each of these varieties is armed with thorns – some of which are extremely viscous. The flowers are fragrant and showy, varying in size, shape and colours that range from white through yellow to red.

Ornamental roses have been cultivated for millennia, with the earliest known cultivation dating back to at least 500 BC. Subcontinental history and culture is incomplete without roses, as this flower was patronised by almost all the dynasties that ruled the region. In the early 19th century, the Empress Josephine of France patronized the development of rose breeding in her gardens at Malmaison. In 1840, over one thousand different species were cultivated for an early Victorian garden cemetery and arboretum in England.

Rose perfume is made from attar of roses or rose oil obtained by crushing and distilling petals. The weight of extracted oil is about one three-thousandth to one six-thousandth of the weight of the flower. Rose water is another associated product derived from rose petals. It is used for cooking, cosmetics, medicine and in religious practices. In the sub-continent the best rose water is produced from what is generally referred to as ‘desi gulab’.

Rose hips are occasionally made into jam, jelly and marmalade. They can also be brewed into a tea or pressed and filtered to make rose hip syrup. Rose hip seed oil is used in skin and some cosmetic products. Rose petals or flower buds are sometimes used to flavour ordinary tea, or combined with other herbs to make herbal teas.

Rose petals are used to flavour foods either in their original or candied form. Rose flavoured fondant covered in chocolate and topped with a crystallised rose petal are a traditional English confectionery.

The rose hip, usually from Rosa Canina is a useful medicinal ingredient being a minor source of Vitamin C, while Rosa Chinensis has long been used in Chinese traditional medicine for curing stomach problems. Current research is focusing on the possibilities of rose hips as an aid to control cancer growth.

Roses have, since time immemorial, symbolized love and beauty. A yellow rose represents a homecoming, while a red one professes undying love (and is a tested cure for soothing female tempers). I have witnessed the magic that a large bouquet of long stemmed Red Cardinals can weave, turning a domestic battleground into a happy home brimming with love.

Some rose varieties act as excellent security barriers. Two of these – the trailing Mardan Rose and the climbing Crimson Glory are apt to keep all types of intruders at bay. Both these varieties are armed with ugly curved thorns that generate a painful puncture. In addition, the thick foliage of the Mardan Rose acts as an impenetrable wall.

My home in suburban Islamabad has a couple of Crimson Glories that act as death traps for any snake that tries to negotiate through them. My gardener often appears dangling dead reptiles that were impaled on the plant’s viscous thorns. While the plant sounds the death knell for snakes and lizards, it provides protection to tiny sunbirds and yellow fluted bulbuls, which can safely nest inside their protective embrace.

All in all, the rose has rightfully earned its place as the King of Flora – a fact amply borne out by its beauty, colours and aroma. Perhaps that is the reason that our poetry is replete with references to the flower and no Mughal painting is without the emperor holding this bloom.

n    The writer is a historian.