By Sean Dietrich
The house where I was born was trimmed in roses. It was a clapboard home, previously owned by a retired World War II veteran. The old soldier was crazy for roses.
The story goes that after returning from the War, the soldier spent weeks turning his humble yard into a Victory Garden. Over time the backyard became a veritable explosion of reds, pinks, whites and vivid colors.
The central attractions of the Victory Garden were, without doubt, the “Peace” roses. Ivory white with crimson fringe. They were heart stopping.
And it was among these roses where I took my first infant steps. My mother was deadheading flowers. It was summer. And I was hobbling beneath dappled sunlight, surrounded by an old soldier’s Peace roses.
Of course I don’t remember much from this early period of life, except that I habitually filled my onesies with poop. But for some odd reason, I do recall Peace roses.
There are some things you just don’t forget.
The earliest fossilized evidence of roses dates back to the Cenozoic Era. Your high-school biology textbook will tell you roses are 35 million years old. These flowers predate nearly everything, including the Cascade Mountains, the dinosaurs and “Gunsmoke.”
Roses were a big deal in ancient China, ancient Greece and pretty much everywhere else too. In ancient Rome they were the flowers of the gods, a concept later inherited by ancient Christians. There’s a reason they call it “praying the Rosary.”
I tell you all this not to bore you until you experience brain death, but because this particular flower is intertwined with the history of our species.
Americans have been obsessed with roses for generations. When colonists came to these shores, one of the few luxuries many immigrant women brought with them were clippings from heirloom roses back home.
Although, those colonists were in for a treat because this continent was already doing just fine in the rose department.
There are more than 20 roses native to North America, such as, California roses, woods rose, Carolina roses, prairie roses, swamp roses and my personal favorite, the breath-stealing Virginia rose.
The flowers were a minor part of our national fabric. General Washington, for example, grew roses. John Adams planted them on the White House lawn. Thomas Jefferson was a rose freak who bred Gallicas, Noisettes and Sweetbriars.
The world’s most popular rose variety, however, is the one I want to tell you about, and the reason for this column.
I promise, this will only take nine seconds. Ten at the most.
The year was 1935. In a turbulent pre-war France, horticulturist Francis Meilland used seedling eyes grafted into rootstock to produce ivory flowers with pink tinged petals. He named the rose after his mother.
At first glance, the rose was just a modest tea rose hybrid. Nothing fancy. But the flower’s resistance to disease and its superior growth made it a modern marvel. This was no ordinary rose. This was a really good rose.
But here’s the thing. Meilland’s rose had little hope for survival during an oncoming global war. Only four years after he bred the thing, the whole world went to hell.
France was about to be occupied by Nazis. People were already dying right and left. Meilland knew his nursery would be seized and his flowerbeds destroyed.
So Meilland smuggled his roses out of the country. He sent one of his roses on a plane out of France, shortly before the German occupation. The bud wood arrived in the United States where a horticulturist named Robert Pyle raised the flower in a Pennsylvania nursery and helped save it from oblivion.
I realize I’m throwing more cranial numbing history at you. But I’m almost done.
In the summer of 1944, France was liberated. The War was ending. Almost immediately, a single postcard left West Grove, Pennsylvania, bound for France, telling Mellian that his exceptional rose was still alive, and that his flower would be renamed “Peace” at the ‘45 Rose Parade in Pasadena.
And it was all downhill from there. When the War was finally over it was a worldwide hoedown. Pretty soon everybody and their mother’s brother’s cousin’s house cat wanted a Peace rose in their backyard.
Not just because of the rose’s resilience, but because of what the flower stood for. This simple rose represented the end of hard times.
And so the Peace rose became the most popular cultivated rose of all time. Septillions of plants were distributed worldwide. Soon, people from Toulouse to Wichita were celebrating the end of the worst era in modern history by planting roses. Of all things.
This is why lately I find myself visualizing roses a lot. I close my eyes and see an infant, unsure of his own steps, chubby-legged and uncoordinated, learning to walk among a backdrop of roses. The peaceful flowers fill the Earth with perfume and color, and constantly remind me that, despite how bad things appear, as long as there are babies and roses, we’re going to make it.
I think the old soldier would have liked that.