The Wild Rose
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Heald-Sun on 7/6/97

In the most unexpected and desolate places, stunning beauty can arise. Such is the case in the swamp land along New Hope Creek in southern Durham County. A combination of subimpoundments along the floodplains of the creek, made by both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Beaver Corps of engineers, have given rise to many acres of Piedmont swamp land. 

Here is a habitat ruled by darting dragonflies and leaping leopard frogs, prothonotary warblers and mudminnows. As a visitor to these areas in the summer, one must traverse goey mud into which shoes disappear, rarely to return again. Orbiting, biting flies can gnaw at one's patience and sanity as they search relentlessly for a landing site on the head. As one pauses to look up through the canopy to pinpoint the call of a warbler, a leech may silently fasten itself to an ankle that lingers too long in one spot. The odor of oozing methane bubbling to the surface with each step adds even more mystery to the scene. 

And just when summer's heat descends on the swamp like a blanket, this harsh environment is suddenly bedecked with a gorgeous array of sweet-scented wild roses. This wetland-loving species, Rosa palustris (palustris means marsh-growing) is most happy in this habitat. Occasionally I will find it along fast moving creeks and rivers as an isolated shrub of up to seven feet tall. But more commonly it occurs in abundance along slow moving streams or adjacent flooded bottomlands where it is a primary cover along with buttonbush and black willow. Its range extends from Nova Scotia to Florida. 

The Rose family of plants occupies a very diverse range of habitats with over three thousand species worldwide including trees, shrubs and herbs. Apples, cherries, peaches, blackberries and strawberries are among a long list of valuable, edible fruits produced by this family. Plants of the genus Rosa are erect or climbing shrubs that thrive mainly in the temperate regions and are only scantily represented in the tropics or high altitudes.

The swamp rose displays a two inch, pink flower with five pedals. Later comes the red, edible berry, rich in vitamin C, known as "the hip.'' The hips can be harvested in the fall after the first frost and can be eaten raw, made into a jam or steeped as a tea. The thorn of the swamp rose is curved. This is a notable distinction from the straight thorn of the pasture rose, or Rosa carolina, a smaller shrub which occupies drier upland habitats in our area. The leaf of the swamp rose is compound with seven leaflets. The plant spreads through the swamp muck by means of its horizontal stem below the surface known as a rhizome.

The rose has emerged in human history as a unique symbol of beauty and fragrance. No other flower has had so many tributes paid to it. No flower has figured more prominently in visual art than the rose -- from Botticelli to Georgia O'Keeffe. It has received focused attention from poets, being central in Dante's Divine Comedy, in Shakespeare, Blake and Wordsworth, to Omar Khayyam.

The first literary reference to the rose is in Homer's Iliad.  He tells us that rose oil was used by Aphrodite to anoint the fallen champion Hector. In the ancient world, cultivation reached its peak in the Roman Empire in the first three hundred years of the common era. The Romans were extravagant in their love of the flower. They stuffed beds with rose petals, carpeted floors with them, bathed with them and even suspended them in nets from ceilings over parties to satiate the air with the rose fragrance.

Roses have been cultivated, crossed and recrossed so many times that it is difficult to refer to their wild prototypes. Wild roses from southern Europe, India and China all played a part. Most of our garden roses derive from eight species of Asian origin. The Chinese probably deserve credit for being the first to cultivate them over 5,000 years ago. Today, the rose is the natural flower of two countries, the United States and Iran -- an unusual common denominator for two nations so at odds with one another at present.

The word "attar,'' used to describe the strong essential oil derived from the petals of Rosa damascena, is of Arabic origin. Perfumes of rose oil and a lighter rose water have been an integral part of Islamic culture for centuries, hence the special Iranian love for the rose. Having lived many years in the Middle East, I personally became quite accustomed to often drinking rose-scented water. Besides its pleasant flavor, I was constantly reminded that it would improve the digestion of food. As guests at special functions, we always washed our hands in rose water from finger bowls before and after meals. Rose water distilling techniques probably originated in Moorish Spain in the 10th century and then spread east.

Rose water has believers in its spiritual power as well. In Jerusalem, it is well known that when Saladin recaptured the city from its Christian rulers in 1187, he ordered that the Mosque of Omar and other Islamic sights which had been defiled by Christian intrusion, be cleansed with rose water that came loaded on a caravan of 500 camels from Damascus. Likewise, when Muhammad II captured Constantinople in 1453, he converted the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia into a mosque after a similar rose purification.

So with these traditions before us, we may ponder the mysterious beauty of the swamp rose that flourishes in our rankest, muckiest swamps. Is it nature's cleanser in a harsh and otherwise uninviting environment? Is its delicate, sweet fragrance a natural counterbalance to the revolting odor of methane oozing to the surface? What does this natural phenomenon have to teach us about life? And does the rose even posses a special power, as Muslims believe, to wash away spiritual impurities?

My favorite tradition of rose appreciation comes from the Mogul emperor Jahangir who ruled Kashmir. It is reported that he was fond of boating with his favorite wife, Nur Jahan, in his luxurious palatial garden on a canal filled with rose water. Ahhh ... Wafting in rose water with your favorite wife. That must have been the life!
Photo by Rosa palustris