Italian journalist and author Andrea di Robilant reached across the centuries to bring history alive in acclaimed works of non-fiction such as A Venetian Affair , Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon and Venetian Navigators . But his new book, Chasing the Rose , is a charming account of his quest to trace a mysterious rose. Along the way, he travels to China and the world of old and "orphaned roses", encountering rose collectors, chasers, breeders, botanists, scientists and nurserymen, dead or alive. He talks to Bron Sibree.
How did you discover this rose?
When I was writing Lucia in 2005, the caretaker of the old family estate outside Venice, in Alvisopoli, showed me this lovely pink rose that grew wild in the woods there. Nobody knew what it was. So at the end of my book on Lucia, I wrote "nothing remains of the world of Lucia except this wonderful silvery, pink rose that grows wild in the woods of Alvisopoli". After my book came out, a woman named Eleonora Garlant got in touch and said, "I think I might know what the rose is." I didn't know who she was then, but her garden of nearly 1,500 varieties of old roses in Friuli is one of the most significant in Europe, and she is famed for her ability to identify old roses. It turned out it wasn't the rose she thought it might be, but that led me to visit her garden, and that opened up this whole world of old roses, about which I really knew nothing.
Integral to your quest, and to the story of roses in general, is how Chinese roses revolutionised the staid world of European roses. Tell us more about this.
From the start it was clear to rose experts that the rose at Alvisopoli was a Chinese rose. Chinese roses only arrived in Europe in the second half of the 18th century and they had a huge impact on European roses. They brought remontancy, for one: the ability to flower several times a year. In fact the silvery pink rose at Alvisopoli flowers all year round. Chinese roses also brought new colours to Europe: red and yellow, most importantly. Four roses in particular revolutionised the staid world of European roses from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries. They are the so-called stud roses: Slater's Crimson China, Parson's Pink China, Parks' Yellow Tea-Scented China and Hume's Blush Tea-Scented China. It was thought the four stud roses were species: they were in fact horticultural varieties, which had been bred by Chinese gardeners many centuries earlier. Chinese roses were all shipped to England via the East India Company, and the only roses they had access to were in the nurseries of Canton.
Tell us about this rose mania, in particular for Chinese roses, in the Parisian rose world you write about.
Josephine Bonaparte ignited this mania at the beginning of the 19th century. She was obsessed with roses from China and made sure they ended up in her Malmaison garden. Because the British had a monopoly on Chinese plant importation, the East India Company would buy roses from Chinese nurseries, then bring them to Calcutta. But there was a lot of trade between England and France, so English nurseries sold a lot of roses to the French until Napoleon established the Continental Blockade in 1806.
You also met another, more contemporary collector of Chinese roses. Tell us a bit more about this.
I'd gone to Paris [on] a wild goose chase, so when I got home I informed the American Rose Society, which is responsible for the registration of roses, that I'd been unable to find documentation in Paris. They suggested I get in touch with a Slovenian rose expert who lives in Trieste, whom they thought might be able to identify my rose. The expert told me he had seen the rose in Eleonora's but didn't have a clue what it was. The only person who might know, he said, was Helga Brichet, who had the largest collection of Chinese roses in Italy. So I drove to her place in Umbria and met this wonderful South African woman who only grows Chinese roses and she took me around to every rose and told me their name and their story. Then we reached a splendid sprawling specimen of a Rosa chinensis spontanea, the mother of all roses - well, there are two mothers really, the other being Rosa gigantea. The spontanea was discovered by Japanese rose chaser Mikinori Ogisu in 1983 - so only very recently, after China had begun to open up under Deng Xiaoping. This gives you an idea of how little we know about the roses that grow inside China.
Yet it is really in the garden of Eleonora Garlant that you fell under the spell of old roses as well as "orphan" or "recovered" roses. Can you explain their appeal?
Old roses have these extraordinary scents that are just inebriating, and we've lost that. Since the growth in demand for new hybrids, from say the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century, thousands of old varieties have become extinct. Roses with a name, a history, specific scent and specific appearance have disappeared. In the 1970s, people such as Graham Thomas began to look for those lost species. Just to give you an example, there used to be more than 3,000 varieties of gallica roses, one of the most common. Today there are only 300.