I’ve seen the Himalayan wild rose all across the northern mountains. My hard drive has photos tagged “HWrose” taken over the last ten years in the eastern Himalayas (Bhutan, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh), the middle Himalayas (Uttarakhand), and from the western Himalayas (Himachal Pradesh). One of this last group you see in the featured photo. The bushes range in size from a little less than my height to somewhat taller than me. When I pointed this out to The Young Niece, she said “Really?” and smelt one of them. I’d not thought of doing that ever before, so I took a little sniff, and, sure enough, there was a faint aroma. Now a quick search told me that I should properly call this the Himalayan musk rose (Rosa moschata).
This rainy weekend was the perfect time to sit down and read about the history of roses. It is a complicated history, with lots of characters, and many twists and turns. The first suspects are the Chinese roses, with wonderful names like Old Blush and Tea Roses. But I found that the evolution of scent in these roses have nothing to do with the musk rose. So I changed track and decided to focus on Damask roses. These have been used for centuries in the production of attar; rose water (gulkand) is used in food, and the petals are often used in sweets. It is said that this came to India with the Mughals. Indeed the Baburnama, reputed to be the first autobiography in Islamic literature, speaks of Ferghana with its roses and Tulips. In Europe this rose is called the Castilian rose, but its likely origin is Central Asia. Indeed there are stories of Romans taking this rose to Europe, and also of European religious crusaders taking it back from Damascus.
From here the search quickly led me to a paper on the triparental origin of Damask roses. Through a wonderful series of observations and deductions, the authors of this study find that the Damask rose was cultivated through at least two hybridizations. The first step was the pollination of the ovule of Rosa moschata with the pollen of Rosa gallica. As a result, the bush and the leaves retain the form of the musk rose. Soon after this, the ovule of this hybrid was pollinated with pollen taken from the Central Asian variety called Rosa fedschenkoana.
The mountain rose which The Young Niece taught me to smell is truly the mother of roses: the rose of Babur, the roses of York and Lancaster, the roses which by any other name would smell as sweet.