Through the Garden Gate With the Ambassador of Love

The famous Rosa Centifolia Foliacea, the Provence Rose or Cabbage Rose | Sabine Heindorf

When the florists fell upon the rose – men who could never have enough – they strove for size and got it, a fine specimen of a florist’s rose being about as big as a moderate Savoy cabbage. They tried for strong scent and got it till a florist’s rose has not unseldom a suspicion of the scent of the aforesaid cabbage – not at its best. They tried for strong colour and got it, strong and bad – like a conqueror.

But all this while they missed the very essence of the rose’s being; they thought there was nothing in it but redundance and luxury; they exaggerated these into coarseness, while they threw away the exquisite subtlety of form, delicacy of texture and sweetness of colour. Indeed, the worst of this is that these sham roses are driving the real ones out of existence. If we do not look to it, our descendents will know nothing of the cabbage rose, the lovliest in form of all.

Excerpt from Hopes and Fears for Art, Delivered by William Morris to the London Institution on March 10, 1880.

The powerful aura of romance surrounding the rose eclipses all other words and ideas sitting anywhere near it. Take the word cabbage for instance. Place it before “rose” and romance deepens a hundredfold. Coleslaw and sauerkraut cease to exist.

The result of a chance meeting between an Autumn Damask and an Alba rose somewhere in the sixteenth century, the cabbage rose (Rosa Centifolia) has always been a favorite still-life subject of painters. The Victorians were mad for it, calling it the Ambassador of Love, and used it liberally not only in the garden, but on wallpaper, curtains, china and tapestries.

And today? Well, one simply couldn’t pull off a cottage or shabby chic style without it.

You might expect the cabbage rose, a true heirloom in a family of plants known for their fussiness and need for attention, to be a foolhardy choice for today’s busy woman. Not so! They need less tending than their modern hybrid sisters, preferring less fertilizing, spraying and pruning.

The truth is you needn’t even be a gardener to grow a cabbage rose. You need only be a hopeless romantic. Cabbage roses possess an inherent beauty of form with their long arching canes and large muted pink flower heads that bow to greet the passer-by. Their fragrance, more heady than you might imagine, begs you to step closer and to stay a moment longer.

Perhaps the ultimate antique, cabbage roses have always been best propagated by cuttings. It’s a distinct possibility your own cabbage rose descended from one gazed upon by a Chinese emperor, Monet or the Empress Josephine. Its ancestor might just have been the carefully tended treasure of a pioneer woman as she headed west or the flower a Civil War era woman clutched to her breast as she watched her husband ride away.

Blooming long and heavily once each year, their bloom will help mark the days of your summer – the days when you, like so many others before you, have no choice but to… dare I say it?

… No choice but to stop and smell the roses.

Laurie Nienhaus is a gardener, author, playwright and public speaker. Her third book, Steeped: The Wanderings & Delights of a Tea Adventurer, is available on Amazon. To read more of Laurie’s words, visit her blog No Cobwebs Here at

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