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La France~The Mystery & The History of the Dawn of the Modern Rose

by Suzanne M. Horn, Master Rosarian, Pacific Rose Society

This article was first published in the Pacific Rose and is a 2017 Award of Merit winner.

As we start off the new year, we look back as well as forward when we put the spotlight on a rose of historic importance, ‘La France’. This lovely, classic hybrid tea is world famous to rose historians. ‘La France’ is reported to be the legendary first Hybrid Tea Rose, introduced by Guillot & fils in 1867. Its introduction is commonly considered to be the birth of the modern rose. However, its identity as the first hybrid tea rose is both widely acknowledged and extensively doubted as being more legend than fact. To say the least, there are varying opinions on the issue.

By way of background ‘La France’ was found in France in 1867 by Jean-Baptiste André Guillot (1827–1893). Rather than being a hybridized cross, ‘La France’ appears to have been a chance seedling. As such, its exact ancestry is unknown. Therefore, we can only speculate as to its hybrid parentage. However, a rose called ‘Madame Falcot’ has been considered a possible parent plant; and many believe that ‘La France’ was a seedling of ‘Madame Falcot’. ABOVE: La France stamp from France - stock photo.

Observing the wide range of passionate opinions surrounding this rose, I decided to explore the mystery and the legend of 'La France' with some guidance from the ever-knowledgeable ARS Vice President Bob Martin. My research took me to the writings of some renowned authors and hybridizers such as Brent Dickerson, Jack Harkness and the Rev. H. Honywood D'Ombrain.

The first quote I came across was from one of the great rose historians, Brent Dickerson, who has written numerous highly regarded books including “The Old Rose Adviser”. Mr. Dickerson noted the following: “Traditionalists remind me to cite ‘La France’ as the first Hybrid Tea; revisionists correctly note that it was introduced, in 1867, as a Bourbon hybrid.” This quote made it clear that I had my research work cut out for me. ABOVE: La France bloom - by Flowerpedia.

Brent Dickerson considered 'La France' to be a seedling of 'Madame Falcot'. He wrote in 'The Old Rose Advisor' that Guillot fils introduced it as a "freely remontant Bourbon hybrid" in 1867. He noted this comment from the later *Journal des Roses*: "'La France' corresponds exactly in its details to the Bourbon: its spination, with pretty numerous thorns intermingled with stickers, bristly and glandular on the young canes, and especially around the flower-stems before the blossom opens. It was declared by the introducer himself [to be a] Hybrid Bourbon." LEFT: La France - chromolithograph from Rochester Lithographing

However, when 'La France' was first introduced, it was reviewed in 'The New Roses of 1867' by writer William Paul as a Hybrid Perpetual. This review included the following commentary: "La France (H.P.) is quite a new style of flower, and will, I believe, become very popular as a garden rose. The shape of this rose is not at all regular, as the outer petals are often fantastically twisted and curled. It is, however, good enough and great enough to stand without conforming to the rules of conventional rose life. The flowers are bright lilac, with rosy centres, often overlaid with a beautiful shade of silvery white. The petals and flowers are large, and the plant, which is apparently of free growth, produces an abundance of flowers in quick succession." ABOVE: La France bloom from Keisei Rose Garden in Japan.

Much of the back story of ‘La France’ has been put forth in the writings of the great Jack Harkness, famed British grower and award-winning breeder of roses from R. Harkness & Company, and also the author of books such as "Growing Roses" in 1967 and "The Makers of Heavenly Roses" in 1985. Jack Harkness was of the opinion that the parents of 'La France' are unknown, and this monumental rose happened by chance. He wrote, "Naturally there has been speculation as to the parentage of such a rose; and the usual guesses involve 'Mme Victor Verdier', 'Mme Bravy' and 'Mme Falcot'; there was formerly a claim that it came from a Tea called 'Socrates' ('Socrate' in France)." ABOVE: La France - chromolithograph by Paul DeLongpre in 1903

Of note, the former guess regarding the parentage of [Mme Bravy × Mme Victor Verdier] was reported to Modern Roses 12. However, the book documents that this parentage report is probably incorrect.

The latter claim was also disproven in the writings of a rose expert from yesteryear, the Rev. H. Honywood D'Ombrain, who was for some years joint Secretary of the National Rose Society. He was also Editor of the Rosarian's Year Book and he wrote as follows in the 1895 edition, admittedly some thirty years after the introduction of 'La France':

"A year or two before it had been brought out I had visited Guillot's garden at Lyons, and there he pointed out to me the original plant of La France, saying to me, 'I think this is a commencement of a new race.' On my asking him how he had obtained it, he said that he did not know; that it came amongst his seedlings, and he could not trace its origin. I have seen some of their nurseries - beds of thousands of seedlings without a tally amongst them; the hips have been gathered promiscuously, and the seed sown without any reference to the plants from whence they have come, so that it was impossible that the assertion that La France is a seedling of Socrate can have any valid foundation."

Subsequent to his visit, in 1868 the following was written in 'The Floral Magazine' regarding 'La France': "It is now two years since, walking through the gardens of M. Guillot fils. At Lyons, we were attracted by the appearance of a Rose which seemed to us quite new in character, and which only then existed as a seedling. The raiser seemed proud of having obtained it and predicted that it would be a general favourite when sent out. La France has evidently a mixture of Tea and Bourbon blood in it; its perfume evidences that, as well as its habit of growth, and it is what many of the hybrid perpetuals are only in name." RIGHT: La France art print by R. Guillot.

It appears that there were numerous roses introduced before 'La France", which were the progeny of a cross of a Tea Rose by a Hybrid Perpetual. As these crosses continued to appear, they more and more began taking on the characteristics of the tea rose more than the hybrid perpetual. According to the very knowledgeable writer and hybridizer Paul Barden, there were two other roses that preceded 'La France' and are considered to by hybrid teas. They are Cheshunt Hybrid by G. Paul and Madame Lacharme by Lacharme, both introduced in 1872, which is the year that many believe to be a more accurate date for the inception of the hybrid teas. Some historians believe that the first hybrid tea rose was in fact Cheshunt Hybrid.

Based on all of the expert observations to the contrary, I had to wonder how 'La France' first was declared to be a hybrid tea. Rev. A. Foster-Melliar was one of the great clerical rosarians of England who lived in the latter half of the 1800s. He noted that 'La France' was pronounced somewhat suddenly by the [British] National Rose Society to be a Hybrid Tea. He stated, "There does not seem to be sufficient evidence or authority for this distinction, and opinions on the matter are divided; but some signs of affinity to the China race [which lurks in Bourbons, by the way] are to be seen in the habit and freedom of bloom." It appears that some of the most respected rosarians in the British National Rose Society during that era were dubious about 'La France' being the first hybrid tea or, in fact, a hybrid tea at all. As Brent Dickerson noted, "There does not seem to be sufficient evidence or authority for this distinction, and opinions on the matter are divided."

Going beyond the mystery of its origins, let us focus on the properties of the rose itself. ‘La France’ presents long, pointed, high-centered buds that open to shapely, full and very double flowers with an average diameter of up to 3.5 inches across. Classified by the American Rose Society as a light pink (lp), its blooms can often present a silvery pink hue, while the reverse is a deeper pink with lilac tones. The shapely petals are an elegant silvery pink accented by a darker pink reverse, and they have been called “pearled”. The double blooms present globular, cupped old tea rose form. The petals are slightly waved, with the outer petals being tight, large, and reflexed with the center petals being more petite. Those flowers are borne mostly solitary but sometimes in small clusters from three to five. They are presented on long strong stems covered with numerous small prickles and cloaked in large light green foliage. ABOVE: La France by KBW's Photography.

Opinions vary as to the petal count. Modern Roses 12 notes a petal count of 60, while other sources document 26 to 40 petals. After discussing this issue with noted rose expert Bob Martin, he surmised after reviewing editions of Modern Roses II through XII that the petal count would be on the high side of this calculation or about 40 or more. Jack Harkness simply states, “The flowers are tight with petals and of attractive form, without being very big.”

By way of growth habit, the plants grow in a vigorous, upright manner to about three feet tall and about 3 feet wide. Since the plant does not grow too tall, it would be an excellent choice for the front of a rose bed. The bush tends to be broad and vigorous, like that of an old Tea rose, making La France a good landscape subject. Jack Harkness has written, “It has rather a good way of bearing its flowers just the right distance above its leaves, so they float gracefully above the foliage, without standing on a long stilt of a stalk.”

Known as a good hot weather rose, a Report of the State Board of Horticulture on Floriculture – Rose Culture stated: “Perhaps there is no country in the wide world where the rose can be grown to greater perfection than in California.” This is certainly good news for growers in our Pacific Southwest District.

Those who grow ‘La France’ should note that this rose is resistant to many diseases but has a susceptibility to powdery mildew. As such, it does particularly well in dry, warm climates and should be maintained with a regular spray program. It is more of a garden rose than an exhibition cultivar, as the long stems often presents weak necks, causing the flower heads to nod. This does not happen with all the blooms. Many find this to be a charming characteristic in a garden rose, but not so much in an exhibition rose. ‘La France’ can be useful in beds and borders and as a cut flower. 'La France' looks particularly wonderful in bouquets. The plant reblooms well from early spring until late fall, making it an excellent choice for the collector's garden.

A particularly special quality of ‘La France’ is that it is exquisitely, deliciously fragrant. This is a quality rarely found in hybrid teas. Its pungent blossoms exude a strong, sweet blend of damask and musk perfume with a hint of the classic “Old Rose”. The intense fragrance is said to be strong but elusive and reminiscent of a fine and subtle French perfume.

On a side note, there is also a climbing sport of ‘La France’, which was discovered by Peter Henderson in the United States in 1893. The sport reaches a height from 8 to 12 feet tall. It is much like its parent, with the exception of the height of the plant and the number of blooms; and it is also very effective if utilized as a tall shrub. If this climbing sport is pruned down to about five feet, it produces a nice, rounded plant with foliage and blossoms from the ground up.

The nation of France honored the 'La France' rose in 1999 by incorporating it into a beautifully illustrated commemorative stamp. See a photo of this stamp attached to this article. This highly scented rose with soft pink blooms has become a world-famous prototype of the hybrid tea rose.

By way of rose history, hybrid tea roses were created by the crossing (or the child of a crossing) of the tender, remontant tea roses presenting beautifully shaped buds with hybrid perpetual roses, which were more robust. Hybrid perpetual roses are strong healthy plants, and they made the beautiful tea roses appear weak and spindly by comparison. When the two were crossed, the resultant roses were hardy and free-flowering, ultimately offering a wider range of colors including yellow, orange, white, pink and red.

Once introduced, hybrid tea roses were grown in large quantities as garden plants with 50 to 100 of the same variety in a rose bed. As such, hybrid teas revolutionized garden design and laid the foundation for the great popularity enjoyed by roses today. Whether or not it was in fact the first hybrid tea, the introduction of ‘La France’ took the rose world by storm; and it is widely considered to have ushered in the era of the modern rose.

In summary, 'La France' will definitely be a must-have for collectors of rare and historic roses, whether its history is mythology or fact. It remains a beautiful rose, well worth a place in any collection that wishes to illustrate the scope of rose breeding through the years. It is occasionally available from specialty nurseries such as The Uncommon Rose. I encourage you to take the opportunity to put some of the mystery and legend of rose history into your own garden!


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