A Rose Is A Rose

Ring around the rosie
A pocket full of posies
Ashes, Ashes
All fall down

children dancing
Ring around the rosie

This old nursery rhyme goes with a children’s game that involves standing in a circle and holding hands, skipping in a circle and then falling down on the last line. The supposed connection of the words to the bubonic or black plague is apparently without substance. Although the words first appeared in print during the Victorian Era, they were associated with the well-known tune in the 18th century.

Once the false image of people dying of the plague is dispelled, we can actually picture a group of children skipping around a rose bush, their pockets actually full of posies. But what is a posy?

It is not a specific type of flower, but rather refers to a small bouquet of flowers that is either held or pinned to one’s clothing. Other names for it include a “nosegay” or a “tussie-mussie” (or tussle-mussle). In other words, the children in the nursery rhyme may very well have picked a bunch of flowers from the rose bush, stuffed them in their pockets, grabbed each others hands, formed a circle and started to dance and sing.

If we are talking about any more than two or three children, we are probably not talking about a tea rose bush. Wild roses are either bushes or climbers. Their flowers come in many colors, but are all five-petaled. Many fruit trees are in the rose family (Rosaceae), including apples, cherries, plums and peaches.

Cultivation of rose species is ancient, done for thousands of years by the Chinese and known in European history from representations of non-wild types in Roman frescoes. Cultivated roses are divided into two broad categories: “Old Garden Roses” and “New Garden Roses.”

The familiar rose so often sent by the dozen, stood dramatically alone in a bud vase or pinned to a lapel, is a hybrid tea rose, a “New Garden Rose.” These were developed in the late 19th century by crossing “Tea rose” with “Hybrid Perpetuals,” both of which are “Old Garden Roses.”

The Tudor rose

Old Garden Roses include the “Alba” roses, which are a cross between the wild Rosa arvensis, the field rose, and Rosa alba, a cross between R. canina (the dog rose) and R. gallica (the French rose). “Alba Semi-plena” is known as the “White Rose of York,” the symbol of the House of Lancaster, one half of the Plantagenet struggle for the English throne in the 16th century.

The struggle was known as the “War of the Roses” because the House of Tudor had as its symbol a red rose, thought to be R. gallica officinialis. It is interesting that as the two houses were both descended from the same line, so were their roses. Moreover the shared ancestor was the French rose and the Plantagenet line originated with the Norman French invader William the Conqueror.

The European Old Garden Rose varieties tended to bloom only once a year and to have fragrant blossoms. The “China roses,” introduced to Europe in the 18th century, bloomed repeated through the year, but had little scent and less robust foliage. Crossing China roses with R. multiflora, another East Asian species, produced the New Garden Rose class called “Polyantha” (many flowered). These shrubs could be literally covered with blooms for several months.

They are just the sort of plant that you might picture small children gathering flowers from, stuffing them in their pockets and then dancing around. The polyanthas first appeared in France in the late 19th century. The “Ring Around the Rosy” words first appeared in print in 1881 in Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose or Old Nursery Rhymes.


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