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Rosa gallica L.

Red Rose

Modern name

Rosa × gallica L.


R. provincialis J. Herrm.; R. centifolia sens. Mill., not L.; R. austriaca Crantz; R. pumila Jacq.; R. arvina Krocker; R. rubra Lam.; R. incarnata sens. Boreau, not Mill.

A suckering shrub 112 to 4 ft high; stems and branches clad with glandular bristles and a few slender prickles, the largest of which may be curved but are rarely hooked. Leaves composed of three or five leaflets, rarely seven except on sterile shoots; rachis downy or glabrous, glandular, usually more or less prickly beneath. Leaflets elliptic, ovate or roundish, 1 to 312 in. long, obtuse or acute at the apex, rounded or slightly cordate at the base, dark green and glabrous above, hairy beneath at least on the main veins, with a rather prominent reticulation, teeth shallow, simple or glandular-compound. Stipules narrow, with spreading, acute tips. Flowers solitary, but sometimes up to three or even more in a cluster, bright rosy pink or crimson, sometimes dark velvety red (though probably only in cultivars), usually sweetly scented, 112 to 3 in. wide; petals overlapping, with a white or yellowish claw. Pedicels up to 3 in. long, clad with sessile or stalked glands, sometimes mixed with minute prickles. Receptacle ellipsoid or ovoid, rarely globular, usually with the same covering as the pedicels. Sepals of varying length, glandular on the back and at the edge, with a few lateral appendages or sometimes strongly pinnated, spreading to reflexed after flowering and soon falling. The glands in all parts of the inflorescence are aromatic, with a balsamic odour. Styles varying from glabrous to woolly, ellipsoid to globular, about 12 in. long, slow to ripen, with a leathery coat and acidulous flesh.

Native of southern and central Europe, east to the Ukraine, and of Asia Minor, the Caucasus and Iraq; cultivated since time immemorial. In the western part of its range R. gallica is patchily distributed and in the main confined to calcareous soils. But so long has it been grown, both as an ornamental and officinal plant, that it is difficult for botanists to distinguish the truly wild forms from escapes and the relics of ancient cultivation. The wild European form is sometimes distinguished as var. pumila (Jacq.) Ser.

Before the 19th century the red-flowered, semi-double officinal roses were the commonest form of the species in cultivation; this and the other principal sorts are mentioned below. From these an immense number of ornamental cultivars were raised early in the 19th century (a few earlier). Paul listed almost 500 of them in The Rose Garden (1848), mostly bred in France and many with variegated flowers. See further under Gallica group, p. 163.

var. aegyptiaca Schweinfurth ex Täckholm – This variety is probably not in cultivation but is mentioned for its historic interest. Judging from the description it differs from R. gallica as known in Europe in its corymbose inflorescence and in having sepals with a large leafy expansion at the apex (as in the Abyssinian R. richardii). The leaves are thick, oval-elliptic, obtuse at the apex, cordate at the base, with broad rounded teeth. It is common as a hedge plant in Egypt, and known there as ‘Ward Balladi’ – the ‘native’ or ‘country’ rose – a name suggesting that it has been cultivated over a long period (Svensk. Bot. Tidskr., Vol. 26 (1932), pp. 346-64, an article dealing with Schweinfurth’s interesting collections of Rosa in Egypt and Ethiopia).

var. holosericea [Du Roi] Ser. R. holosericea Du Roi; R. provincialis sens. Dum.-Cours., not Herrm. nor Mill. Velvet Roses. – The first detailed account of the Velvet roses was given by Roessig in his Beschreibung (1799, 1803) and some are portrayed in his Die Rosen. All had dark purplish red flowers, but there were two main sorts. In one the petals had a blackish sheen and the other, which he believed to be the original, a violet sheen. Of both there were single, semi-double and double forms, making six in all. He admitted that R. holosericea was near to R. gallica and indeed the differences he gives – the bristly but not prickly stems, pinnated sepals, round receptacles and non-exserted styles – are all part of the normal variation of R. gallica.

Velvet roses had been grown for some two centuries before Roessig’s time and owed the name (and the epithet holosericea) to the velvety texture and lustre of their petals (the erroneous belief, current in the 19th century, that they were Moss roses, could have been dispelled by reading the descriptions in Gerard’s Herball and Parkinson’s Paradisus). The semi-double ‘violet’ form of the Velvet rose was named by Roessig R. violacea and the rose still cultivated as ‘Violacea’ (see p. 203) agrees well with his account. Unfortunately Roessig said nothing of the habit of var. holosericea, for ‘Violacea’ disagrees with R. gallica as usually defined, in its tallish, lax habit. A possible explanation is that the Velvet roses came from the Near East, where it may be that R. gallica is not always as dwarf as it is in Europe. Among the roses collected by Nancy Lindsay in Iran in the 1930s was one which she called ‘the crested red cabbage’. This had leafy sepals and roundish leaflets as in ‘Violacea’, and very double, purple-red flowers.

The Velvet roses were certainly used in breeding the large race of Gallica roses that came into gardens towards the end of the 18th century. One still with us is ‘Tuscany’. Another was the Maheka rose or ‘Belle Sultane’ of Redouté (Vol. III, p. 78, t.). It has been suggested that this is ‘Violacea’, but the Maheka rose, according to Dumont de Courset’s description, had flowers which changed colour with age from rosy pink to ‘rouge vif’ and finally to dark brown.

var. officinalis Thory Apothecaries’ or Officinal Rose. – Interpreted in a broad sense, this is really the typical variety of R. gallica (see footnote). In some works it is also called Rose of Provins (e.g., by Gerard) while in France the name ‘Rosiers de Provins’ eventually came to mean all the cultivated forms of R. gallica. The name derives from Provins, a town to the south-east of Paris, in the old County of Champagne, once famous for its officinal red roses. No doubt the local soil and climate, and the traditional skills of the growers, helped to give the Provins rose its pre-eminence. But Pomet, in his famous Histoire des Drogues (1694), insists that it is a distinct sort. To quote from the English translation: ‘These Provins Roses are what are most esteemed of any Flowers in the whole World … . But since, of late years, these Provins Roses were dear, several Druggists and Apothecaries contented themselves with the common red roses that are cultivated about Paris and other parts … . Nevertheless, those who have made use of the other sort, have found, that they are not equal to the true Provins Roses, either in Beauty or Virtue; besides which, they will not keep so long, notwithstanding all their Pains to preserve them.’

According to tradition, the Provins rose was brought from the Near East by Thibaut IV, King of Navarre and Count of Champagne, who led the Crusade of 1239-40. This has the ring of truth, for there can be little doubt that the medicinal applications of the R. gallica were learnt from Arab works. The tannin-rich petals of the Provins rose were astringent and, either dried or converted into conserves or syrups were put to various uses, among them the treatment of tuberculosis, as laid down by the Arab physician Mesuë of Damascus, whose works became very influential in early European medicine (Linnaeus named after him the genus Mesua). But other forms of the officinal R. gallica must have had the same properties as the true Provins rose, even to a lesser degree. The dried petals of the Provins rose, according to Pomet, were exported in vast quantities to the West Indies and for this purpose their keeping qualities would have been of more importance than when they were used locally. The red rose was also much used to make rose-water and rose-vinegar, and was grown for that purpose in private gardens. There is also mention in the old literature of a very double form whose buds did not open properly; this was used for making sugar of roses.

Although the origin of the White Rose of York is uncertain, it is now held to be reasonably certain that the Red Rose of Lancaster was originally acquired as an emblem by Edmund, second son of Henry III and first Earl of Lancaster, through his marriage in 1275 to Blanche, widow of Henry I, King of Navarre and Count of Champagne (Capt. H. S. Lecky RN, ‘The Rose in Heraldry’, Rose Annual 1931, reprinted in the same publication in 1957, pp. 10-21).

The similarity of ‘Provins’ to ‘province’ and ‘Provence’ has been the source of much misunderstanding (see note, p. 70). Confusion has also been caused by the fact that in the nomenclature of the apothecaries the officinal red rose was known as Rosa damascena or the Red Damask. This usage passed into common speech – ’ … the vulgar idea is that a Damask Rose is a blowsy red Rose, like a rural lass at a country fair’ (Gard. Chron. 1849, p. 596). But in garden nomenclature a Damask rose was R. damascena and ‘damask’ as an epithet had in earlier times meant flesh-coloured or light pink (incarnate).

cv. ‘Versicolor’ (‘Rosa Mundi’). – This differs from the common red rose ‘only in the colour of the flowers, which in this case are for the most part of a pale blush colour, diversely spotted, marked and striped, throughout every leaf of the double flower, with the same red colour which is in the ordinary red rose.’ Nothing is known of the origin of this rose nor by whom it was so delightfully named ‘Rosa Mundi’, ‘Rose of the World’. Neither Gerard nor Parkinson were acquainted with it, and the first English description that can be found, quoted above, appears in Rea’s Flora (1665), where the name ‘Rosa Mundi’ is used.

There was at one time a puzzling confusion between ‘Rosa Mundi’ and the York and Lancaster rose, which have quite different styles of variation and differ from each other botanically as R. gallica does from R. damascena. The confusion can be traced to Philip Miller’s Figures (1770), Vol. II, t. 221, where the rose portrayed is ‘Rosa Mundi’ while the text refers throughout to the York and Lancaster and calls it by that name. Either there was an editorial blunder or Miller was not personally acquainted with either of these roses.

R. gallica enters into the parentage of the Hybrid Teas and their predecessors either directly, through the Hybrid Chinas or indirectly through R. damascena and the Portland rose (‘Portlandica’), both of which derive from it.


The name R. gallica L. is discussed by Crépin in Bull. Herb. Boiss., 2nd ser., Vol. 5, pp. 139-41. Whatever may be the identity of the rose so named by Linnaeus in the first edition of Species Plantarum, the R. gallica of the second edition is the species described here. It has been stated that typical R. gallica has single flowers, but Linnaeus based the name on R. rubra multiplex of C. Bauhin’s Pinax and R. rubra flore valde pleno et semi-pleno, simplici fere of J. Bauhin’s Historia; it therefore covers the whole gamut from double to almost single.



Other species in the genus