Aug 1 2011: Three Colour Plates Showing Varieties Of Roses (from The Waverley Book of Knowledge, 1950s)

In July 26’s post on The Apple and its Close Relatives, it was mentioned that that great symbol of Englishness, the apple, had its origins in wild varieties found mainly in China and Kazakhstan, and had found its way to England by a process of migration. It was also mentioned in passing that the apple is related to another English symbol, the rose, with both being members of the family Rosaceae, a fact that at first seems surprising, but – once the appearance of apple leaves and blossoms are considered – seems entirely self-evident. The rose, too, though, has its origins elsewhere…a symbol of Englishness in ways more appropriate to the complex history of what the Australian poet Les Murray once described as “the Anglo-Celtic Archipelago” than might first be understood.

“Most rose species are native to Asia, with smaller numbers being native to North America and a few to Europe and northwest Africa. Roses from different regions of the world hybridize readily, giving rise to types that overlap the parental forms, making it difficult to determine basic species. Of the more than 100 species of roses known, around 10 species (most of these native to Asia) were involved in the crossbreeding that ultimately produced today’s many types of garden roses…”

                    (from Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009 edition).

If this complex and culturally hybridized hereditary trail doesn’t better represent the idea of Englishness than any amount of searching for consistent, single roots beneath the dog-roses and shrubs littering our hedgerows – themselves every bit as tangled as their own origins – then we’re not considering its implications carefully enough.

As politicians and nationalist groups with little realistic grasp of the nationalities or cultures they claim to support continue to emit opportunistic dog-whistles about immigration and Englishness, native and foreign influences, perhaps the consideration of two of that culture’s most enduring symbols – the rose and the apple – will help to defuse the deeply negative effects of their malignant background noise. Perhaps this can help us to by-pass dangerous and entirely false assumptions about what Englishness actually is in favour of a final acknowledgement of the the robust cross-pollinations and complexites that produced it. We can only hope.

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