"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Lady Banks’ Rose (and Rose Mania)

Lady Banks’ Rose (and Rose Mania)

From “Banksiae Lutea” in Old Roses by Graham Murphy:

“Banksian roses are named in honour of Lady Dorothea Banks, the wife of the renowned botanist, Sir Joseph Banks. These plants are vigorous ramblers, producing flexible, green almost thornless canes about 6 metres in length. Because the flowers are borne in trusses on side-shoots, most profusely when these are two or three years old, pruning involves removing any very old wood and some of the five-year-old canes, leaving the remainder to flower another two or three years. Rosa banksia lutea is the hardiest variety and flowers best on a sheltered south-facing wall; although only slightly fragrant, it is one of the world’s finest roses, with large hanging sprays of tiny, double, pale yellow flowers.”

From “Chinese Whispers” in The Rose: A True History by Jennifer Potter:

“Britain was to play a major role in bringing Chinese roses to Europe, through the medium in which she felt most comfortable, foreign trade, spurred on by the scientific and practical curiosity of men such as Sir Joseph Banks, botanist, explorer, patron of the natural sciences, President of the Royal Society, friend and adviser to King George III and virtual director of the King’s garden at Kew….

“[The] British sent two diplomatic missions to the Chinese Emperor; the first set off in 1793, led by colonial administrator Lord Macartney and armed with much helpful advice from Sir Joseph Banks, who wanted to find out as much as he could about Chinese know-how in all spheres of science, manufacturing and the arts….

“Banks was particularly concerned to find out all he could about plants, and how the Chinese gardened.”

From “Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot in The Essential T.S. Eliot:

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered….


Upon learning that the plant whose photos appear below was called “Lady Banks’ Rose” — also sometimes called “Banks’s Rose” and officially Rosa banksiae or Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ for deeper yellow variations — I started digging around in my books, books, and more books to see what I might discover about the plant and its history. As with all plant history stories, things get complicated pretty quickly, and the two short quotations above barely hint at the challenges involved in relocating plants from the Chinese empire to Great Britain during the Victorian era.

The second book I referenced above — The Rose: A True History by Jennifer Potter — has one long chapter devoted to the efforts of Sir Joseph Banks and others to bring plants to the west, efforts that involved some intrigue, numerous failures, gobs of money, and months of travel. In Potter’s telling, it seems that only one rose plant that would ultimately be named after Lady Banks survived the trip, a white one from which seeds and further cultivation would eventually be used to create the yellow Lutea version — which is what I think I have pictured, as even those blooms that are lighter in yellow color looked more saturated depending on the angle from which they were photographed.

As is so often the case when I go on these little research expeditions, I stumbled across a word that was new to me in the book Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders: Pteridomania. Pteridomania has nothing to do with roses (or dinosaurs, which was my first thought). It instead refers to “a Victorian craze for ferns” — a startlingly specific definition to describe Victorian obsession with the shapes and forms of ferns: fern plants; big ferns in pots and little ferns in windows; pictures, photographs, and drawings of ferns; and the incorporation of fern-form into the design elements of everything from household goods to carpet, and building structures to wallpaper. While it is equally likely that fern motifs pre-date their appearance in Victorian Britain or Victorian America, it is just as likely that any representation of ferns you might see in the design of a pot or a mirror, or a window frame or a door cornice, had its cultural genesis in the Victorian era’s pteridomania.

The idea that there was a botanical mania associated with certain historical periods was also new to me. Yes, I’d heard — and you likely have too — of “tulip fever” or “orchid mania” (which is actually and delightfully called “orchidelirium“), but I hadn’t really thought of them as distinct historical periods that intersected with or overlapped periods of botanical exploration, imperialism, and transplanting plants from one country to another. So far I’ve learned about twenty such periods from the seventeenth century onward; I won’t name them all but I imagine I could spend a lifetime studying them.

Such an intersection of history, botany, and obsession occurred for roses too: “Rose Mania” is the title of a thirty-page chapter in The Rose: A True History, which opens with the author’s rousing description of rose-wilding in Europe and the United States:

“Rose mania, which gripped Europe and America in the mid to late-nineteenth century, may not have been as sudden or as catastrophic as the tulip fever that flared among the Dutch in the 1630s, but it defined its age just as dramatically. Accumulation, expansion and conspicuous display were the new watchwords, as breeders competed to bring the newest, largest, most spectacular varieties to market, and consumers of all classes sought to acquire the latest breeds.

“By the 1880s, rose parties were all the rage in Britain (or so an editorial in the
Gardeners’ Chronicle would have us believe), held ‘every day, all day long, and far into the night’. If rose parties at midday were apt to be hot, dusty and exhausting affairs, ‘Roses at break of day — a dewy one — are simply divine — so full of beauty, freshness, and fragrance, as to fill and satisfy and soothe our every sense of pleasure. Roses by moonlight offered even greater pleasures, when they seem ‘so different in colour and even form as to appear altogether new and different flowers. The perfume, too, is fuller, richer, sweeter; and perhaps, to enjoy Roses to the full, it would be well at times to meet them in the gloaming or by moonlight alone.'”

“Rose mania” doesn’t have its own fancy name like “pteridomania” — but that’s true for a lot of the floral eras, most of which are called by the name of a flower followed by “mania” or “fever”. So I thought I could make up my own name for rose mania, one you can use when you’re standing amidst a batch of blooming roses, getting pleasantly lightheaded inhaling the rose scent, all while wondering who your Victorian ancestral flower-manics might have been. Let’s call rose mania: the Rosencrazies.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!


    1. Dale

      Thank you. Yes, they’re amazing. I had seen the bush before, but not photographed it — yet this time caught it at just the right time when there were a lot of new blooms among the stone statuary and winding their way around a crepe myrtle tree nearby.

      Thanks for the comment!

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