Gardening with Galligan: The histories of roses and cats

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO Before Route 114 was widened, daylilies lined both sides of the road. It’s safer now, of course, but they were very pretty. If Shelter Island had its own flower, it would certainly be the daylily.

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO
Before Route 114 was widened, daylilies lined both sides of the road. It’s safer now, of course, but they were very pretty. If Shelter Island had its own flower, it would certainly be the daylily.

Many of the things we take for granted as part of the American scene had to make their way to the New World from places very far away. Among these are two of my favorites — cats and roses.

It’s easy to understand how cats managed to find their place on these shores, since every ship arriving had at least one if not more; their job was to keep the rodent population in its place. Some of those cats — clearly the more intelligent ones — having endured the weeks at sea, must have decided some version of “Never again!” and jumped ship in the New World. Apparently there were enough of them so that they could find each other and a guaranteed future here.

But what of roses? How did roses find their way to this new strange land? Later, there were nurseries and shippers, but what about in the beginning?

Garden literature tells us that in times gone by, plants were valued not for their aesthetics but for their practical use. There’s probably some truth in this; perhaps some valued the rose for its hips, which could be made into rose hip jelly. A rose hip forms if the flower is left unpicked and  withers on the stem. These fruits are usually bright red, sometimes with a hint of purple. They are edible, as rose petals are, but should only be used if taken from a plant that has not been sprayed with any form of pesticide. Of course, in days gone by there were no pesticides so this was not an issue.

The taste of a rose hip is described as “tangy,” along the line of Red Zinger tea. Rose hips can be made into herbal teas, jam, jelly, soup, beverages, pies, marmalade, bread and even wine; you can find recipes online. They are an excellent source of vitamin C, with 20 times more than oranges.

In England during World War II, pamphlets were written urging gardeners to gather rose hips and make vitamin C syrup for children; no citrus fruits were finding their way through the network of German submarines. Benefits of the hips include both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. So certainly they were valued by that 17th century housewife whose garden was full of them. Although in my imagination, she did indeed smile when she surveyed the June bloom.

But what did she do or think on that day when her husband came home and told her the plan — the 17th century version of “Hey, Honey, I’ve been transferred.” I know that she didn’t want to go, not if she was anything like me and I like to think she was. She probably valued the familiar as precious and her connections to loved ones as primary, and perhaps she was slow to plunge into the unknown.

In my imagination, she looked at her roses and tried not to weep, then realized what she could do. Roses, as gardeners and shippers know, travel “bare root.” If you order roses sent to you, they will arrive bare root.

Someone dug them up, brushed the soil off their roots, dried them slightly and wrapped them carefully before they dried out completely, to be planted again when they reached their final destination. That’s what she did, wrapping them in old clothing, putting them at the bottom of the trunk, her own secret, until she planted them beside her new front door in her new world. I like to think that when her husband first noticed them, he smiled tolerantly and with some affection, perhaps shaking his head ever so slightly.

That’s the history of the rose that has not been written — but I know it really happened.