‘The Silk Road Hybrids’

: Cultural linkage facilitated the transmigration of the remontant gene in Rosa x damascena, the Damask rose, in circa 3,500 BCE from the river Amu Darya watershed in Central Asia, the river Oxus valley of the Classics, to Rome by 300 BCE.

  • Robert Mattock

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The only rose species carrying the remontant gene were thought to be Rosa chinensis and Rosa rugosa whose geographical distributions lie well to the east of, and isolated from, Central Asia; and Rosa fedtschenkoana whose distribution extends only as far East as Uzbekistan. This thesis proposes instead, that commencing in circa 3,500 BCE cultural linkage facilitated the transmigration of the remontant gene in Rosa x damascena, the Damask rose in horticultural nomenclature, from the river Amu Darya watershed in Central Asia, to Rome by 300 BCE. Remontancy in western garden roses was thought to have been introduced into Western Europe in the form of the Damasks by 15th. Century, and more certainly in four Rosa chinensis hybrids, from China into Britain by 1780. This research found evidence in the works of Classical writers, notably Columnella, Dioscorides, Pliny, Theophrastus and Virgil, that the remontant Rosa x damascena was cultivated in Rome by 300 BC. They variously named the repeat flowering rose Rosa x damascena, the Damask, or the ‘rose of Paestum’ as the ‘pestane rose’, or ‘biferique rosaria Paesti’. These writers described the cultivation of the rose from ‘suckers’, a word that this research shows, was misleadingly, mistranslated. This research supports the DNA analysis in 2000 of Iawata et al, which demonstrates that, Rosa gallica, R. moschata and R. fedtschenkoana are the parents of the Damask. Plotting, recently revised, geographical distributions of the Damask’s parents show an overlap. This overlap shows that not only natural hybridisation between the three parents was possible, but significantly the overlap, the point of origin of Rosa x damascena, is located within the river Amu Darya watershed.The Classical writers describe the location, the date, and the process, for the production of rose water from the petals of the Damask. This cultural link between the Damask, and rose water production, evidenced the transmigration of the rose from Central Asia, through Persia, Turkey and the Middle East, and from there to Rome. Locations for rose water manufacture, plotted on a map, correlate with the route of what is now known as, The Silk Road. In support of the practical, horticultural viability of this transmigration, a field survey in 2015 revealed that the methods of transporting plant material, the method of propagation, and the cultivation of the rose in the hot, harsh and arid climate of the Dadès Valley in Morocco today, mirror the methods practiced in similar climatic conditions along the Silk Road in antiquity. Research shows that rose water has been used in religious ceremony for at least 4000 years, throughout Central Asia, Persia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Surprisingly, no evidence has been found to show that spread of the Damask correlates with the spread of faiths and beliefs, that is, until the spread of the Moslem faith from 700 CE. Conversely the spread of the use of rose water in medicine, hygiene, sanitation and fragrancing are well documented by the Classic writers. Research into the pharmacology of rose water, and its use in the treatment of a wide range of ailments, shows that in antiquity, the same ailments were successfully treated in Central Asia, as they were in Rome. In conclusion, Rosa x damascena, the Damask rose, together with its remontant characteristic, extended it geographical distribution from Central Asia from 3500BCE, to Rome by 300 CE, incentivised by man's demand for and health, hygiene and fragrance. Despite this cultural linkage, there is a paucity of evidence for the establishment of the Damask spreading further west as a garden plant, until the 18th. Century. Since then, rose hybridists have used the Damask to breed the remontant, large flowered, fragrant western garden hybrids much loved by gardeners today.Table of research findings *Unpublished, research by Mattock# Sourced from other’s researchThe rose carrying that carried the remontant gene to Rome by 300 BCE was Rosa x damascena, the Damask Rose. #The geographical distribution of the rose species, Rosa gallica, Rosa moschata Herrm and Rosa fedtschenkoana, the parents of Rosa x damascena, overlap. *The point of origin of Rosa x damascena has been derived from the overlap which when plotted on a map shows the location to be the river Amu Darya watershed, in Central Asia. *Rose water, rosaceum and rose oil is produced from the petals of the Damask. #The connection between the Damask and rose water production in antiquity was established from reading descriptions of the production in the Classics. Notably, those written by Columnella, Dioscorides, Pliny and Theophrastus and Virgil. *The cultivation of the Damask for rose water production is described in detail in the Classics. However, Latin and Greek translations of the original sources have misleadingly confused the word for ‘sucker’, the term for the material used to propagate the Damask, with the words for saplings, cuttings, reeds, screws and twigs. The latter would have perished in the climate of the Silk Road, and consequently the Damask would not have transmigrated. *The use of rose water and the cultivation of the Damask spread in tandem, because of the demand for the product in health, hygiene, sanitation, medicine, and fragrancing. *Rose water production spread west along the routes used by merchants and religious refugees, namely The Silk Road and the Royal Persian Road. *Dates and locations for the transmigration of the Damask, derived from Classical texts, have been plotted on to a time line and onto a map. The map evidences and illustrates the passage of the Damask from Central Asia to Rome. *Cultural linkage enabled the geographic spread of the manufacture of rose water, and in consequence the transmigration of the remontant gene in the Damask along the Silk Road to Rome. *Rose water manufacture virtually ceased circa 350 CE, and recommenced with Islamic expansionism from circa 800 C. #The thesis examines whether beliefs and faith were the driving force behind the cultural linkage, and concludes that the use of rose water in health, hygiene and medicine transcended religious fervour. Map plotted. *The thesis fills a significant gap in the knowledge of how the Damask rose played such a pivotal role in the history of the rose. *Lastly, the thesis proposes a new perception, a new history, of how repeat flowering, large flowered, strongly fragrant garden roses arrived in the West. *
Date of Award28 Sep 2017
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorMarion Harney (Supervisor) & John Beeching (Supervisor)

Cite this

‘The Silk Road Hybrids’: Cultural linkage facilitated the transmigration of the remontant gene in Rosa x damascena, the Damask rose, in circa 3,500 BCE from the river Amu Darya watershed in Central Asia, the river Oxus valley of the Classics, to Rome by 300 BCE.
Mattock, R. (Author). 28 Sep 2017

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD