There are many types of roses cultured by the most incredible botanists and horticulturists since the first garden varieties were cultured in China almost 5,000 years ago. From there it spread overland and sea routes to the Middle East. As Rome grew, so did the use of roses to adorn arches of victorious legions and to perfume the houses of the wealthy. The first settler in America to successfully import cultivated European species of roses was William Penn in 1699. Many different breeds now decorate estates, park gardens and humble homes.
These hybrids are impressive. They may be luscious blooms tracing their heritage to the gardens of rich Persian kings or lovely clinging pink tea roses that once climbed the walls of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s castle, “Chateau Des Rudel”. The roses in the White House Rose Garden are attractively arranged and rearranged according to the taste of the First Lady. Roses are so emblematic of emotion that there has been a war named after them (The War of the Roses) and have become symbolic of everlasting love.
In contrast, are the common wild ‘Immigrant Roses” covering the dune lands close to the ocean and bays of the North Atlantic. Its official name is “Rosa Ragusa’’, though on much of Long Island they are called “Montauk’’ or beach roses. There is some history and legend to that name which I will address but not before pointing out that in various coastal areas they are titled Cape May Roses, Cape Cod Roses, Delaware Bay, and Carolina Shore Roses. You will find Plymouth Roses, Narraganset and Bristol Roses, and up north, who can ignore the New Brunswick and Fundy Roses. You can find many others, but as the Bard, William Shakespeare wrote, and I’ve taken some liberties here, “A beach rose by any other name is still beach rose”!
Attributes of the beach rose are many. The blooms are not large but have a beautiful waif-like quality to their petals which lets them dance in the summer breeze. There are three basic natural colors, light pink and light magenta and to a lesser extent, white. They grow extremely well in natural beach sand which cultured roses cannot adapt to. The larger thicker bloomed hybrids you may find in front of a beach cottage are planted in rich, trucked-in soil, which does not exist in the outer lands. Most of the cultured varieties cannot sustain themselves in the salty, humid atmosphere prevalent at the shore. They drew on their ancient basic non-cultured genetics, to survive in the harsher coastal environs and nutrient-starved sand. That is what gives them their unique look, root system and ability to thrive on their own.
The beach rose blossom stems are connected to very thorny vine branches that spread rapidly if not cut back. The roots tend to spread laterally to conquer more territory. This is what makes the beach rose such a stabilizer on the coastal dunes and bay islands where they promulgate. As to their scent, they are not as perfumy as cultured roses, but they generate a bounty of pollen that attracts bees and butterflies and occasional hummingbirds. As the season progresses, they develop small apple-like fruit called “rose hips” that a few Old Salts, who keep traditions alive, make jelly, wine, tea, and syrup. You can eat them right off the vine. Some folks swear by them, others just spit them out. There’s just no accounting for taste on the outer lands.
Now we entertain the legend of how “Rosa Ragusa” arrived here. I can only verify that I’ve heard the same or similar versions of this history from Breezy Point to Montauk and beyond. I once had a printed version in the mid-70s that I picked up on a vacation brochure in Nantucket. So, just sit back on your boat cushions or beach chair, treat yourself to a cold, iced, hard seltzer and read on. Remember! Put your sunblock and sunglasses on.
The legend still recounted today amongst the generational beachers, baymen and marine workers, the descendants of the “Cod Fish Aristocracy” and the original European settlers recounts the story that “Rosa Ragusa” arrived on these shores in the late 1600s from Merry Olde England. Now, by this time the English had thrown the Dutch out of New Amsterdam and had the nerve to rename it “New York”. The early Dutch already had their own flower misadventures in New Amsterdam during the “Tulip bulb investment scandals” when many a Dutchman lost his shirt and every guilder he kept in that box under his bed. You know the box – the cigar box with Rembrandt’s portrait of “The Dutch Masters” on it. They ramped up the cost of a single tulip bulb to as high as $60,000 in today’s money. And then – crash! The gig was over! Dutchmen couldn’t give them away nor were they tasty enough to eat. Ah! But I digress!
As the English thrived in towns and small cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, and so many more, houses became more civilized looking and the demand for landscaping grew. Wherever there’s a need, someone fills it. So, there was this guy. We’ll just stick with calling him” Guy”. Well, “Guy” got investors together to join in a venture of importing cuttings of beautiful hybrid roses from the royal estates of England. They would naturally give a piece of the action to the King, Queen, and any royalty that would let him cull out dormant cuttings and pack them off to the colonies to add a bit of color to their very dreary gardens. It was this guy who first came up with the ditty, “Hey! This is a win, win deal!”
Guy went to the seafaring town of Liverpool and hired a captain, a ratty ship and crew. They had to make a late autumn crossing while the cuttings were dormant and packed in dry sawdust. The crossing was extremely rough, and Guy spent two months hanging over the railing “tossing” as they say. The poor man never imagined how late autumn on the North Atlantic could be. He had crossed back and forth many times but always in summer when he could lounge on the deck with his shirt off drinking grog while singing sea shanties. He thought he would soon find relief when his luck turned really bad. Or is it “Badder”! Whatever! As Guy was making his way closer to New York. Guy’s ship had the bad fortune to be overtaken and boarded by the infamous Captain Tew, better known as Black Beard, who was beating his way down to the Caribbean rather late that year. Tew was already famously notorious, and Guy began saying his prayers. When Tew demanded what valuable cargo they were carrying. Guy shakily informed him. “We have a hull full of thorny sticks, Sir!” Tew had dealt with bullshit before, and this smacked mightily of it. He pointed his pistol at Guy while his crew rummaged below deck. Through the open hatch, he could hear his men spouting obscenities along with a thousand “Ouches”! Up came his crew picking thorns out of their bloody hands. “Sir! Nothin’ down below but thousands of thorny sticks covered in mounds of sawdust”! After looking at himself, Tew and all his crew crabbed lines and swung back to their ship. As they sailed away Tew could be heard swearing “England has gone bloody mad”!
It was a narrow escape. Guy went below to change his messy pants. Coming back on board his captain could make out Montauk Point in the mist. The navigator yelled to the crew, “Look out for the lighthouse to guide us! There are dangerous sandbars here’’. One of the crew noted there was no lighthouse, and it wouldn’t be built for another 100 years. Damn! Said Guy, as his ship thudded right into a sand bar and began taking on water. The hull was breached, and the ship began to founder. First sawdust then thorny cuttings began to flow out of the hull and taken by the currents, north, south, east and west along the coasts, inlets and bays of colonial America. But it was at Montauk where they first washed and took root and heartedly thrived the next spring.
Guy and the crew were hanging on for dear life as the rising tide and huge waves began to break up the remains of the ship. Guy was in “goodbye world” mode. Suddenly, out of the fog, he saw a well-appointed sloop making for them. The captain of the sloop held his vessel off a bit and had some of his crew rowed over in their long boat and removed the desperate crew a few at a time. Guy, being the stalwart, brave, and upstanding man he was, was the first to jump on the first trip to safety. When all were aboard, the rescue sloop raised all its canvas, pointed his bow west, and as he held the course on the wheel with his left hand, he outstretched his right and spoke.
“Williams me name! William Kidd. I’m a “Gentleman of fortune’’
I’m heading for the great dock in New York Harbor to unload some “Cargo” so to speak before I sail south for the winter.
“What be yer name”! Guy barely whispered “Guy”.
Kidd inquired of who he assumed was also a “Man of fortune”, “Did yer lose all yer treasure when she sank, Matey? Happened to me once near Madagascar”! “I lost thousands of thorny twigs”, replied Guy.
Kidd stared at him for what seemed to be half an hour. Then Kidd burst out laughing and shouting! “England has gone bloody mad! As he ferried the rescued crew to New York.
What happened many years later to Kidd is well known. He was hanged as a pirate in London. His body was tarred and hung from a gibbet on the Thames as a warning to all pirates. What happened to Guy is lost to history other than he returned to
London penniless and lived out the remainder of his years in the most abject of circumstances. For the many, many years tarred Kidd’s body hung chained and displayed on the Thames and every day a disheveled man placed a simple rose at his feet.
When you walk the dunes, the swales, or the bay islands in late spring and summer, take time to revel in the beauty and hardiness of the beach roses. Watch them wave in the wind as bees and butterflies drift by. But most importantly remember this, “Rosa Ragusa” is an immigrant who settled here and flowered, just like all of us, for we are all immigrants here.
C. 2022 By Mark C. Nuccio-All rights reserved for story and illustration.
You can contact Mark at – email@example.com