There was a time in Jerusalem when, with the notable exception of roses, cultivation of plants was forbidden. 2000 years ago, when the Holy Temple still stood within Jerusalem’s walls, no gardens could be planted because of the smells of rot and decay associated with decomposing vegetation and manure that well-tended gardens may produce. Unpleasant odors could not be allowed in the vicinity of God’s sanctuary.
For two reasons, growing roses in Jerusalem was permitted, despite the overall ban on horticultural activity in the capital city. The first was tradition. To quote from the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama, 82b), there had been rose gardens in Jerusalem “from the days of the first prophets.”
The other reason rose gardens were permitted in Jerusalem was that, according to Rashi, the Medieval commentator, roses were used as an additive to the Temple incense mixture, which was burned twice a day. At the end of the Talmud’s list of incense ingredients (Keritot, 6a), an extra element called kipat hayarden is mentioned. Rashi says this term means “banks of the Jordan” and is a reference to roses that grew along the edges of the Jordan River. Thus, per Rashi, the gardens permitted in Jerusalem were for the cultivation of Jordan River roses whose function was to enhance the fragrance of Temple incense.
According to most authorities, roses are not mentioned in the original Hebrew Bible, King James’ English version notwithstanding. In the Song of Songs, the Hebrew havazelet hasharon is typically translated as “rose of Sharon.” Yet havazelet is a compound word meaning “hidden in the shade” and refers to the lily, noted for its underground bulbs that remain hidden and alive even after the annual death and disappearance of lily flowers and foliage.
A similar mistake is made with shoshana ben hahohim, also from the Song of Songs, which is commonly translated as “a rose among thorns.” Yet shoshana is actually another word for lily, confirmed by shoshana’s derivation from the word shesh or six, which refers to the lily’s six petals. Roses that grew in ancient Israel, on the other hand, like wild or indigenous roses everywhere, typically have five petals.
It turns out that the word “rose” has the same origin as vered, the Hebrew word for rose. Their common etymological root is found in varehada, which means rose in Avestan, an ancient Persian tongue, or in vard, the Armenian word for rose. These words are related to wrodon and rhodia, ancient Greek words for rose, which led finally to rosa in Latin and rose in English.
January is the month to think about roses when it comes to pruning, planting, or fertilizing them.
Let’s start with pruning. There are two basic strategies, depending on the number and the size of roses that will grow this spring. You can either prune your rose bushes down to a height of 18 inches or allow them to remain tall, up to four feet in height or taller. The taller your rose bushes, and the less radically you prune them, the more flowers you will get in the spring. However, the size of roses on taller, more lightly pruned bushes, will be less than that on bushes pruned to a lower height.
Always prune back to a bud that points outwards. New growth develops in the direction that a bud is pointing so that buds pointing towards the interior of the plant will grow inward, which is not a good idea. You want growth to be directed outwards where more light is available and air can easily circulate around foliage and flowers .
Speaking of air circulation, this is a major consideration when pruning roses since insect pests and diseases will plague plants where there is congested growth and moisture on stem, leaf, or flower — whether from irrigation or morning dew — is slow to evaporate. The best insurance policy against congested growth is to remove all crossing branches and to prune plants to three or four main stems that are arranged, more or less, in the shape of a vase.
When your pruning is done, you will want to make sure that you remove all remaining leaves. Allowing leaves to remain on the plant will prevent your rose bushes from entering deep dormancy, a condition necessary for optimal re-growth and robust flowering in the spring.
You will find bare root roses available in nurseries this time of year. They are much less expensive than container grown roses and that is their main appeal since it will always be safer to plant a well-rooted rose bush than one with a sparsely developed root system. Prior to planting, it is a good idea to soak your bare root clumps in a bucket of water for several hours or even overnight. Before root submersion, mix in 1/2 cup of Epsom salts per gallon of water.
As for fertilization of established roses in the ground, now is an excellent time to do so since February is typically the wettest LosAngeles month and the coming rain will dissolve the fertilizer and bring it down to the roots. Here, too, Epsom salts are recommended. Apply 1/2 cup of Epsom salts to each established rose bush. You can either dissolve the Epsom salts in water and apply with a sprinkler or hose-end sprayer, or lightly cultivate the Epsom salts into the top inch or two of soil that surrounds each bush. Most plant species benefit from Epsom salts but sages (Salvia species) do not so make sure to exclude them from your Epsom salt fertilization program. For established roses, you can also spray a mix of one half cup of Epsom salts per gallon of water every three to four weeks throughout the growing season, which is also effective, when foliarly applied, for pest control. Some gardeners also apply a one inch layer of steer manure around their established rose bushes and cover the manure with several inches of straw or other mulch this time of the year.
Tip of the Week: California wild roses (Rosa californica) are similar to Israel native roses (Rosa canina). Foliage, flowers, and rose hips are all fragrant and the hips are recommended for making tea. California wild roses will appreciate a bit more moisture than other native plants. While growing in full sun close to the coast, they will benefit from partial shade in hotter, more inland environments. California wild roses make a fine natural barrier due to their nasty thorns that will keep out meandering cats, for example. Individual plants will grow in a thicket, with each individual rose bush reaching up to six feet tall with a spread of ten feet.