French passion for roses in full bloom

Audio 20:39
Alison Hird

The rose may be the emblem of England, but the French are showing they’re every bit (if not more) passionate about the queen of flowers.


France has the blues: let down by its football team, faced with the prospect of working an extra two years before getting a state pension, and an increasingly unpopular government. "Vive les Vacances," as they say. And yet all over France, in the quiet of its many gardens, lies a parallel world where thousands of rose enthusiasts hand out tender loving care and achieve a staggering level of zenitude as a result.

They’re part of a long tradition of French rose enthusiasts: amateur gardeners blessed with green fingers. One of the biggest annual gatherings is the Journées de la Rose festival at the Abbaye Royale de Chaalis in Picardy. If you manage to sidestep one of the hazardously-driven wheelbarrows piled high with rose bushes, you can ogle the hundreds of varieties on show, savour its rose garden and pick up precious advice on how to best nurture what were originally wildflowers growing in forests (eglantine).

The French passion for roses goes back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when France was the largest producer of roses in Europe. The very first French rose (La Belle Renommée) was bred in 1778. 

 “Almost 90 per cent of roses [seen in catalogues of the time] had a French name,” explains Francois Joyaux, president of the French Rose Federation, and holder of the largest collection of old French roses (Rosa Gallica), with some 300 varieties. While France is no longer a major exporter, the passion for roses has not wilted. Au contraire, one in three of the four billion roses sold every year worldwide remains a French-bred Meilland.

What do roses really need to thrive? Why don’t they smell like they used to? How did they arrive in France? What’s the most famous French poem about roses? Listen and find out alongside garden designer André Gamard, author Francois Joyaux, rose-grower Jean-Lin le Brun and historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse. 

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