The other day, on an Internet forum, I found out that the National Flower of America was the Rose.
Now it's not the fact that this, to me (who has, after all, never set foot on their soil) seemed, of all the flowers in the world to be the most incongruous of any symbols I would ever associate with America that had me gobsmacked.
It was the fact that, since around the mid 1400's, the Rose has been the symbol of England.
Actually it is the flower chosen by, I think, about 4 other countries back in the mists of time: but it was the rose of England that the first colonists in North America would have been familiar with. The fair flowers of our womanhood (some of whom took ship and sailed off with never a backward glance) are known as English Roses. We had, - prior to the departure for the Colonies - gone through the infamous War of the Roses; Juliet had immortalised the rose for generations of sulky schoolchildren; and the great Tudor dynasty (you know, those nasty symbols of Royalty at whom the Americans had turned up their noses) was symbolised by the Rose.
Indeed, one of America's Founding Fathers had been so homesick for the fragrant flower of his old country that he had caused various species to be transported to America and spent all the time he could spare from framing the Constitution, industriously propagating the damn things and spreading them all over the New World.
So at first I thought it was all part of some Machiavellian plot: something equal in intricacy to those ever-popular books about secret societies and abstruse symbols, that were all the rage a few years back. Perhaps continuing to use the rose as their symbol was a deliberate ploy by some of the early colonists to secretly signal their allegiance to England after all? Perhaps, by choosing the rose the conspiritors, if they lost the war to gain independence, would all creep out from under the bodies and declare their allegience to the country they had left behind. Hell, perhaps it was set up with some master plan to re-take the colonies? I was well on my way to a plot that would rival the Da Vinci Code and make my fortune.
Until I found at that the rose (our bloody rose!) hadn't become the flower of America until 1986! Wotha? Nineteen hundred and eighty six? Americans had been sneering at the Brits for a couple of hundred years by then. They had been celebrating their uniqueness and their independence and their superiority over the "Old country" every 4th of July practically every year since they threw all that (Chinese) tea overboard into Boston harbour. But in 1986 they suddenly decide they want our national flower?
Today I walked through Rudyard Kipling's garden. His house was still slumbering in the sunshine as it did when he wrote the Just So stories and Kim there. Croquet was being played on the lawn. The serious of walled, interlocking Sussex stones still divided the spaces into herb garden, deciduous garden, kitchen garden and rose garden as they have traditionally done in English gardens for centuries. Fat, gaudily striped bumble bees still wobbled around intoxicated in every lavender bush and, over it all the rich, heady, English scent from the rose garden cast its peaceful, almost unbearably beautiful perfume, as it has done on English poets and priests, farmers and soldiers, mothers and children, for centuries.
In the narrow streets of the village which was there before the Normans arrived a thousand years ago, before The Colonies had even existed, and before Coca Cola and chewing gum had even been dreamed of, old flint cottages with uneven roof lines and doors modern men and women have to stoop to enter, slumbered in the late sunshine. Roses crawled across the ancient flint of lintels and walls, of bowers and windows. Roses burst in sensuous luxury from cottage gardens and twined round centuries old pubs, and stretched the roots down into the rich black soil which Picts and Angles and Jutes and Saxons have dug for centuries. Carved wooden roses and stone roses on ancient lintels and church spires; painted roses on china plates; enameled roses on house signs; paper roses in a children's playroom; plastic roses in the greengrocers; bunches of fresh roses in the shops; and velvet rose petals blown from gardens underfoot - the symbols of England were all around.
Even standing on the white chalk cliffs overlooking the sea, where the green seaweed-strewn rocks thrust upward and guarded the ancient tunnels of smugglers and druid, pirate and prelate, there was that English sea-side village smell that brings the soft wisp of perfume to to the stringent, salt-laden air.
How could anyone think of England and not think of roses?
Which is when I realised something: 1986? Well. There's your answer. That's what happens when you let movie stars run your country for you: roses become all glamour and expense and grow pre-wrapped in cellophane to be handed out at Premiere's and Awards. They lose their scent when competing against Chanel and Dior. They become ramrod straight and perfect and symbolise money and red carpets and 5 star hotels and luxury.
So let Reagan declare his American roses the symbol of whatever he wanted them to symbolize and bloody good luck to him.
As far as I'm concerned a rose is a rose is a rose. It is England.