The Allure of Yellow Roses in The Age of Innocence

I never used to like yellow roses. I found them too bright, too brash, a little out of place. Newland Archer felt much the same way about the Countess Olenska on first acquaintance, but Edith Wharton managed to change both of our minds. How could anyone fail to want yellow roses after this description:
‘His eye lit on a cluster of yellow roses. He had never seen any as sun-golden before, and his first instinct was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her- there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty.’ 

He sends the roses not to May, his fiancée, but to her cousin, the Madam Olenska, a childhood playmate recently returned from Europe and estranged from her husband, who seeks solace in the staid society of old New York.

Rosa Hemisphaerica: the Sulphur Rose, watercolour by Pierre-Joseph Redouté
Wharton’s 1920s Pulitzer Prize winning Age of Innocence is, at heart, a battle between May Welland’s Lilies of the Valley and Ellen Olenska’s yellow roses. The reader uses deliveries of flowers as buoys to mark the currents of affection and approval in 1870s New York society. The morally dubious and extravagant Mr Beaufort sends orchids, the proper and dull Henry Van der Luyden, carnations. And my, do they send a lot of flowers in the novel. Though, as Nancy Mitford said in Don’t Tell Alfred:
    ‘It’s an American tic. They can’t help doing it- they send them to friend and foe alike. Whenever          they pass a flower shop their fingers itch for a pen to write down somebody’s name and address.’ This theory is thoroughly proven in The Age of Innocence, flowers fly thick and fast from florist and greenhouse to drawing room and dressing table.

While the Lily of the Valley, like May, may seem a fragile and delicate bloom, they are both deceptively tough. Lily of the Valley is a rather invasive woodland species, often recommended to be grown in a pot to stop its rampage through your flower beds, like May, revealing hidden steel. Whereas the yellow rose, belying its bright, blowsy blooms is more finicky. I planted one earlier this year, and after a successful start, it’s gone into a decline and has been threatening to perish altogether. I suspect, that like the Countess Olenska, it is struggling to settle into its surroundings: the heavy clay of Somerset is as unwelcoming as New York Society. It is unsurprising to find that Lilies of the Valley mean true love and purity, and yellow roses infidelity and jealousy. I have said before that no author can resist some good old fashioned floral symbolism.
Lily of the Valley. Newland sent May a bunch of them every day of their engagement.

The majority of roses, pink, white and red, have been around for centuries, having largely European origins. The advent of the yellow rose however, is more exotic. They were discovered in the eighteenth century in the Middle East, in three native varieties: Rosa Ecae, Rosa Foetida and Rosa Hemisphaerica. The first two are perhaps a little underwhelming, but Rosa Hemisphaeric, also known as the Sulphur Rose, has large double blooms in bright yellow.

Despite a century of or so of breeding, in the 1870s breeders were still lacking a reliable yellow rose. This lack of reliable flowering disease free yellow varieties offers a rather prosaic reason for why Archer ‘scoured the town in vain for more yellow roses.’ It is difficult, but not entirely futile to speculate which breed of rose features as Wharton herself was a passionate gardener and her gardens at The Mount are now open to the public.
Rosa Hemisphaeric, from the dangerously addictive David Austin website:

It could have been Harrison’s Yellow, a large open cupped rose, bred near New York in the 1820s. I prefer to think it was Rosa Hemisphaeric, the Sulphur Rose, which is all that Wharton’s description promises; sun-golden, rich and strong. It is a wild rose from West Asia which will only flower in bone dry weather, and which smells, if at all, unpleasantly of sulphur. Yet the large buttery tangle of petals seem worth any inconvenience.

I know that a rose which refuses to flower in the rain would not suit the heavy clay and wet winters of Somerset, and yet I can’t help be tempted by it. Maybe I should do as Newland Archer did, and resort to tough little Lilies of the Valley instead.

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