The Rose by Jennifer Potter
Atlantic $75

I began this book when a William Lobb rose was in its first flowering in my garden. Every time I went out to get the mail the perfume hung in the air and I breathed it in and felt good about being alive. A rose is not a rose, it is a kind of supplement to living. Each morning as I had breakfast I read a little of this encyclopedic book.

It is one of those books that sits heavy in the hand. Partly because it is a hardback - a rarity these days - but partly because it is quite dense in its information. But Jennifer Potter frees you up by saying the book can be read in any order you want. I immediately felt like a kid let out of school.

I dipped into it each morning, reading with pleasure about the myths of roses. I chose Josephine Bonaparte first, partly because I always thought her extremely stylish but also because Malmaison was a byword for its roses. It turned out, however, this was a kind of beat-up. Her rosy reputation was re-invented in the 1900s when a follower in fashion made a garden of the sort she would have liked. Most contemporaries visited her garden and never noticed a single rose.

After this I turned to the English War of Roses. Anyone with an ability to turn on a television set knows that the Tudor rose was an amalgam of the white and red rose factions from the dynastic war. But this ends up being a slightly burnished story too.

The rose, it turns out, was always a slippery symbol, snatched at by those in power, passed along the line so it went from being a sign of lasciviousness for the Romans to a sign of purity for the Christians. By Dante's time he imagined paradise as an endless depth of perfumed white rose. It has been both an allegory for the fall of man and a symbol of a woman's sexual parts.

This book is full of fascinating information. Roses permeate Muslim culture just as they were celebrated in China. The book has a vast sweep and is in the mould of Salt and other single-themed, global-ranging reads.

There is even a map of how the rose travelled the world (with New Zealand being lost in the fold of the map). The index ranges from Catherine de Medici, Salvador Dali, death, Gertrude Bell, love and sexuality to Mehmet II, Midas and the White House Rose Garden. No nook is left unraked.

By the time I felt I had almost read enough, my William Lobb had finished its first flush. Black spot had emerged on the leaves and the plant looked slightly surly. It was beginning to demand its dues, like a difficult mistress or a demanding lover. Roses are never neutral. They have spikes to draw blood. This book is a good addition to the reference bookshelf. You could pull it down at any time and sound knowledgeable. It may even help with crosswords.

I did feel at times I would have preferred a little more in-depth information on a subject before I was rushed on with the global view. It may be a little mean with its illustrations. But perhaps this is part of the story.

It isn't a picture book, of which roses suffer a surfeit. This is a book about exactly what it says: the history of the rose.

Peter Wells is a Hawkes Bay-based writer.