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Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa: Until the last petal falls

Mike Chaput, Dead Rose CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Mike Chaput, Dead Rose

Thanks to genetic engineering, roses now withstand shipping, and they bloom for weeks instead of days. But in doing so, the genes that create fragrance were bred out.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a French fairy tale which actually is a “tale as old as time.” It was retold in an animated film which then was then adapted as a Broadway musical and finally a romantic fantasy movie.

In creating the original animation, Disney artists Mel Shaw, Hans Bacher and Glen Keane studied Renaissance and Rococo art as inspiration for the characters, costumes, architecture and symbolism.

In the story, the rose symbolizes love and hope, but this rose, kept under a glass dome, was dyin - just like the Beast's hopes for true love. And as the story progresses, the petals slowly fall from the enchanted rose.

Real flowers drop petals, but over a period of a few days - not years.

According to the PBS documentary companion book The Sex Life of Flowers, petals “align the insect visitor so that it has the maximum chance of contacting the flowers’ sexual organs. They protect the anthers from damage by rain and exclude visitors of the incorrect type or size, protect the nutritious ovules against the onslaught of herbivores; and of course, they attract insect visitors in the first place.”

Floral scents are produced by oils in the petals, and they also attract pollinators. But whether or not the sweet-smelling petals succeed in attracting insects, they do not last long. And that was problematic for florists and, recently, for almost any grocery or big box store.

Consequently, plant breeders strove to develop roses that would withstand shipping and would bloom for weeks instead of days.

Thanks to genetic engineering, and with a little help from chemicals and refrigeration, they succeeded. But in doing so, they bred out the genes that created fragrance.

But even if they do not “smell as sweet," roses—wild or domestic—have through the centuries and in many cultures, represented love and hope.

And they will - “until the last petal falls.”

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.