There are days in early summer when the warm air smells gently sweet, almost peachy, and a little spicy. The scent is buttery soft; there is nothing brash about it. Follow it if you can, and you will likely find yourself moving toward the ocean. You’ll pass through trees that grow lower as you near the beach. Then pines and locusts give way to viburnum and huckleberry, and then beach plum, bearberry, and beach grass.
Now you are on a beach trail or dune top, your toes in the cool sand. Here you find what you were looking for, what your nose and the pleasure-seeking parts of your mind have directed you to. Along the low banks of dune, framing the sandy beach paths, are dense thickets of Rosa rugosa. Rich green, leathery, lustrous leaves with pink or white flowers held atop soft new stems, their blushing faces to the sun, their scent seductive.
Rosa rugosa thrives in exposed coastal environments. It colonizes in dense groves, spreading by seeds carried by mammals and birds and by roots that branch freely in the sand. The stalks are dense and woody, often growing in arrow-straight shoots covered completely in a bristle of fine spikes. These thorns will embed themselves in your hands and make themselves known in the days following your walk into the roses. Because it is so well adapted to the coastal environments of the Cape, this rose seems like a native. It is not. It’s a washashore in the purest sense of the word.
Some accounts suggest it was imported from Asia in the 1770s, while others tell a more dramatic and, if you ask me, fitting story for this rugged and beloved plant.
The juicier story goes like this: March 1, 1849, a ship called the Franklin ran aground and wrecked off Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet. Amy Whorf McGuiggan wrote in the Independent that it was headed to Boston from Deal, England, laden with a cargo of linseed oil, nutmeg, wool, and linen, and 33 passengers.
Other accounts note that also aboard was nursery stock, picked up in Scotland and bound for a man named Bell who intended to establish a nursery in America. In the holds of the ship were a tough and fragrant species of rose native to China, Japan, and Korea. As the ship broke apart and 11 of the passengers perished in the sea, the cargo was carried by the waves and currents to the shore, where it was collected by wreckers and townspeople.
These might have been the very same wreckers Henry David Thoreau happened upon, picking up salvage from the beach in October of the same year.
It is believed that some of the stock was carried off by those wreckers and locals, while other bundles took root all on their own, settling into the shifting coastal sands. In March the roses would have been in their late dormancy, ready to awaken in spring — it would have been prime transplanting season. The saturation of salt water they endured did nothing to discourage the roses from establishing themselves in a new land. It is the same Cape Cod story you’ve heard a thousand times: “I drifted in for a visit, and I never left.”
The same qualities of tenacity and adaptability that allowed the rose to survive its salty arrival here have made it successful to this day. The beach rose will cling to eroding dunes, endure the lashing winter winds of the Outer Cape, stand in the searing midday sun of July, drawing sips of water from the dry, sterile sand, and still look as if it couldn’t be happier. It is found in the company of other rugged and perplexingly refined oceanside species that line our saltwater shores: beach peas, American beach grass, beach plum, and the endlessly adaptable poison ivy.
Where most plants might just survive, the beach rose will thrive. This, to me, is its greatest mystery. It lives in nearly sterile soil composed almost entirely of ground quartz. It sets its roots deep and wide into this loose aggregate and, with only the addition of rainwater, manages to synthesize a flower so bright it glows and a scent of mind-altering beauty.
On these June days, when the beach roses are blooming, I do as the bees do. I am compelled to stop before them, wade into their spiny stems, nestle down into the flowers, and breathe deeply. The soft pink whorls of petals have scents of varying depths and intensity.
When the sun lifts the scent from its skin-soft petals into the air and rests it lightly on the breeze, I breathe it in. It is sand and rainwater, passed through some mysterious process within this rugged plant, elemental, alchemized.