Archive for May, 2007

smelling like a rose

in the El Cerrito community center
The rose obsession continues…until the last petal drops in my soon-to-be-a-memory spring garden. A friend invited me to join her on an expedition this last Saturday to El Cerrito where the annual “Celebration of Old Roses” event is held in the community center. I have heard about this event for years from fellow gardeners and rose enthusiasts and both me and Sally were expecting something rather grand. In reality, it looks like a neighborhood BBQ held at the community pool (which is next door and was on this sunny Saturday emiting the happy shrieks of children frolicking in chlorinated bliss). There were two aisles of folding tables covered in white cloth inside the center’s main room – a utilitarian hall with sliding glass doors opening to a small patio and lawn where an actual BBQ was producing grilled items for the free lunch. There were also some vendors of roses, geraniums, and arts and crafts for garden decoration. Inside, the vendors included the Mt. Diablo Porcelain Painters and sellers of rose jelly and jam products–which I realize now I was crazy not to sample. But I was preoccupied with my camera trying to capture the roses themselves in their jelly and Mason jars laid out on the tables in their major groups: Floribundas, Teas, Chinas, Gallicas, Portlands, Bourbons, species, musks and “miscellaneous”. And with pausing to sniff and admire the celebrities up close. It’s one thing to peruse gorgeous photos of these fragile beauties and quite another to meet them in the rose flesh. The colors are not always describable in pixels or pigments, and the scents certainly are not even the same from one sniffer to another.
jars of romance
The event was the brainchild of Miriam Wilkins who also founded a breakaway sect of rosarians in 1975, The Heritage Roses Group. Not finding particularly interested company in the national American Rose Society, Miriam felt a new society was needed that would focus on the preservation, history, re-introduction, and identification of roses which were rarely grown commercially and are now lost to the memory of most modern gardeners. Miriam was honored in 2003 as a Great Rosarian of the World (GROW) for her championing of forgotten heritage roses at the annual lecture series hosted by the Manhattan Rose Society. Other honorees of GROW include names any rose enthusiast would recognize – like Peter Harkness of the British rose growing house (Just Joey, Ballerina, Buff Beauty). Ann Raver, columnist for the New York Times, wrote about attending the illustrious event which this year honored William Kordes III, of the famous German rose breeding family (Alchemist, Dortmund, Erfurt).
rose hip bouquet
Back to El Cerrito….I stopped at the table for the Heritage Roses Group and realized that without a check book (and, as usual, short of cash) I would be unable to pay the $12 membership fee which includes four paper issues of The Rose Letter (or $10 for the pdf version). The group’s website is beginning to feature an archive of scanned back issues but there are only two available now (of 120 issues). I chatted awhile with the two women at the table after they answered my question about a very prolific “Indigo” that was sprouting up in unexpected places in my garden. They confirmed my suspicion that the rose was “suckering” and not reproducing from seed. A natty gentleman in blazer and tie joined in to wax prolific on the necessity of mulching roses in the East Bay and also encouraged me to visit Miriam Wilkin’s fabulous rose garden just a few blocks up the hill from the community center. I had been hoping to see Miriam at her signature event but she was not there, nor does she appear to be writing her personal newsletter, The Old Roser’s Digest. But then the rose group itself is pretty free-floating, choosing to neither meet regularly, elect officers, nor have a constitution. Perhaps Miriam preferred the company of her own roses that day.
Back at home (Sally got snared by a couple of 2-gallon “Cherokee” roses, and a collection of pelargoniums but my cash-less strategy saved me) I went looking for Miriam Wilkin’s rose group on the web and printed out the November 1999 quarterly letter. On the first page the editor apologizes for late delivery citing “writer’s block and the onset of holiday madness”, and I felt immediately at home. There were gems abundant in the 17-page “letter”, including a long article on fragrance in old roses and a sceptical piece on the very English David Austin’s (then) new rose growing operation in Tyler, Texas. In response to an inquiry by the Rose Letter editors as to whether the Texas Austin roses were “budded” (i.e. grafted) rather than grown on their own roots, they replied that the rootstock was coming from “…a well known large scale producer, under our control, and is all from virus free Davis stock.” The editors assumed they were talking not about a virus-free individual but the agricultural research powerhouse University of California campus in Davis. Having never heard that Davis produced rootstocks of old rose budwood (they are reknowned for wine grape rootstock), The Rose Letter editors inquired after the name of the “well known large scale producer” and Texas Austin replied that it would not be “constructive” for them to disclose the producer “at this time.” The White House press secretary could not have done better.
Under “Plants/Information Wanted” Jim Donovan of W. Bruces Place, Canyon Country, CA (I have no idea where this is) makes a plea for someone with “Louis van Houtte, the 1886-or 69 hybrid perpetual from LaCharme” to share one with him. I wonder if anyone did.
another on the wish list
I leave you with the “Old Roses For Fragrance” author Lily Shohan’s advice for purchasing fragrant roses: “Ignore those described as having “light fragrance”; in Catalog Speak, that generally means none or very little…look for a description where the seller especially notes the fragrance. And, “remember that it is truly said, ‘a rose without fragrance is a flower without a soul.”


the dirt on roses

More has been written about them than any other flower, to the point of terminal cliche. The symbol of love and war and everything hunky dory, they have decorated the homes and objets de art and gardens of the rich and powerful, and the tiny dirt patches and chinaware of the most humble and obscure. There are more kinds and colors of roses than any other flower and more are being created – and lost to posterity – every day. Roses both fascinate and repel the gardener and there is probably no gardener who has remained totally and entirely immune to their magnetism.
Curiously, they are the easiest of plants to grow and yet many gardeners are baffled by their cultivation. They are the hardiest of plants and yet we have an entire industry devoted to the idea that they are fragile and susceptible to the least blight or bug. There is a rose for every taste, unfortunately, and many roses are downright ugly while others merely bore; they can be prolific or stingy, exquisite or gauche. And that’s just the flowers. The plants are another universe altogether: massive climbers and spindly twigs, luxurious leafers and scraggly dullards, deadly flesh rippers and thornless canopies; there is even a rose without a flower. We won’t even mention the hips.
As a completely unqualified expert on some roses in very particular circumstances (West Coast climate, adobe soils, hillside garden, coastal fog, rainless summers), here is the dirt on (my) roses….
You can’t kill ‘em. Excepting a hard freeze, or a firestorm there is nothing that will kill a rose. They may lose all their leaves to rust and black spot, be covered in mildew, and not have a drop to drink for months – and they will live on, probably still bloom too. You don’t need to spray them with anything, feed them, or prune them. In fact, for most roses, the more you ignore them the better they do.
They can kill you. Really. Though I actually do not know of any mortality stats. There is a fungus, Sporothrix schenckii, that grows on rose thorns, morphs into a yeast in the body and attacks the lymph system – causing lesions in lymph nodes. The infection is called Sporothricosis. It is treated by oral doses of potassium iodide. A gardener friend contracted this little nasty after falling into a particularly thorny rose bush (I think it was Eyepaint) and gouging her arm. However, you are much more likely to lose an eye or scratch a cornea, suffer puncture wounds anywhere (any where!) or clip your finger with the Felcos while pruning; and in the case of the climbers, ladder accidents are always a concern. My expert advice: wear elbow-length leather gloves, safety googles, and non-slip gardening shoes – and a helmet wouldn’t hurt either.
More bloom is not better. It’s just more. There are places in the garden for a continuously blooming plant and places for one that delivers an exquisite, and ephemeral, moment. The roses that bloom continuously in the growing season (they are called remontant) often have nothing else going for them because other qualities were lost in the hybridizing. Gallica roses exude a perfume more complex and intoxicating than Chanel No. 5 but they only bloom once a year. The rich dark colors and dense petaling of many roses also gets lost when they are bred for repeat bloom.
Roses have leaves too. And they often look like s—. And not because of disease or bad weather. Perhaps the worst offenders are the classic 1950s creations called “hybrid teas”, to be found in every Payless and Home Depot, and most gardening catalogs, often carrying the label of rose purveyors Jackson and Perkins. The category is characterized by huge blooms on long stems – perfect for the cut crystal vase – often in bright, toneless colors. The plants grow into large round shrubs (if they aren’t climbers) supported by thumb-width canes bearing massive thorns. Often the leaves are huge, dark green, and leathery. This is not a plant you want to show off unless it’s got an endless supply of distracting great gobs of bright blooms.
There are many roses with perfectly charming leaves that look fine when not in bloom. They can be pale green and diaphanous, golden and russet, or glossy as glass and thick as a hedge. There are also nearly leafless roses that concentrate all their energy into the top of the cane in either leaf or bloom. These plants are best tucked into a border where their nakedness will be covered by other plants.
Roses are architectural. They can roof a garage or scale a wall, be a canopy or a tower, or disappear the neighbors. Forget the “standard” rose-on-a-stick, I’m talking about a rose that can give you a whole other territory above your garden, out your second-story window, or hide a telephone pole. A house I once had a room in (a slightly seedy mansion in the Los Altos Hills occupied by a motly crew of bohemians) had a large pond in the middle of its grand circular driveway, over which draped a monstrous old live oak tree and roped about the oak’s massive limbs was an equally monstrous rose. The luminous roses were big as an Easter hat and hung suspended over the mossy pond like pale pink moons. I found the rose at the old Roses of Yesterday and Today in Watsonville years ago – colonizing a hillside. It is Belle of Portugal and you need a mansion or Rapunzel’s tower to really appreciate it.
You can never have too many. I’m up to 28 or 30 and there is always room for another pot. Yes, a pot. I have some roses that have flourished in 5-gallon containers for years. Two are in 1-foot square redwood planters. One rose is growing in the cement driveway (a wild Sierra rose); a couple are wandering off into the neighbor’s trees and may reach the next town soon. I’ve got roses cheek by jowl in several borders and lashed to the fence, windows and crude arbors constructed of rotten fence decking. An old pitchfork with a bent tine holds up a couple more. I just put some in the front yard (former container inhabitants) squeezed between pittosporum shrubs and burgeoning oak trees – and then stuck some tomato and bean plants around them. And all of this in a rented yard.
Most of my roses are not remontant and that means they are rather invisible in the garden most of the year. And I tend to forget why I have so many when I’m looking for new real estate for the latest Annie’s Annual purchases. But then May rolls around and it is la vie en rose for me.


I may eye May

eye May
ply your hammock among the trees, settle your skin upon springy skein, relax your mind and drift back in centuries two, three, four where

“…Cromwell could not cease
In the inglorious arts of peace
But through adventurous war
Urged his active star

and Andrew Marvell escaped prose’aic politics in his poetic Garden, though

Society is all but rude
To this delicious solitude.

and no industrious bee was yet clichéd….

How well the skilful gardener drew
of flowers and herbs this dial new!
Where, from above, the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run:
And, as it works, the industrious bee
Computes it’s time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned, but with herbs and flowers.

bumble in the chinese houses

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