Two things come to mind when I think of roses: my mother’s garden and fussy old rosarians.
When I was a kid, we lived in a modest blue-collar suburb. Each identical house had an identical floor plan, an identical concrete driveway, and an identical tiny lot. National Homes promised the growing middle class three bedrooms and a bath for paltry sum of $10,000 and every home in the subdivisions were essentially identical: one story, aluminum sided, with an attached garage. Sure, the buyer could customize a little. Siding and shingle colors could be selected and those with a sense of style could even add fake shutters to flank the aluminum-framed windows. Real customization was in the hands of the owners in the days before neighborhood associations and everyone thinking their business extends into your backyard and for my mother that meant planting foundation gardens.
I can remember an old cabbage rose that grew behind the tool shed in a forgotten corner of my mother’s garden. It was a rangy beast with formidable thorns and fat blooms that weighed down the canes. In the summer they’d nod drowsily, scenting the air with a soft sweetness that defined roses in my mind. The old cabbage rose wasn’t fussy, weeds ran riot around its feet and a snowball hydrangea fought with it for space, but it survived and even thrived on the neglect. That garden became a patchy jungle host to a thousand childhood fantasies, most of them involving Micronauts, green army men, and Star Wars figurines and interstellar battles for right and justice.
The second thing that comes to mind is Aunt Bea. Well, not the Aunt Bea but women of a particular era that probably never really existed. Roses seem to be the purview of grandmotherly women and librarian-esque men. They wear wide-brimmed gardening hats and don dove-colored gauntlets while they prune away damaged canes and apply pesticide with a piston sprayer. They struggle against the ravages of aphids and the forces of nature to cultivate the perfect tea rose. They are stern teetotalers, go to church twice a week, and might play piano in the parlor during the evenings (though nothing racier than Mendelson). In short, really dull people.
Until now, these two visions of the rose served, I never needed to refine them because I don’t grow roses. Life isn’t content to leave one’s preconceptions alone, though, and it constantly presents new experiences that require rethinking what you thought you knew. That was the case when we were invited to attend the First Annual Purdue Extension Rosefest as the guest of friend and master gardener Monica Taylor. In the run up to Rosefest, I thought I should do some research so I hit the books.
Firstly, roses are ancient with fossil evidence showing their existence 35 million years ago. Species grow across the northern hemisphere with cultivation most likely starting in China about 5000 years ago. Romans used rose petals as confetti, for medical purposes, and as a source of perfume and their popularity has waxed and waned with the whims of gardeners since those times. They have been the symbol of piety, purity, and war through their varied history and even been used as legal tender in Napoleon’s France. Today most novice gardeners grow shrub roses: low maintenance repeat bloomers that can be stuck in a garden and practically forgotten. We even have one of these in our modest garden, a leggy beast with long, arching canes that grab viciously at the passerby and flowers that, owing to its location, can be described as threadbare at best. Back in the late 1800’s similar, reblooming species were introduced from China spurring interest in hybridizing in those who grew roses. Soon there were roses that bloomed longer, could endure colder temperatures, that had stronger scents, that climbed, that were shrubs, and all in a kaleidoscope of colors.
Reading about the efforts to create reflowering roses in the early 1900’s opened a door on a forgotten memory of a day trying to escape the pressures of parents, school, and the general tragedy that was the teen years. On this particular summer day I’d left the family cabin seeking the solitude and solace of the woods. I don’t remember the reason, but I was in a particular funk and angry at the world and I made my way up through the woods and into the several-acre field that sat atop a neighboring bluff. I’d only gotten a few paces into the clearing when thorny canes caught my pants and shirt and no matter how I fought and tore, I couldn’t get loose. I was forced to stop, calm down, and take in my surroundings. I’d waded into a patch of Rosa multiflora, a sprawling ocean of arching canes and swells of white flowers. The gentle fragrance filled the air and for a minute I stood there taking in the sight and smell. Once I calmed down the thorns seemed to let go and I was free to go.
That rose was doubtless an escapee from one of the many homesteads that dotted Southern Indiana in the 1800’s; a refugee from the garden of some pioneering gardener’s attempt to bring civility to the rough and wild backwoods. Rosa multiflora runs wild in Indiana, mingling with greenbriar and blackberry brambles to create formidable no-man’s lands in which chipmunks, mice, and small birds shelter. The pennants on these castles of thorns are the drifts of white roses, markers of the nobility settlers sought and failed to cultivate.
In a way, that civilization of the wilderness with roses started with Thomas Jefferson who grew roses at Monticello, providing an example for the gentleman farmer of the early 19th century. In 1811 John Chapney, a South Carolina merchant, introduced the first American hybridized rose, “Champney’s Pink Cluster”. It would be 1844 before the first American rose nursery appeared and with it the first manual on growing roses. In 1867 the first hybrid Teas would appear when Chinese “Tea” roses were crossed with hybrid perpetual bloomers. The name “Tea” was given to the resulting rose because the fragrance was thought to resemble that of tea. You can blame this period whenever you buy a hot new rose, bring it home, enjoy one year of flowering, and the next spring get a run of the mill maroon flower. The cause is the grafting of a hardy rootstock called the “Dr. Huey” cultivar of Rosa wichuraiana which grants cold resistance.
In the 1870’s the great-great granddaughter of the event I attended today was held in Massachusetts and I wonder how closely they bear a resemblance. Today, in spite of the heat, we milled about the Hendricks County Fairground exhibition garden with iced tea and cookies while Monica regaled us with her encyclopedic knowledge of the rose. We enjoyed the aged elegance of hybrid teas and old world garden roses, the cascading blossoms of climbers and drift roses, and heard the stories of Peggy Martin (who lost everything in hurricane Katrina except for the rose that bears her name), Dr. Griffith Buck, and David Austin.
What struck me most about the show was its informality. I’d expected a lot more fuss, bother, and stuffiness and I gather some rose shows are every bit the nose-in-the-air affair, but this one was very low key and friendly. The exterior garden was small, but meticulously maintained by gardeners who really know their stuff and my favorite moment of the show was standing among the blooms enveloped in their scent. Roses have a presence and force of personality. It’s not quite on par with that of a several-hundred year old oak tree, but it’s still there, pulling you back to the soil and linking you with the Earth’s pulse. I might have been a rosarian in a former life, or maybe a crusty Scottish gardener blustering about an estate, brooding over the condition of the allee or the Italian garden.
After the garden display we went into the exhibit hall to see the competition. This show wasn’t juried , instead those who attended voted from a selection of categories to select the winners. The categories were: bouquets, single blooms, sprays, scent, and there even was a group of photographs. Nice, small show that was perfectly viewable in a morning.