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Antique Roses
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

July 21, 2002

“Love is a rose” swoons the singer, and “My love is like a red, red rose” chants the poet. So it has always been, the rose as symbol of love -- since the flower’s mythological first appearance when Venus, goddess of Love, emerged glittering from the sea, all the way to today’s long-stemmed roses handed over by suave suitors on Vantentine’s Day. There is, and always has been, wherever it has grown, something about “the queen of flowers” that speaks to matters of the heart. This is a plant that takes us by the subtle pathways of the heart into realms of perception and emotion that we might not otherwise discover.

Never is the flower’s legendary potency more palpable than during the brief period in early summer when old roses are in full bloom. We have a brace of them at our place, mixed among more modern roses, and their almost-simultaneous blossoming around the middle of June captivates the spirit more than any other blooming peak in the gardening year.

At the foot of the stairs to the rustic summerhouse in which we sleep on summer nights grows Madame Isaac Periere, a Bourbon rose descended from the old Rosa Gallica, the most ancient European rose. The great British rosarian Graham Stuart Thomas describes Madame Isaac as being “possibly the most powerfully fragrant of all roses. The flowers are large, of intense rose-madder, shaded magenta, bulging with rolled petals, quartered and opening to a great saucer face.” After rising from the summerhouse each morning, I like to take one of her sumptuous blooms in hand and, drawing it close, inhale a fragrance so sublime it seems to brush against one’s soul. Just down the arbour a bit grows Madame Ernest Calvat, a sport of Madame Isaac, also intensely fragrant, her large blooms cupped and quartered and packed with swirling pink petals.

These Bourbon beauties were developed by French hybridists more than a century ago, but were preceeded by four main groups of truly ancient roses: the gallicas, the damasks, the albas and the centifolias. We have some of each scattered around the yard, and to my mind it is in the blooming of these ancient types that the rose as flower of love is most brilliantly manifest.

Not far apart on a hillside we grow two of the old gallicas -- Belle de Crecy and Tuscany Superb. Low growing and relatively thornless shrubs, tolerant of the poor soil of our hillside, the “mad gallicas” are wildly sumptuous plants. Belle de Crecy’s heavy double flowers are a stunning blend of pink, violet, crimson and silvery blue. Equally fine and equally fragrant, Tuscany Superb’s flatter flowers are described well in one of our catalaogues as “so rich in depth of color the effect is like draped, blackish crimson velvet, catching light in all its folds.” We underplant these two extravagantly old-fashioned characters with silver-grey lamb’s ears.

Less fragrant but even more striking in appearance is our third gallica, Rosa Mundi, the oldest of the striped roses, massed with large open flowers whose petals are creamy pink splashed with crimson. We have this always-tidy shrub planted prominently along the front path, underplanted with nepeta and bicolour dianthus.

Ancient and intensely fragrant too, the damask roses are larger shrubs than the gallicas. Named for Damascus, the damasks are of middle eastern origin and were likely introduced to western Europe by returning crusaders. Ispahan occupies a central place on our hillside, as it grew wild on its ancestral hills of Ispahan in ancient Persia. She produces hundreds of double blossoms, all a soft pink, massed so heavily that her sprawling limbs sag and need supporting with forked sticks. A veil of fragrance floats around the plant.

Our second damask, Madame Hardy, is as purely white as Ispahan is pink, though sturdier and taller, with wonderfully dark green foliage. The flowers start as beautiful tight buds, open with a hint of pink, then spread to large fully double blooms of pure white with a green centre. Their scent too is sublime. As American garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder wrote in The Fragrant Garden: “This true old rose scent, the scent that has charmed humanity from time immemorial, is assuredly the most exquisite and refreshing of all floral odours -- pure, transparent, incomparable...”

While Madame Hardy and Ispahan bloom only once in June, the autumn damask Rose de Rescht flowers repeatedly through the summer. It is a smaller bush with smaller and fewer flowers in a peculiar fuchsia red and for us not as heavily fragrant as its damask consorts.

When it is at the height of its blooming period, my companion and I are convinced that Felicite Parmentier is as exquisite as any rose can be. A large bush with the grey-green foliage typical of the albas, she bears multiple clusters of smallish pale pink flowers that are so delightful to look at and so splendidly scented it’s hard not to just remain standing there beside her inhaling her sweet exhalations.

We also grow Great Maiden’s Blush, another alba with glossy blue green foliage and pale pink flowers. Her stout canes are thick and murderously thorny, but her fragrance too is exquisite. As is the scent of Koenigen von Daenmark, which is supposed to be the king of Denmark, but to my mind she is every bit a queen, tall and slender, with her blue-grey leaves showcasing multiple flowers, quartered at the centre, delicately pink.

Of the last group, the centifolias, we have only one member at present, the marvellous Fantin-Latour. Of medium height and spreading habit, this painterly beauty produces masses of blooms in pale to deep pink with a sweetly delicate fragrance. The familar old moss roses also belong to the centifolia group, and why we don’t yet have some I’m not entirely sure. But then the same might be said of La Noblesse, Belle Isis, Unique Blanche, or dozens of others.

Beyond their considerable charms, which one is hard pressed to do justice in words, antique roses have considerable appeal from a cultivation point of view. They require relatively little in the way of care, certainly none of the angst induced by certain hybrid teas, and some will thrive in the most unpromising conditions. Many are hardy down to zone 4 or even zone 3.

I like to prune our bushes lightly, either after blooming and/or in late winter to maintain a solid shape and to remove wizened canes. We give the plants a generous top dressing of compost in spring, then a mulch of grass clippings to keep the roots moist through the summer. In extended drought, we’ll set a hose to deep soak the roots.

I used to spray the plants in winter with dormant oil and lime sulphur, but stopped doing so some years ago with no subsequent problems. Our plants simply don’t suffer from insect or disease attacks -- the black spot, crown gall and other atrocities that may beset more modern roses. Admittedly some of the shrubs can be a tad unsightly right after blooming, with hundreds of deadheads on show. But what a small price to pay, after all, for the heights of ecstasy to which their blooms have carried us and the timeless blossoming of love they have, with luck, inspired.


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