New Garden, Old Roses

While by the rosebed gay you stood, and revelled in the multitude
Of blooms with unfamiliar names, and tints and folds new-found, new sweet,
We wondered much at the rich power which breeds so many and many a flower
Not like the myriad known before, and each one lovely and complete.

Edmund Blunden, Shells by a Stream,
quoted by Graham Thomas in
The Old Shrub Roses

While still a lad and studiously examining rose labels in the local nursery, I noted two that identified their cultivars not as hybrid teas, floribundas, or grandifloras: one was a hybrid perpetual, and the idea of perpetuity struck me as faintly celestial; the other was called simply a tea, with no hint of hybridity. This intrigued me. Keen rosarians can no doubt guess that this sole hybrid perpetual, which was commonly available in the 1960s, was the redoubtable white ‘Frau Karl Drus­chki’. They would, I think, be stumped about the identity of what was called a tea in those nursery rows: ‘Snowbird’, a tea-looking, but very hybrid creamy white hybrid tea.

‘Frau Karl Druschki’, an illustration from Journal des Roses, courtesy of the University of California Library, and Timber Press, publisher of the author’ s Old Rose Advisor (1992)

‘Frau Karl Druschki’, an illustration from Journal des Roses, courtesy of the University of California Library, and Timber Press, publisher of the author’s Old Rose Advisor (1992)

Today, every time I take out the trash, ‘Snowbird’ flirtatiously showers me with petals and scent, having slowly worked its way up my garage wall and into a podocarpus. At last sight a decade ago, ‘Frau Karl Druschki’ was valiantly holding its own against all moderns in my late grandmother’s garden, despite fungal problems that would have defeated a lesser soul. These were the beginning of my experiences with old roses.

In a few years I began to discover mail-order sources for old roses. And therein lay the problem. The field of possibilities lay wide before me, though the capacity of my garden worked hard to narrow it. At my desk I could study the full breadth of old roses as student and author; but as my fondness for annuals, perennials, bulbs, succulents, and other plants had abated not at all, my garden forced the pragmatic gardener in me to integrate my interests into one garden. The problems were selection, accommodation, and perspective.

Old roses are garden roses par excellence. Whereas modern roses may tend to be overwhelming stars on the garden stage, their bright colors and bold blossoms catching and holding every eye, the old roses are happy to fit in with the chorus, integrating their own coy charms much more smoothly with their garden companions. Old roses thus were the obvious choice for my new mixed border.

By chance, a good beginning was possible. The recent elimination of some fifty feet of Algerian ivy, the shoots climbing seven feet high on a fence and roots reaching eighteen inches into the ground, left me with a grand area on which to pursue the integration of roses and other plants. I had originally planned to devote the space solely to herbaceous perennials but had never really liked the motley appearance that many such borders have. I welcomed the chance to give some architectural definition by including old roses spaced widely but regularly.

The roses originally selected were ‘Rosette Delizy’ (tea, 1922), ‘Maman Cochet’ (tea, 1892), ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ (Bourbon, 1843), ‘Jacques Cartier’ (damask perpetual, 1868), ‘Mrs John Laing’ (hybrid perpetual, 1887), and ‘La Reine Victoria’ (Bourbon, 1872).

‘Rosette Delizy’ is still with me today. Within a year or so of planting, it had shot up five or six feet, and it has spent the rest of the time adding on the horizontal axis. This is typical of tea rose growth. When the new plant has gathered strength after a few months or a season, it sends a strong, fat cane straight up. As time passes, the weight of its branchlets begin to pull the cane off to one side or another, and light entering the center of the bush encourages new, strong, fat canes to shoot up. The blossoms on this cultivar vary from soft yellow in cool weather and weak sunlight to hot rosy pink in warm weather and strong sunlight. Usually the colors are mixed in a thoroughly fetching way. The deliciously spicy fruit scent seems as tropical as the hot pink color of the flower. The plant is vigorous and evidently immune to mildew and rust (and I suppose black spot as well). The buds, medium sized but perfectly shaped, come in profusion in high season and with moderation the rest of the year.

‘Maman Cochet’ grew left, right, and up, with beautiful green, healthy foliage — but every last bud either fell off early on or balled (rotted in bud). Upon reflection, I think that had it been on its own roots rather than budded on vigorous understock, the results might have been more satisfactory. But, after two years of this I replaced it with the brick red ‘Monsieur Tillier’ (tea, 1891), which grew quite as robustly as its neighbor ‘Rosette Delizy’ for several years. The flowers had a sheen like fine oriental silk, and a perfect bud was a thing of great beauty, but they scorched in our strong, dry southern California sunlight. It finally made me so sad to see beauty regularly destroyed that I replaced it last winter with ‘Cesonie’, a pre-1836 damask perpetual today often called a damask, and often confused with Robert and Moreau’s 1859 mossy remontant of the same name.

‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ has been a delight from the beginning. One can cite a litany of disadvantages for this rose — proneness to mildew, tendency for spring blossoms to ball, quirky growth. All of these pale, however, next to the profusion and elegant beauty of the flowers, which are like small bowls of rumpled blush-pink satin, strongly perfumed with a sweet, yeasty aroma. It is best not to give it fertilizer in spring, as this encourages balling, but late summer feeding will result in stunning fall flowers.

‘Jacques Cartier’ Photograph by Saxon Holt

‘Jacques Cartier’ Photograph by Saxon Holt

I also was lucky in my choice of ‘Jacques Cartier’. In full sun the healthy plant is husky and thick, well clothed with deep green foliage only occasionally and lightly touched by mildew, and growing to four or five feet. Spring bloom is heavy, and the fluffy, light pink flowers — coyly nestling among the leaves, as is the habit with damask perpetuals — stud the whole bush and fill the air with sweetness. Subsequent bloom is light but regular. The plant patiently endures heat and drought, but wakes up and performs as soon as temperatures moderate and water is again available.

‘Mrs John Laing’. Photograph by Saxon Holt

‘Mrs John Laing’. Photograph by Saxon Holt

My first plant of ‘Mrs John Laing’ gave several magnificently shaped, large, lavender-pink flowers every year for a few years, but then seemed to wear out, an experience repeated with the second one. The flowers were always a joy to behold in spring, but later would succumb to the heat, giving them a look not unlike cooked red cabbage. The plants were robust, but needed attention for mildew and rust; unlike some cultivars, however, which sulk and burn if sprayed with fungicide, ‘Mrs John Laing’ took spraying well. But I tired of those cooked flowers, and took the plant out last winter, replacing it with a ‘Susan Louise’ (hybrid gigantea, 1929), which will, I hope, appreciate the southern California climate.

‘La Reine Victoria’. Photograph by Saxon Holt

‘La Reine Victoria’. Photograph by Saxon Holt

’La Reine Victoria’, though beautiful in perfection, was unable to do herself proud in my garden. It had a special knack of beginning to open its buds just as the rains began. The water-logged blossoms would turn to face the ground, pulling the cane downward with its weight, or would rot in wholesale fashion. Meanwhile, the whole bush fell victim to mil­dew, spraying for which would spoil the blossoms just as the rain had. The last straw was when it obstinately refused to bloom after the spring flush. Out it went. Its replacement was the amiable silvery rose-pink ‘Mrs BR Cant’ (tea, 1901). This is a strong plant, which seems to have a little non-tea blood in it; the leaves sometimes drop in summer heat, but are replaced when lower temperatures return, and the flowers have a uniquely earthy sweet scent.

Companions for Roses

Roses in general, and old roses in particular, love their roots to be shaded, and pout to some degree when they are not. The bare ground also is an open and urgent invitation to weeds and feline wanderers, the doings of either of which considerably abate the aesthetic experience of the garden. Thus, whether one has a garden with roses or a rose garden, there are pressing reasons to include other plants around the bushes, some indeed to rival the roses, and to provide pleasant variety to the view. Yet the subtropical desert gardener in southern California has little guidance in this matter; the usual advice derives from the experience of East Coast or British gardeners, which is inapplicable here.

The old globe amaranth, Gomphrena globosa, complements old roses in a manner close to perfection. Leaving aside those new orange and strawberry colored strains, the usual purple, pink, and white mixture can hardly be surpassed. They grow easily and neatly, last through the summer, do not, in my experience, seed about, are disease-free, and are singularly suited to the rose garden in color and form. For best effect, they should be planted rather thickly.

The new dwarf strain of Platycodon grandiflorus called ‘Sentimental Blue’, growing to six inches, makes a good edging, blooming nicely in early summer and spottily thereafter. They go dormant rather earlier than does the old tall version, which itself looks nice mingling with rose, but in doing so turn a pleasant golden yellow that adds interest to the garden. Though one is often warned to plant platycodon out of hot sun and in places with a little moisture, both the tall and short sorts perform yeoman service in the sunniest, hottest, driest sections of my garden.

The prospect of having naked ladies in the garden certainly awakes the interest of many a gardener, whose ardor I hope is at least partially satisfied by the horticultural version, Amaryllis belladonna. To have these fragrant pink trumpets nodding among the other foliage and flowers of July or August is a refreshing and delightful experience. They compete only minimally with roses and provide winter greenery when the rose bushes have been pruned back.

In my garden ‘Mrs BR Cant’ rises above a bed of Helleborus lividus. The hellebore is dramatic and distinctive all year, but never more so than in winter or early spring when its apple-green to chartreuse blossoms cluster above the leaves, always much noted by visitors. The light shade from the tall, lanky rose seems to suit the hellebore in summer. The plants are tough and seem happy in the dry and rather clayey soil.

If only they would develop a red-leaved Begonia semperflorens in which the blossoms lack petals, the wax begonia would be outstanding with roses. Anything with dark red or maroon foliage adds a nice touch to the garden, but those orange-red flowers on the darkest begonias just refuse to blend. Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’, with its blackish maroon rosettes, is another one to add richness and depth to the color scheme. Its yellow flowers are not quite the thing, but anyone objecting can cut them off with a snip or two. For a red edging, Beta vulgaris ‘MacGregor’s Favorite’ is outstanding, the leaves looking like burgundy cordovan leather. It grows about a foot high and needs no special care.

Centratherum punctatum ‘Manaos Beauty’, with fresh green, pineapple-scented leaves and sparkling amethyst flowers built on the bachelor’s button plan, is hard to find in commerce, but it is dependable and refreshing in slightly shaded parts of the border. Blues are always welcome relief from the many pinks and reds of roses.

It will endear me neither to enthusiastic rosarians nor to devoted lovers of the dahlia to suggest that the two can make good companions, but with careful choice of color they complement each other very well indeed. For instance, the double-collarette cultivar ‘Bloom’s Marnie’ is royal purple with flecks of white, and with a blossom that is just the right size (about three inches across). Thoughtful placement relieves the eye of too many roses at the three- to four-foot level of the bed.

Nutmeg-scented pelargonium is quite delightful with its unusual aroma, soft gray-green leaves, and dainty clusters of white flowers, and it complements just about everything. Its compact variant ‘Old Spice’ promises much as an edger. I am at present trying out a number of pelargoniums, and several have possibilities: Pelargonium candidum, P. alchemilloides and its cultivar ‘Minor’, P. x concolor, P. reniforme, and others. The varied colors and textures of pelargonium leaves offer many opportunities to modulate the general effect of the subtropical garden.

Most salvias are too robust to serve our purpose, but the old favorite Salvia farinacea ‘Blue Bedder’ fits in well. S. leucantha is fairly restrained in growth; S. guaranitica is tall but gaunt so can stick up among the roses; and S. greggii spreads out rather widely but is useful to clothe the taller leggy hybrid perpetuals. Old S. officinalis in all its forms, especially the cultivar ‘Purpurea’, can be used to advantage; its blue flowers add much in season.

Foliage in gray, blue, and white enhances other colors in the garden. To me, the duration and soft brilliance of white foliage is preferable to shorter-lived, glaring white flowers where white is needed for effect. Ruta graveolens, deprived of its yellow flowers, adds a pleasant, airy blue-gray; I am trying R. chalapensis as well.

The santolinas, whether gray or green, have their place, and I once was enthusiastic about their superiority to the various dusty millers. I must admit, however, to a little disenchant­ment with them. From seed, it takes two years for them to make much of themselves; then they bloom with not unattractive profusion — but ever after, even if clipped before the blossoms come out, they look somewhat scraggly, if indeed they don’t simply die from the effort. The best idea seems to be to put them in such an inhospitable place that they do not even want to bloom.

We all know the useful Stachys byzantina, but S. candida is an even whiter little bushlet. It is in its first year with me, and gives me high hopes. Perhaps it will outdo the santolinas. Centranthus ruber is a distinctly old-fashioned and homey plant for the border, yet it is well worth inclusion in the rose border for its almost constant bloom. It also has glaucous foliage, in color rather like that of rue. However, beware the somewhat mauve-tinted forms and the rather lusterless white one; the plants with pure rose-colored flowers go best with just about everything. Centranthus seeds about abundantly, but young plants are easily recognized and grubbed out.

Two traditional companions for roses are pinks and irises. I find pinks rather tiresome — they seem to be favored by nesting ants, and I look with narrowed eyes at the clumps and wonder what is hiding there now. Irises are grand, but it is hard to get them in just the right size so they don’t loom too large. There is a full range of dwarf ones, but in southern California they refuse to bloom. The cultivar ‘Tanya Elizabeth’ has perfectly sized fans of foliage for my uses, and remains solely on that merit; in five years I have never seen the dauphin violet flowers promised in the catalog.

Finally, Aquilegia alpina contributes beautiful airy foliage all year, as well as profuse blue flowers in spring. Its cousin Thalictrum dipterocarpum grows happily for me among some gallica roses put in recently, the clouds of elegant lavender flowers drifting among the upper reaches of the rose foliage, extending the bloom season in that section of the garden. Both the aquilegia and the thalictrum need a little extra moisture and shade in warmer gardens, as do so many old roses — perfect companionship, giving the garden a feeling of innate tranquility.