A number of years later we spent a wonderful year in England, living in a village outside of Oxford. It is not by chance that English history seems filled with roses, even wars of roses. But who can match, in this new world, what has taken hundreds, if not thousands, of years to bring to a seemingly effortless perfection in the old?
It was only after coming down here that my enthusiasm for roses of my own was rekindled. The hybrid teas my father grew in Pennsylvania had not done well for us in Canada and I did not know that there was any other kind worth growing. All I knew about roses was that the pretty ones (hybrid teas) were grown on wild root stock and if you weren’t careful the wild rootstock would put up shoots of its own and smother the hybrid. One way to tell the wild from the tame, my father said, was to count the leaflets. The tame rose had fewer leaflets - five - while the wild rose, undesirable except as rootstock, had seven or more leaflets.
Jackson and Perkins provided my father with a catalog from which he ordered his plants and I imagine they had a strong interest in talking up their hybrids and talking down any other form.
The thing I always missed with the hybrid teas was the fragrance. Almost all of them were without scent. What a surprise it was to come down here and find roses blooming not only in gardens but on their own in the dooryards of long forgotten farm houses. And not only did they bloom, they also obviously were flourishing--and fragrant--even in the gravel and sand of the edge of a country road. Clearly, my knowledge of roses needed overhauling!
As a medievalist I knew about roses that are so much part of human history that they come down in song and story. There were, of course, the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster that give their names to a long struggle for the English throne. But Geoffrey Chaucer named his rather over-fastidious Prioress in the Canterbury Tales Madame Eglantine, after a rose whose foliage as well as its flowers was fragrant. But the single rose is a symbol as potent as the lotus of India. The alchemists used the white and red roses as emblems of stages in their work. Thanks to St Jerome, who translated a difficult word in the Song of Songs (‘chabatstseleth’) as ‘rosa,’ rose, the Blessed Virgin Mary became identified as ‘the rose without thorns,’ and is often shown seated in a rose-garden.
To my surprise I discovered that one could still obtain roses that were known as far back as the Middle Ages, roses that had names and stories--and fragrance. Roses that grew on their own roots and formed lovely bushes when their flowering was done. Roses that had lots of leaflets. Roses like our two 99-cent wonders; all they require is to be put in the ground, given adequate moisture, sunlight, and a good bit of room.
Many of these old varieties are the same roses that grow wild up and down the countryside. Their only drawback, if one can call it that, is that they do not bloom continuously through the summer. So be it. Let them have their brief season of glory. Let them remind us of Mary and, in their transience, of mortality. But above all, let them be a joy to eye and nose and heart.
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.