Alice* fell in love with old-fashioned roses back in the early 1970s. Old varieties of roses were in fashion back then, a reaction to the post-war hybrid teas, long upright stems and brilliantly coloured blooms, created for the florist trade with long-lasting displays in vases, and no scent whatsoever.
Alice introduced me to old-fashioned roses back then too. They soon became a passion. Those post-war hybrid teas had a hint of fascism about them; all much the same shape, planted in straight lines, strictly pruned each winter, and sprayed with chemicals that destroyed bird and insect life. And what use is a rose whose perfume doesn't make you feel as if you are floating on a cloud in paradise?
Alice and I and thousands of other rose enthusiasts hunted out old-fashioned roses in catalogues and old gardens. It was a cheap hobby, even free. Old-fashioned roses grow easily from cuttings, so we rarely had to pay for a rose or dig out old bushes. Bung a dozen 30cm rose wood prunings into a bucket of damp sand this winter, and in spring next year you'll have at last six rose bushes to plant out.
Thankfully I had experienced guides like Mrs Olive Royds to show me what a garden full of old-fashioned roses should look like: i.e. NOT a neat row of rose bushes along a fence or house wall. She also taught me that old-fashioned roses come in thousands of shapes and growth habits, and you need to know exactly which variety they are, and what the variety needs in terms of space, support and care before you plant them.
Thanks to Olive, my rugosa roses were planted in a neatish hedge. The ramblers were given at least six metres to twine through the fruit trees or over fences. The yellow and white banksia roses were given plenty of space, so now my yellow banksia covers over half a hectare is still heading up the mountain to Majors Creek. Hopefully someone will stop it before it reaches the pub. Never underestimate an old-fashioned rose. Roses prone to black spot were planted at the garden edge, where we'd see their beauty but not the blotches. 'Once a year bloomers' were surrounded by other shrubs that hid their straggly bareness for the nine or 10 months of the year when they weren't flowering.
Alice was not so lucky. She planted her old-fashioned roses just as you would modern hybrid teas and floribundas, which are the only roses most gardeners understand. Within five years she had a jungle, and desperately needed a prince to hack a way through the thorns. She quickly became a convert to the new rose varieties that have been bred with all of the old-fashioned virtues, with exuberant shapes, slightly lax stems, and perfume, perfume, perfume.
I won't say my old-fashioned roses have been trouble-free since then, despite several hectares of garden for them to ramble. Our Dorothy Perkins stayed sedate for about 10 years and then suddenly tripled in size one spring, crippling a Bursaria and two crab apples before we noticed. I adore the Climbing Albertine who greets visitors at our front gate, even though she only blooms once a year, but with such abundance that passers-by stop to take a selfie with her.
Darling Climbing Albertine, however, also has a multitude of thorns that can rip open a jugular or at least give an extremely nasty wound. Despite frequent severe pruning she can still put forward a metre of growth in a night after a bout of rain, savagely attacking anyone who comes up our front path. Who needs a guard dog? A Madeira Rose, with its vast ornamental thorns, can be even more lethal.
There is one inflexible rule if you want grow old-fashioned roses - you need to know what kind of rose you are growing. Is it a Dorothy Perkins which can cover three acres if not stringently controlled? Is it a rambler like Wedding Day that needs at least 6 metres for full glory? Is it a bourbon rose that will get black spot and look most dismal unless you spray it every week and possibly hold an umbrella over it when it rains? Are they banksias, that will fail to bloom or even die if you try to prune them like modern hybrid teas.
Old-fashioned roses vary even more than dogs. You may think you are getting a chihuahua and end up with a great dane.
There is a magic in growing old-fashioned roses, knowing you are continuing the tradition of generations of gardeners. But if you don't know exactly what kind of care it will need, you and your rose will be in trouble. Does it need winter pruning? Or late spring pruning after it's done its yearly bloom? Many old-fashioned roses flower only once a year. They are stunningly magnificent for a month or two, which is when they are photographed for magazines, but the rest of the year they look straggly, bare and ugly.
I still plant an old-fashioned rose now and then - we have a large garden, with large trees that the ramblers can clamber up, and when they are not blooming they are hidden by the leaves and fruit of their support tree. I strongly urge every rose lover to buy at least one old-fashioned rose to clamber up an ornamental plum or to cover a fence or shed or carport, or even have a neat hedge of rugosa roses for their crinkly leaves, bright single blooms and deep red rose hips.
But unlike heritage fruit trees, where we desperately need to keep the genetic diversity of varieties that only taste good when eaten fresh from the garden or the farmers market, it is a sad truth that most of the beautiful 'old-fashioned' roses have been bred in the last couple of hundred years, and are not so ancient at all. They were also bred for wealthy landowners who had six gardeners to do all the work an old-fashioned rose needs to look decent. If the poor grew a rose back then it was likely to be a Parson's Monthly, the kind of rose bush that looked pretty in spring, didn't require a lot of work, but just kept clambering up the side of the house year after year after year.
This is a perfect time of year to plant roses. Admittedly you can only see what they look like from the picture on the label, but winter's bare-rooted roses are far cheaper than potted roses. This is also the time to indulge in rose catalogues - but do study your rose before you put in the order.
Gertrude Stein once famously said 'a rose is a rose is a rose', but it was her wife, Alice B Toklas, who did the actual gardening. I suspect Alice just smiled tolerantly, then went out to give their roses yet another spray for black spot.
Roses are possibly the most diverse flowering plant on the planet, and the most loved. But as roses can live for hundreds of years, it's not a bad idea to give as much attention to the character of the rose you plant as the lifetime companion you choose.
- Alice's real name is not used in case she never gives me a bottle of her homemade tomato kasundi again
This week I am:
- Filling vases with fragrant paperwhite jonquils.
- Excitedly waiting to see what the new varieties of daffodils planted in autumn will look like. They are poking up their green leaves already.
- Planting potatoes for a late spring crop, including purple-fleshed ones and others said to be low GI.
- Glorying in the best camellia season ever, flush after flush of fat, bright flowers.
- Waiting for my new bare-rooted heritage fruit trees to arrive, including a definitely-not-heritage new cross between a cherry and a plum, which I can't wait to see - and taste.
- Marvelling that the mulberry trees are putting out leaves! Spring really is coming.