LIFE FOR OLDER ROSES
Age, I have been heard to rant many a time (especially as the years shoot past), does nothing for anyone. Nature shows little or no compassion - whether you are a human or a rose.
Time and time again over the years I have talked about roses I have admired - indeed I may have used the word love - and have upbraided Nature for allowing them to deteriorate.
At one time every rose was new and tough and trouble-free. Then many of them started to go downhill. Even the strongest suffered - and it is a trend that is still continuing today.
A while ago I heard a well known rose grower comment that the once invincible old tea rose Gloire de Dijon was deteriorating. Funnily enough this was also being said nearly a hundred years ago and it is hard to know how much further it has deteriorated since then.
A notable deterioration has been seen in Peace, still one of the most loved of all hybrid teas. In recent years you would have to be lucky to get a bush that was anywhere near as dominant as when it was introduced. However I had a letter from a friend the other day and he told me of a case where someone saw a Peace bush in an old garden and it was so great that she took cuttings from it with the result that the plants now growing from that stock show immense improvement over bushes being sold today.
One theory of deterioration is that the constant stripping down of bushes to provide propagation material has resulted in the weakening of the plant. This was said to be the reason for many of the Admiral Rodney bushes being so weak so soon after its introduction. It was felt that the material used came from bushes that were constantly being ravished for the production of budwood and that any later, better bushes, came from budwood taken from bushes selected for vigour and health.
One belief is that if bushes are only used for taking cuttings rather than budwood there may well be hope on the horizon. This is merely surmise so far but the suggestion is that instead of using the plants exterior tissue for propagation the central tissue provides a better basis for growth. Of course one of the problems about this is that it is notoriously hard to get some roses, especially hybrid teas, to successfully take root from cuttings, although huge advances are now being seen in this respect.
One other cause of deterioration is that it is possibly due to a virus in the plant; a virus that is passed on from bush to bush by budding. This could well be true and could give the reason why some plants continually do well in some countries and not in others. In other words the propagation material did not have the virus where the plant was doing well.
All this came to my mind when I was told recently that the winner of the best bloom and also a member of a championship winning class in Australia was Ulster Monarch. If you have been a reader of this column over any length of time you will have heard me yearning for a return of this great old (middle-aged) variety. Once upon a time it was my banker and won many top prizes for me at shows everywhere.
I still grow a bush of Ulster Monarch - but it is a poor thing, a tiny twiggy bit of a thing. It just went downhill rapidly - and it never even gets big enough to give me a cutting.
Yet in Australia and New Zealand I have seen this rose growing in a shoulder high bush and laden with blooms. Bloom that most exhibitors would die for - a light russet colour and every bloom reflexing fully.
It goes without saying that plants - just like human beings - must deteriorate and eventually die. But more and more the whole business of buying roses on their own roots may provide an answer. Is this the way that we can save those lovely roses that linger for a while before passing away? Certainly it is a very important subject for gardeners who may find old favoured varieties dying off.
It may take some time for the new plant to achieve good growth potential but there is a better chance doing it this way than just hoping the plant will get better by itself. It won't...as my Ulster Monarch has proved. But one day I may well get a good cutting from it and resurrect it - if only for my own enjoyment. And you do know of course that if you save an old rose today you are certainly doing posterity a favour.
Give a rose a good name
Here is a question - would Sexy Rexy have been a far more popular rose under another name? There are many people who would say yes despite the fact that it is one of the best selling floribundas around. Recently I saw one writer reverse the question and ask would people feel the same about the extraordinarily beautiful rose Cymbeline had it been called Sexy Rexy or Radox Bouquet?
I am sure there is a popularity thing about rose names but it would be hard to surmise whether a good name makes a bad rose better or a bad name makes a good rose less acceptable.
There is no doubt that when it comes to commerce a good name does help...but it can also cause a few frowns. When the rose Margaret Merril was named for the front person in the Oil of Olay promotion campaign it transpired that the name was a fictitious one. There was no such person with that name in the organisation. But out in the big world there are a number of people bearing that same name - and three at least have come forward to the Harkness company and are growing the rose as their own!
No doubt when the name was chosen by the cosmetic company a lot of research was done to get the signature accepted by the public. So if it was good enough for the commercial needs of a vibrant company it was good enough for a rose.
But then would just about any name have carried the same weight with a rose that has everything that gets public approval? After all it is very acceptable with its pearly white sheen, delicious fragrance and good growth.
Certainly selecting a name can be a hazardous task - Sexy Rexy is only one case in point. Sam McGredy has had some other classic encounters when it has come to naming a rose - Mischief was named for a dog. But few of his encounters would have been quite as fraught as it was with Picasso, the first of the hand painted varieties.
When you want to patent a rose for a living person you must have a letter of agreement signed by that person so Sam had to get Picasso's agreement. He got the agreement from the artist's agent but that wasn't enough for the patent office - they wanted a letter actually signed by the artist. The artist's manager got very annoyed that anyone should question his authority to sign for Picasso.
It was some time before Sam discovered that Picasso never signed anything that wasn't absolutely necessary - and if you managed to get his signature it could be sold to a collector for thousands of dollars! Eventually even the patent office recognised this fact and let the rose go ahead.
Selecting a rose name may seem a simple operation but it can have its own consequences. What about some of these for unhappy associations?
Nearly Wild, Anna de Diesbach, Adelaide Hoodless, Atombombe, Hein Muck, Little Pooh, Rhode Island Red (and the eggs she laid come free!). But if good names made great roses surely then we would still be talking great things about Blushing Beauty, Caress, Chastity, Chuckles and even Champion of the World! These were all names given to roses long forgotten. Maybe Sexy Rexy will live longer.
My Concubine for a Summer!
And while we are in the realms of names I must say that when I go horse racing I often pick a name as the likely winner before I bother with form. And I must confess that much the same often goes with roses.
When I saw the big bosomy white-creamy rose touched with pink I wasn't overly thrilled by it. But when I was told its name - well, that was different.
Tipsy Imperial Concubine. What a wonderful name! You don't even have to go looking up a thesaurus or a dictionary to tell you exactly what the name suggests.
I wonder though how it ever got the name? I wonder what its history really is? None of the books on my shelf mention the name and indeed there are very few growers in the world who catalog it.
The only grower of this variety in Britain, as far as I know, is Peter Beales of Attleborough, Norfolk. This interesting rose came to us direct from China, he writes in his catalog, and then he gives his advice - something I wish I had known last year. "We believe, that it should be made available to those who can provide it with with a sheltered position, greenhouse or conservatory." Which gives me the reason why my plant died a death in winter. Up to February it looked a survivor but then came the full weight of winter and it died. I wasn't sure what sort of rose it really was but if I had known that it was a Tea it would have been different - I would have treated it with greater kindness and attention. Tea roses generally need a little more cosseting than others; they need it warm, sunny and sheltered. That is exactly what it didn't have in my garden.
Of course I should have known - after all I had only seen it before in California and in New Zealand where warmth was part of its existence. But I have often fallen into the trap of bringing in unusual roses just because of their names or their demeanour.
Certainly Tipsy Imperial Concubine is a rose that should provide a good talking point in any garden. I suppose you could say that if it didn't have such a name I might never have known about it. It was a short courtship - but an interesting one. And that is important with roses - as with people.
This article © copyright 2000 Sean McCann
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