Thursday, May 27, 2010

Green edged petunia déjà vu

Gardeners vary a lot with respect to their grasp of the traditions of gardening. Many know no more or less than the information given in catalogs. Many probably don’t want to know any more than that. I’ve seen beautiful gardens made by people who wouldn’t be able to name their plants at any more than a very superficial level, who have only the vaguest notions of botanical relationships, who don’t know or want to know anything about the origins of their plants or about the persons and circumstances who/which brought those plants into cultivation.

At the other end of the spectrum are those of us who want to know everything. We live to get our fingers onto a keyboard and Google away the afternoon. Learning has never been so easy. Luckiest of us are those who have extensive personal libraries. Even those of us with relatively modest personal libraries often have access to information still outside the reach of Google.

And sometimes things come together – call it déjà vu, what goes around comes around, nothing’s new under the sun, or just waiting patiently – in ways which have us digging into the arcane depths of our collections of ephemera. I had just that experience yesterday while examining, of all things, petunias. One of the local big box stores had hundreds of pots of selected petunias selling for about $4 per pot. It’s not hard to see why there have always been gardeners who are enthusiastic about petunias. Unlike impatiens, fibrous begonias and zinnias, all of which might just as well be made of plastic, petunias are indisputably real flowers. The slightest breeze moves the flowers, the shape of the plant changes over time as the plant slowly expands and, best of all for me, some of them are deliciously fragrant.

But back to those petunias at the big box store: as I looked over the plants, I spotted something which really gave me a jolt. There was a petunia with flowers which had a distinct green edge to the red-violet flowers. That such a petunia exists is not what surprised me. Such petunias were well known over seventy years ago, before the Second World War. And how do I know that such petunias existed long ago? Among the ephemera I have collected over the years is a catalog from 1937 from the Richard Diener company, then of Oxnard, California. The catalog contains the photograph shown above (the upper image); at first glance, it does look a bit like some strange lettuce. But it’s a double flowered petunia whose outermost petals have a distinct green edge. I’ve had that catalog for decades, and so I’ve known about such petunias for that long – but until yesterday I had never seen anything like it.

Here’s what Diener had to say back in 1937: “ No. 26, GREEN EDGED DOUBLE.- This type comes in all colors but all have a seam around the petals which is grass green. I have been working on this variety for the last eight years to bring it to perfection, as it was at first somewhat weak, The Green Edged variety was a sensation at the World’s Fair at Chicago in 1934. It will attract attention everywhere. “

The petunia I bought yesterday, the cultivar ‘Supertunia ® Pretty Much Picasso ™‘ of the Proven Winners range, has single rather than double flowers. But the green edge is there and it’s distinct. That's it in the lower image above. How long have I waited to see a petunia like this? And I wonder if there is any connection between Diener’s breeding lines from so long ago and this new cultivar?

Here's a related funny story. Once, while searching a local library for old catalogs, one of the librarians made a comment about my interest in "ephemerata". The word ephemera is itself already plural. But this word "ephemerata" does sound like a Greek plural, and I was momentarily flummoxed. What, for instance, would the singular form be? Well, as it turns out, "ephemerata" exists (in the sense that if you Google it, there are hits), but it isn't defined as far as I can find. It's one thing to make a mistake; it's another to make it in a way which sounds so authoritative!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Three great roses

Here are three similar roses, roses which have long been favorites wherever they can be grown. The images above are stacked in chronological order: on top is ‘Lamarque’, a tea noisette raised in 1830 and one of the most popular roses during the nineteenth century. Next comes the climbing form of ‘Devoniensis’ a climbing tea rose. The bush form was raised in 1838, the climbing sport was introduced in 1858 . This climbing ‘Devoniensis’ has a suffusion of soft peach color in addition to the soft yellow. I’m enjoying both of these now from newly received plants, but I really don’t expect either to become well established in the garden without extensive winter protection and a carefully chosen site.

The third rose is ‘Albéric Barbier’ of 1900. This flower opened during relatively cool weather and thus shows a suffusion of yellow in the center. On the rare occasions when the weather conditions are just right, the flowers open pale yellow; in typically warm weather the flowers open white with no trace of yellow.

It was only when I noticed the suffusion of yellow in each of these roses that I began to connect them and see them in a historical context. Their recorded parentage suggests that they have little in common, yet they are much alike. When ‘Lamarque’ was introduced, roses in the modern high-centered style had yet to be developed. By the time the climbing form of ‘Devoniensis’ was introduced, the roses which were to become known as hybrid teas were already making the rounds. And by the time ‘Albéric Barbier’ was introduced, it must have seemed a bit old-fashioned from the start.

But maybe that was a good thing. When ‘Albéric Barbier’ was introduced, there must have been many rosarians who were very familiar with ‘Lamarque’ and ‘Devoniensis’. In ‘Albéric Barbier’ I wonder if they saw a chance to grow a similar rose under harsher conditions. Here in eastern North America, both ‘Lamarque’ and ‘Devoniensis’ are dubious much north of zone 8; ‘Albéric Barbier’ on the other hand takes our winters with ease and becomes a force with which to reckon.

Much as the flowers look alike, the fragrances of these roses are different. ‘Lamarque’ is sweet tea, ‘Devoniensis’ is tea with added sweetness and body, ‘Albéric Barbier’ is refreshingly tart green apple.

'Lamarque’ and ‘Devoniensis’ are results of cutting-edge hybridization in the early nineteenth century. The newly introduced tea rose (itself an old hybrid from China) was crossed with various existing European roses; the result was a sudden profusion of roses unlike any seen before. Because the potentially huge climbing Rosa moschata figured in the mix, some of these new roses were climbers by nature. These came to be known as Noisette roses or, if the tea influence was strong, tea-noisettes. Those which remained bushy, such as ‘Devoniensis’ came to be known as tea roses. When they produced climbing sports, those sports were called climbing teas rather than tea-noisettes. But the differences involved are differences of degree rather than differences in kind, and the resulting horticultural categories are highly artificial.

‘Albéric Barbier’ was the result of a similar but utterly different burst of cutting-edge hybridization nearly a century later. A newly introduced rose then known as Rosa wichuraiana was used to produce hybrids which in some ways paralleled the early nineteenth century hybrids and in other ways were very different. It’s easy to believe that those first hybridizers who used Rosa wichurana (as it is now called) had the high bar of accomplishment set by their early nineteenth century predecessors in mind: they managed to combine the grace of the early nineteenth century hybrids with a degree of vigor and cold hardiness formerly rare in climbing roses. The resulting hybrids were hugely popular for the next twenty or thirty years, and then began to slip into obscurity. Tastes have changed, but the roses themselves are as good as they ever were; and some of us are very glad indeed that so many have survived and can be grown in our gardens today.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Moss Rose

I still remember the first time, now over a half-century ago, I saw a moss rose: my high school biology teacher, Miss Boyer, had brought one from her garden to class. I remember spending some time examining it carefully, enjoying the fragrance of the flower and the resinous fragrance of the branched glands which give this rose its name. This fragrant resin clings to whatever touches it, and if you stroke the soft moss or draw the mossy stem across your lip, you will be able to take the fragrance with you and enjoy it for hours.
The bud shown in the image above is that of the so-called common moss rose, although it’s anything but common in either the literal or figurative senses. Surely someone in my gardening circle must grow moss roses, but if they do, I’ve never seen them. And among roses, the moss roses are anything but common.

The moss mutation seems to have occurred several times in roses. Graham Stuart Thomas made a firm distinction between the soft moss of the moss roses derived (probably by somatic mutation) from the cabbage rose Rosa 'Centifolia'  and the hard moss which characterizes the moss roses derived from the autumn damask rose. In addition to these, there are numerous hybrids in which the moss effect is found; these mostly have moss roses of the autumn damask sort in their background. I’m not aware of any hybrid moss roses which can be said with certainty to have the common moss in their background. However, it is said that a single-flowered (i.e. with few petals, viable pollen and capable of setting viable seed) mutation occurred in the early nineteenth century, and from this plant many hybridized mosses were raised.

With all of that in mind, it's evident that there are several sorts of roses which are being called moss roses. Four groups make sense to me: 1) the mosses derived as somatic mutations from Rosa 'Centifolia'  2) the mosses derived as somatic mutations from Rosa  'Bifera'  or, as it is often called 'Damascena Bifera'; 3) the hybrids derived from the single-flowered mutation of the common moss rose; and 4) the hybrids derived from the mossy mutation of Rosa 'Bifera' aka 'Damascena bifera'.

If it is true that the common moss originated as a bud sport of the cabbage rose Rosa 'Centifolia', then it can be said that the moss rose and the cabbage rose are pieces of one original seedling; in other words they form a variable clone. And if the single-flowered mutation mentioned above was in fact a bud sport, then it, too, is a part of this same variable clone.

A word seems necessary about the formatting of the names. In old books it's usual to see the names Rosa centifolia and Rosa damascena bifera, the names italicized as if the plants in question were species. These are in fact ancient hybrids. The one known as 'Centifolia' (the name here formatted to reflect the belief that it is a clone of garden origin) seems to have originated in the late seventeenth or even early eighteenth century; it is the  "perfected form which produced the moss rose" (to use Dr. Hurst's phrase as quoted by Thomas), the ultimate form in a series of hybrid roses which had been in development for about two centuries among the Dutch.  The Romans used the term  "rosa centifolia" for a rose they knew, but it was not this plant.

Rosa 'Damascena Bifera' or Rosa 'Bifera' is said to be a hybrid of Rosa gallica and R. moschata. This plant is of truly ancient origin, and might have been known to the Romans of the Classical period.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Spanish Upstart

Writing in the early 1930’s on the occasion of the death of a twelve-year-old plant of the rose ‘Alida Lovett’, Richardson Wright had this to say in his Another Gardener’s Bed Book: “Ah well. I could buy another. Or perhaps it would be better not to try Alida again. A wise man never attempts to attain the same perfect enjoyment twice in the same place…It might be better to substitute for Alida some Spanish upstart with an unpronounceable name.”

The rose ‘Alida Lovett’ is all but forgotten now, although it is still in commerce thanks to the efforts of certain old-rose enthusiasts. One of them is sending me a plant very soon (that’s still true, isn’t it, Connie?).

But this post is about the Spanish upstart. It’s not hard to guess which rose Wright had in mind. Almost certainly it had to be ‘Mme Grégoire Staechelin’, the beauty you see above. She made her debut in 1927 to great acclaim (and back in those days she was called a climbing hybrid tea). The rose world embraced her enthusiastically, and to this day she still has a keen following wherever fine roses are grown.

She has at least three qualities which people of orthodox taste do not like. For one, this rose blooms only in the spring. For another, the flowers nod charmingly in the style of tea roses. And then there is the name: the ethnocentric spirit of early twentieth century America rejected the name 'Mme Grégoire Staechelin' and substituted "Spanish Beauty". 

In the modern scheme of things, she is now placed among the large flowered climbers.

The buxom flowers have a great scent and a color combination which almost everyone likes. A well-established plant in full bloom is very easy indeed to look at, and it will scent the surrounding garden.

About this word buxom: after typing buxom, I was curious to see how it would be defined by the Encarta Dictionary which is available when I use Microsoft Word. There it was grossly defined as “with large breasts”. I’m used to men and women with only one breast, and indeed persons with “breasts” are so rare that it’s hard to believe that a word was coined for them. A pack, a big pack, of chicken breasts is a possibility; but to tell the truth, I doubt if even a circus side show has ever exhibited a person with more than one breast. At this point I was feeling a strong need for some old-fashioned sensibilities, so I checked my Webster’s Seventh and found that it gives two archaic meanings for this word. And then it gives the meaning I had in mind: “vigorously or healthily plump; specif full-bosomed.”

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Rosa 'Scharlachglut'

Here’s another favorite rose, the Kordes hybrid ‘Scharlachglut’.

Every rose in this garden is a favorite. Why should it be otherwise in such a small garden? There isn’t room enough here for all the roses I want, so what sense would it make to have any but favorites?

‘Scharlachglut’ has been in the garden longer than any other rose – so long that I forget where it was obtained. That information is probably buried in the manuscript gardening diaries I’ve been keeping for forty years. Over the years it’s been moved several times.

The parentage of this rose is given variously; evidently it’s a hybrid between a modern rose and one of the old European garden roses. It forms a shrub about six feet or more high where there is room for it. Here, it gets cut back enough to fit into a smaller space. It blooms only in the spring, and then for about two weeks or so. Many people who are drawn to this rose because of its intense color – and “drawn” to it is an appropriate way to phrase it because the strong fragrance of this rose carries well on the air – lose interest as soon as they hear it blooms only in the spring. Yet these same people plant other herbaceous and woody plants which bloom only once a year; why are the roses held to a different standard? Learn to think of them as you would an azalea or a peony; enjoy them in their season and then go on to other things.

This rose is sometimes compared to or confused with the rose ‘Altissimo’. ‘Altissimo’ is one of those roses which looks great in catalogs. When you get it in the garden you notice that its red is a very cold red and there is no fragrance to speak of. ‘Scharlachglut’ on the other hand has the most wonderful warm red color when the flowers first open; they later fade a bit, especially if the weather is hot, and the old flowers do “blue” a bit. But in a cool spring a bush in full bloom is a glorious sight.