Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rosa 'Safrano'


This is the famous old tea rose ‘Safrano’ – it dates from 1839, very early in the  hybridization of modern garden roses. I grew up being told that tea roses were not hardy in our climate. And indeed that seems to be the prevailing belief even now. But I was intrigued to read Mrs. Keays’ comments from about seventy-five years ago concerning this rose: she said it was “found…in almost every garden in our neighborhood” (her home was near Lusby, Calvert County, Maryland).

Note that it is a tea rose, not a hybrid tea rose. What’s the difference? That question is a lot harder to answer than it might at first seem, because the difference is one of degree and not a difference of kind. One way to put it into perspective is to realize that the original tea roses (there were two) were almost certainly already  hybrids and not, as was originally thought, new species. As a result, seedlings from these plants were much more variable than would have been the case had they been stable, relatively uniform species.  

Furthermore, the first European rosarians to acquire them immediately began to raise seedlings and, later in the nineteenth century, make deliberate crosses. For the rose growers of the early nineteenth century they must have seemed unbelievably sweet eye candy. They differed from the older European garden roses in prevailing flower color, habit of growth, foliage, poise of bloom and season of bloom. That so many of the old European garden roses survive is no doubt due to the one fault these new tea roses had: they lacked cold hardiness and thus they were not good garden plants in extremely cold climates. They were eventually crossed with just about every other compatible rose available, although they were hardly universally compatible for breeding purposes with other garden roses.  As a result, a new and very variable swarm of hybrid  garden roses arose. Throughout the nineteenth century these roses became bigger and more variable with respect to growth habit and hardiness.

By the second half of the nineteenth century it was becoming obvious that the tea group had become a bit unwieldy; the solution was to establish a new class of roses, the now familiar hybrid tea roses. The point of division between the old tea roses and the newly named hybrid tea roses is completely artificial and arbitrary. Basically, roses which produced larger, fuller, upright flowers with stouter canes and coarser foliage  became the hybrid teas. Several roses have been given the distinction of being the “first” hybrid tea; such decisions are a matter of opinion, not of fact. The fact is that all of these earliest hybrid teas were introduced as tea roses.  These early hybrid teas were to be subjected to a profound change at the end of the nineteenth century with the introduction of the genes for strong yellow color. Any rose with the Pernetiana roses in its background is at least as distinct from the other hybrid teas as those earliest hybrid teas were from their tea rose contemporaries. But so thoroughly reticulated has the hybridization of modern hybrid teas been that the only obvious legacies of the Pernetiana group are the bright yellow colors and blends made possible by them and the susceptibility to black spot disease.  

The tea rose shown above is Safrano, a rose which arose so early in the hybridization of modern garden roses that its identity as a tea rose has never been questioned. That’s not the case with the tea roses which were raised in the earliest twentieth century. Later in the year I hope to be able to show you a blossom of the rose ‘William R. Smith’, nominally a tea rose. The stud book, at least what we know of it, says that this is a tea rose. But the flowers, very big for a tea rose and borne on a thick-caned big and relatively hardy plant, say hybrid tea rose, and so it has been called by some observers.

My interest in this distinction between tea roses and hybrid tea roses on the one hand, and the distinction between hybrid tea roses and hybrid perpetual roses on the other hand, goes back to the earliest days of my learning about roses. The books I had were not in agreement about the placement of one rose in particular, the once very famous ‘Frau Karl Druschki’. To look at her, the Frau was a hybrid tea, and was so-considered by many rosarians. Many thought of it as the best white-flowered hybrid tea.  But there were those who waved the stud book, and the book recorded the embarrassing fact that the Frau had one parent which was a hybrid perpetual; in the beliefs of that school of thought this disqualified the Frau for consideration as a “true, pure” hybrid tea.

This sort of thing was important on the show bench, and doubtless reflected a less noble concern with miscegenation in the human population. What always puzzled me is why the Frau was considered to be a Hybrid Perpetual: if one parent was a Hybrid Perpetual and the other parent was a Hybrid Tea, it seems to me that the Frau was neither. But the rules were the rules, and it seems that they were the same for ostensibly white people who just happened to have a drop or two of black blood in the family history: they weren’t “true, pure” white. In retrospect these little social comedies seem to be just that, comedies. But there was a time when people took them seriously, both on the show bench and off.

But back to ‘Safrano’: if this rose settles down in this garden and grows as well as I expect it to, it will be well worth having. A lot has changed in the rose world in the nearly two hundred years since it was raised, and yet this rose has many of the qualities we look for in a good garden rose. It’s a keeper! And as a tea rose it’s also a souvenir of one of the most appreciated and important early phases of the development of our modern garden roses.  

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rosa hemisphaerica

I’ve been waiting to make this entry for years, and now that the time has come, I’ll have to temper my enthusiasm with a bit of disappointment. The rose shown in the images above is Rosa hemisphaerica. The very few of you who have grown this rose probably can guess the source of that disappointment: the garden performance of this rose has not changed much in the four hundred years since it was introduced to European gardens.

Back in the late 1970s I imported two grafted plants of this rose from Hilliers in England. Although those plants survived long enough to bloom, it was apparent from the beginning that it would be an uphill effort to keep them going. They made only halting, skimpy growth and they lost most of their foliage to black spot during the summer. One survived and built itself up enough to eventually bloom, but I eventually lost both plants. I still have good Kodachrome transparencies of the flowers produced by that plant.

If there had been an easy way to do so, I would have replaced those plants. But I could not find a domestic source, and I was not up to the hassles of importing again.

Now fast forward about thirty years. While idly doing internet searches one day in 2002, I hit on a domestic source for Rosa hemisphaerica: Greenmantle Nursery in Garberville, California.  But there was a catch: I would have to make a down payment and then wait for the rose to be propagated. I jumped at the chance, in particular because this would be a plant on its own roots. Marissa Fishman at Greenmantle must have the magic touch: plants in commerce in the past were invariably grafted as far as I know. I assumed I would get my rose in a year or two.

At this point add another eight years to the quest: it was not until April of 2010  that my rose arrived in the mail. Nor was it a particularly prepossessing example: it was healthy but there was not much to it. I planted it in a large ornamental tub rather than in the ground. It did not bloom that first year (I didn’t expect it to), but it did grow well- in that first season here that little plant put on more growth than those plants I had decades ago did the entire time they survived here. 

This week, it’s finally blooming, and most people on looking at the images above will probably be wondering why in the world I ever bothered to acquire this rose. The plant produced over a dozen flower buds this year; every one has been so densely packed with petals that the flower has split and the resulting blossom is more or less malformed. This rose has an old reputation for producing problem flowers: more often than not, the flowers ball (fail to expand normally) rather than open properly. So that is the source of my disappointment. But when it performs well and produces good flowers, you'll be very glad indeed that you have it.  I don’t have a perfect bloom to show you this year, but if it continues to thrive here there might be one in the future.  

How old is this rose? No one knows; Europeans became aware of  double, yellow-flowered roses growing in the gardens of the Middle East in the late sixteenth century. Those roses were  almost certainly this rose, although the similar rose which became known as ‘Persian Yellow’ when it was introduced in the early nineteenth century also might have existed that long ago and been seen by those early European observers. The rose under discussion here, Rosa hemisphaerica, seems to have been introduced to eastern European gardens in the very early seventeenth century. It was known to Clusius at the very beginning of the century (1601): although there is no indication that he saw a living plant, he related  a description by a Viennese noble woman of a display of paper cutouts of flowers which included double yellow roses (…inter eas erant et flavae rosae plenae…)

Here is the account from the Historia of Clusius; click on the image to enlarge it: 

Parkinson,  in his Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris  (1629), and the Johnson edition of Gerard (1633) both discuss it. In their time it was a very rare plant, a sort of trophy plant likely to be seen only in the gardens of the few.

Here is Parkinson's text; click on the image to enlarge it. Anyone who has grown this rose will find Parkinson's comments familiar.

This is the double flowered yellow rose seen in the still life paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It can be seen, for instance, in this piece dated c. 1720 by van Huysum from the collection of the National Gallery:

This rose played no part in the development of modern yellow-flowered garden roses. In fact, until the end of the nineteenth century there were no hybrid roses of garden origin with strong yellow flowers. Throughout the nineteenth century there were yellow-flowered tea roses, but those roses had a pale yellow color which generally quickly faded in bright light. I’ll save the story of the development of the modern hybrid yellow-flowered roses for another post.

Later this week I’ll post an image of an early nineteenth century tea rose with some yellow in its coloration to give you an idea of the yellow seen in tea roses.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Paeonia officinalis 'Rubra Plena'

The image above shows the usual garden form of Paeonia officinalis known as 'Rubra Plena'. I purchased the pot-grown plant about two weeks ago; the flower is a bit smaller and less full than those seen on well grown large plants.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, this was the common garden peony in European and American gardens. The introduction of Paeonia lactiflora to Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, and the rapid development of seed grown cultivars of that species, soon displaced Paeonia officinalis, and today Paeonia officinalis is no longer the common garden peony.

American books sometimes call it the Memorial Day peony, but here in zone 7 Maryland it blooms long before that. In most areas it is said to bloom about two weeks before the start of the Paeonia lactiflora season. The scent of peonies of the lactiflora group varies, but many have very agreeable scents, some of them distinctly rose-like. The scent of Paeonia officinalis on the other hand is usually described disparagingly as soap-like.