Sunday, July 27, 2008

Stop to Smell the Roses

Rosa gallica officinalis
Old garden rose. Ancient: has been called the most famous rose of all time.
The classic “Apothecary’s Rose,” known for its medicinal and culinary uses

Reine de l’Ile Bourbon
(Bourbon Queen) (1834)

Baltimore Belle (1843)Climber.
Descended from Rosa setigera
(native to America).
Lovely, though with only minimal scent.

Scenes from the Garden (and some random thoughts on nature and time)

As we move into late summer, when, in Thomson's words,
Deep to the root
Of vegetation parch'd, the cleaving fields
And slippery lawn an arid hue disclose,
Blast fancy's blooms, and wither even the soul
it is tempting to think back already with nostalgia to the days of June and early July.

The modern world has brought us many benefits, which I would be the last to deny or reject. However, we may appreciate the gifts of modernity better if we at least recall the contrasts that it has erased. Historians are accustomed to speaking, for example, of the difference in the rhythms of historical time: the wildly fluctuating “feast and fast” cycles of the premodern era, versus the attenuated amplitude of our secular and industial modernity, with its standardized “work week.” We have also lost our sense of the inflexible rhythms of nature.

The great cultural historian Johan Huizinga described those contrasts masterfully in the lyrical opening passages of his Waning of the Middle Ages (1919):
To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The contrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking.
. . . .
Illness and health presented a more striking contrast; the cold and darkness of winter were more real evils. . . . We, at the present day, can hardly understand the keenness with which a fur coat, a good fire on the hearth, a soft bed, a glass of wine, were formerly enjoyed
Since then, fluctuations in daily experience have grown more blurred still. Far from worrying about the nocturnal gloom, we attempt to reclaim the natural darkness lost to “light pollution.” We have become accustomed to the availability of fruits and vegetables out of season in any locale. If we do not like the winter cold or summer heat, we take a vacation in search of a more pleasant clime. Formerly rarefied experiences such as concerts, theater, and film are, thanks to new technologies of recording and storage, like many other pleasures and commodities, potentially available everywhere 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

We are all familiar with Ronsard’s famous carpe diem poems, which, in floral metaphors, warn us of the fate of youth, beauty, and love in the face of age:

See, Mignonne, hath not the Rose,
That this morning did unclose
Her purple mantle to the light,
Lost, before the day be dead,
The glory of her raiment red,
Her colour, bright as yours is bright?
Ah, Mignonne, in how few hours,
The petals of her purple flowers
All have faded, fallen, died;
[. . . .]
Gather the fleet flower of your youth,
Take ye your pleasure at the best;
Be merry ere your beauty flit,
For length of days will tarnish it
Like roses that were loveliest.

(À sa maitresse, 1550)


regretting my love, and regretting your disdain.
Heed me, and live for now: this time won’t come again.
Come, pluck now — today — life’s so quickly-fading rose.

(Quand vous serez bien vielle, 1578)

We take it as universal philosophical advice, but may forget or not even realize that the reference to roses in particular also reflects a very concrete horticultural reality.

One of the easiest and most satisfying ways to practice sustainability and historical preservation in one’s own backyard (literally) is to cultivate native and heirloom varieties of plants, which increase biodiversity and tend to require less care and suit the environment better. If one is willing to meet them on their own terms, they also reveal charms that modern hybridized varieties, bred for reliable display of a limited number of traits, such as continual bloom, lack.

One of the greatest pleasures of the early summer is the rose season. Those familiar only with hybrid tea roses of the sort that one encounters in the typical formal garden and the proverbial long-stemmed bouquet from the florist may not be accustomed to thinking of roses as having a season, but thereby hangs a tale. Most traditional European roses were shrubs that flowered only once and briefly in late spring or early summer. The introduction of the China rose (Rosa chinensis) in 1789—coincidentally, the same year as the French Revolution—began what has been termed a “rose revolution,” as Western breeders (though before genetics was fully understood) sought to incorporate and favor the traits of exotic Asian varieties: new colors and growth habits, but above all, repeat flowering. It culminated in the form of the hybrid tea—1867—which marks the boundary between old and new roses.

Unfortunately the selection of these traits generally came, in the words of Graham Stuart Thomas, “at the expense of hardiness and scent.” Eventually, as Thomas Christopher puts it, modern roses “were all bred to the same set of criteria, to win the same prize, and as a result they lack character.”

The development of the modern rose trade in many ways therefore parallels that of the brewing trade: Advances of a specific sort in one area inadvertently paved the way for a bland standardization that has only recently been overcome as devotees rediscovered the virtues of diversity and older varieties. To continue the analogy: The typical tight-blossomed, scentless florist’s rose is to an old rose as Anheuser-Busch’s so-called Budweiser is to the original Czech beer from České Budějovice after which it is named. For the non-beer drinker: Anyone who has appreciated the difference between a summer vine-ripened tomato grown at home or on a local farm and the impalatable “hard-ripe” tomato that fills grocery-store bins in winter and cohabits with iceberg lettuce at the institutional salad bar will know what I mean.

Old roses more than compensate for their more limited color range and flowering season by virtue of having a more subtle (I would also say: tasteful) color range, and in many cases, producing more blooms per plant. Above all, they exude the intoxicating scent for which the rose has been prized for millennia, in the words of Alice Morse Earle: “irresistible, enthralling, . . . a magic something which binds you irrevocably to the Rose.”

And for those who cannot be satisfied with a single blooming period, there is a fine compromise between the oldest varieties and the bland hybrid teas: Many of the early hybridized garden roses—such as the Bourbons and hybrid perpetuals, combine classic scent with the ability to flower again.

This warm, sunny weather of the early summer produced a beautiful bounty of roses this year. Random scenes from the garden:

Rose de Rescht
Old garden rose (Portland Damask).
Reportedly brought from Persia in the mid-20th century.

Zéphirine Drouhin (1868)
Old garden rose (Bourbon).

Rosa carolina (1826)
Species rose, native to America;
also known as Pasture Rose.

Great Maiden’s Blush (pre-15th century)
Alba. An ancient variety, one of the most beautiful and seductive (Thomas calls the fragrance “unequalled for pure sweetness”). The French names—which include La Virginale, La Séduisante, and Cuisse de Nymphe (thigh of the nymph)—are far more evocative than the English (hence the name Cuisse de Nymphe Émué—thigh of the aroused nymph—when the flowers develop a more intense color).

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