Home & Garden Columns
It’s been a crappy year for wildflowers, but a great one for roses. When I mistook something for a startling pink tree and then realized it was a ‘Cecile Brunner’ rose climbing fifteen feet up a utility-pole guywire, and then did the same double-take for the same cultivar climbing a tree on Sacramento Avenue, I decided to write about roses this week.
People have all sorts of theories (meaning unproven hypotheses, not “theories” in the scientific sense) about roses, and that’s contributed to their reputation as finicky. I’ve long thought that the reason for the multiplicity of theories is rather the opposite, and similar to the reason for the bewildering variety of theories about raising children.
Like children, roses are tough enough to survive most of the wacky things that get done to them. When they do so, the owners of the wacky theories conclude that whatever regimen they’ve put their charges through must have been The One True Way™, and thereupon publish those theories.
Inexperienced people setting out to raise roses (or rear children) and confronted with this great stack of undifferentiated data conclude that there must be a great deal to learn, since there’s a great deal being taught, and that doing it exactly right is absolutely necessary. Many try earnestly to do what they’re told, even when it’s self-contradictory.
Needing to reconcile contradictory dictates can make people try even harder to fulfill them. It looks like some neuropsychological reward-frustration cycle to me: King Tantalus’ syndrome with a side of unimpeachable virtue.
This may explain religion and gambling, as well as Dr. Spock and his spiritual heirs. It certainly explains at least half the tomes on growing roses, and the regrettable tendency of gardeners to douse their roses and soil with weird cocktails of fertilizers and pesticides.
Sometimes they get ingenious. A surgeon of my acquaintance, in the years before AIDS triggered a lot of epidemiological restrictions, used to take home age-expired units of blood from the hospital, usefully recycling the wasted blood by pouring it around his roses. Lots of nitrogen there, and trace elements; he said it tended to repel deer too.
I’m sure his plants loved their vampirish treat. I have first-hand evidence of the bloodthirsty nature of roses, and so does anyone else who’s spent time pruning them. No matter how scrupulous one is about wearing gloves—leather gloves, goatskin gloves, Kevlar for all I know—those thorns are going to find a way through to skin. The rose-lovers’ mantra is “Ow.”
Sometimes people just get desperate and pile the storage shed with scary compounds that happen to get marketed with “rose” somewhere on the label. I’ve seen a collection that included several things specifically aimed at Japanese beetles—which (knock wood) we don’t have here in northern California.
This foofaraw is not necessary.
There are a couple of rose cultivars that demonstrate the essential toughness of roses. Those ‘Cecile Brunner’ heroines I noted are members of one.
Cecile’s blossoms look frail enough, heaven knows. They’re an ethereal pale pink, aging to a paler shade still, and small and delicately shaped. They have a light, fresh version of the classic rose scent and they’re generous about casting it to the breeze.
Cecile bears those flowers in profusion even under less than ideal circumstances. This year, they’ve been stunning; as you go about Berkeley and the rest of the East Bay, you’ll see cataracts and tumbles and swells and sprays of them coming over fences, arbors, trees, and anything else that holds still long enough.
Every other rose in the area is showing off this spring too. I swear I’ve been dazzled by rushes of roses’ perfume while driving on main streets. Heady stuff.
Because Cecile Brunner roses are small and hold together well as they age, people like to put them on cakes and such edibles. Fortunately, the plant seems to be extraordinarily resistant to diseases, so there’s no need to taint it with unhealthful or even unaesthetic remedies. If you’re the sort of person who wants to eat roses—and why not? Ten thousand deer can’t be wrong—this is a rose to eat.
There’s one by our driveway; it’s been there for who knows how long, certainly since before we moved here 12 years ago. It’s in partial shade and still blooms prolifically, and I’ve never noticed a spot of rust or mildew or anything else nasty on it. The only care it gets aside from incidental water is pruning, and that only when it gets in the way.
It got top-heavy this year, and one of those big windy rainstorms flopped a hunk of it over into the driveway. It was a week before we got to tie it up, and it responded to being driven through just as it’s responded to any other mistreatment: it went on blithely blooming, as I scattered rose petals from the RAV4 and occasionally arrived somewhere sporting a pink car-corsage.
Photograph by Ron Sullivan.
Cecile’s blossoms are tough despite thier ethereal pale pink color, aging to a paler shade still, and they are small and delicately shaped size.