"What sticks in the mind after reading Thomas Christopher's wonderfully titled In Search of Lost Roses is the stories he tells and the people he's met, researched or gone to look for—the mad, passionate, wildly uncompromising people, fixed on a flower."—Beverly Lowry, New York Times
"Destined to become a classic. . . . So interesting one is tempted to read it all in one sitting. . . . An essential addition to the library of anyone interested in roses, but equally fascinating reading for anyone else."—Dick Streeper, San Diego Union-Tribune
An excerpt from
Read an interview with the author.
In my garden there are roses with wonderfully evocative names: 'Queen Victoria,' "Giant of Battles," "Pearl of Gold," "Rose of the King," 'Baroness Rosthschild,' 'Marchioness of Lorne.' They read like a roll call of the ancien regime, and in fact these roses are a living link with the past. They are so-called old roses, the types beloved of our great-grandparents. Once the pride of gardeners from New York to San Francisco, they were for generations virtually unobtainable, lost entirely or preserved only in the gardens of a few antiquarians. Today, they are returning, once again filling gardens with their subtle, unfamiliar colors and perfumes. Behind their reappearance lies an extraordinary story, a tale of flowers that have persisted unchanged for centuries and of the unlikely band of experts who united to rescue them from extinction.
My own introduction to old-fashioned roses was accidental, but almost inevitable, since I discovered gardening through the pages of a two-thousand-year-old agricultural treatise. Classics were my first love, most particularly Latin literature and archaeology, but three years of chasing Caesar's ghost through the dusty stacks of the Brown University library left me ready for a change. In the fall of my junior year, I spent a semester in Rome. That city, where modern tenements and shops squat in the shells of ancient monuments, fascinated me. The obtrusion of a broken column or triumphal arch only accentuated the vitality of the streets, the colors, the noise, the smell of the foods and the bite of cold Frascati wine. One evening, a favorite professor and I climbed a hill on the outskirts to watch the sun set over the city. As I drank in the rich, hazy vistas of reds, grays and browns, he turned to me, smiled, and said, "What a pity we can't dig it all up."
A few days later in the library, I stumbled over a stray volume of Marcus Porcius Cato's De Agricultura—On Farming. Within a few pages, I knew I'd discovered my escape. Nicknamed "the Censor," Cato was the moral conscience of the second century B.C.; and in this book he urged his fellow Romans to abandon the baths and banquets and return to a simpler, rural way of life. "In his early manhood," the Censor contended, "the head of the household should be eager to plant his land." I found that I was, or at least I thought I was after reading Cato's advice on buying a farm and establishing vineyards, orchards and gardens. It was from farmers that sturdiest men came, or so the old Roman led me to believe. Likewise, it was men engaged in this pursuit who were, according to the same authority, least given to thinking evil thoughts.
I didn't want to doubt the Censor. He was the man, I learned, who succeeded in banning all Greek philosophers and rhetoricians from the city of Rome, a coup that won my jealous admiration, since I was that semester waging a desperate battle with the devious complexities of their prose. Fired by Cato's vision of a return to the soil, I abandoned plans of an academic career and upon my return to Brown struck a deal with the dean for an early graduation so that I could enroll immediately in a horticultural training program at the New York Botanical Garden.
There the gardeners taught me never to call soil "dirt" (an unforgivable slight to that precious commodity), to swear in Sicilian and to work all day doubled over, because kneeling, even though it might ease my back, would decrease my productivity. They taught me, too—especially the older gardeners, Ralph, Dominic and Patsy—the dignity that comes from a life of collaboration with nature. In 1976, after a two-year apprenticeship, I graduated and had the good fortune to find immediately a job that called on all my skills, academic as well as horticultural. Columbia University commissioned me to restore an old estate it had been given, 126 acres of woods, lawns and gardens along the crest of the Hudson River Palisades.
The landscaping had been done in 1929; it was one of the few great gardens to emerge from the crash and subsequent depression, and it had been built in the grand style. Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, the successors of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park, had drafted the plans. One hundred and eighty-seven sheets drawn in the most exquisite detail, the blueprints included the name and location of every tree, shrub or flower in the original gardens.
Though I recognized the species names, very few of the cultivars were familiar to me. Of the 27,500 bulbs planted in the fall of 1930, for example, I didn't know a single one. But that didn't surprise me. Fashions in flowers change as regularly as they do in clothes and cars, and nurserymen are quick to dispose of last-year's-model tulips or hyacinths. But roses were, and are, another matter. A bed of roses in full bloom, especially if it is a bit wild and overgrown, gratifies in me a repressed yearning for colorful, sensual disorder. Roses I had grown by the hundreds, and I prided myself on my ability to maintain them in an apparent state of romantic abandon while secretly cultivating them in perfect health. I thought I knew roses inside out, so I was piqued when I found one on the plans that I didn't recognize. What was this 'Île de France'?
I liked the name. It had an elegance that I missed in the 'Voodoos,' 'Razzle Dazzles,' and 'Just Joeys' I found in my contemporary catalogues. 'Tiffany'—now that was a modern rose. It sounded like something you would hear, followed by a slap and a wail, at the supermarket. 'Île de France' suggested other things: men in tuxedos and ladies in gowns, long summer evenings, champagne cocktails, and a party that never ended. That sounded like a rose I wanted, and, surely, it was the rose for this estate.
Besides, the idea of a classic rose suited my prejudices. Like most gardeners, I have an abiding mistrust of progress. Synthetic fertilizers, turbo-charged tools and genetic engineering may fill agriculturists and extension agents with visions of utopia, but they are far less attractive to the practitioners of a craft that has not changed in it essentials since Pliny the Younger's slaves spelled out their master's name in boxwood hedges. (Before leaving Brown, my horticultural education had progressed as far as the end of the first century A.D., and the letter in which this wealthy Roman man of letters described the landscaping of Tuscan villa.) Unfortunately, the nurserymen with whom I usually did business had never heard of 'Île de France.' Nor had the librarian at the New York Botanical Garden, but she was able to put me in touch with someone who had, Lily Shohan.
Lily Shohan was Northeast Regional Coordinator for the Heritage Roses Group, "a fellowship of those who care about Old Roses." Lily was only too happy to answer my questions about 'Île de France.' It was, she wrote me, a rambling rose that had been introduced on the market in 1922. It hadn't made much of an impression. Within eighteen years the name was reassigned to another rose, and "as for Île de France, we can but suspect it was thrown out—discarded as not being worth the space it took up." Lily sounded well worth meeting.
On a gray February day I arrived at her house in the Taconic Mountains of upstate New York. Inside, there were roses in bloom. Ranked in pots along a west-facing window were four full-sized bushes, each one picked out with buds and even a blossom or two despite the season. It was a saffron-yellow blossom that caught my eye. Though large, it was a simpler rose than the modern Hybrid Teas to which I was accustomed. I have since learned to call it "semi-double," meaning that it has fewer petals than the typical florist's rose of today. One hundred and forty years ago, however, it held center stage in the shop windows. 'Safrano' was it name, Lily told me. It was "introduced" in 1839 (roses, like debutantes, do not appear unannounced: they must be formally presented to the public). The perfume was pleasantly odd—clean, fruity, almost acidic. It was supposed to recall the aroma of dried tea leaves, which was why this strain and its relatives were called "Tea roses."
Lily Shohan couldn't have presented a more striking contrast to the fragility of her flowers. She is the daughter of a dairy farmer, a sturdy countrywoman with a no-nonsense manner. Past middle age now, she still splits firewood that heats her house and digs her own garden. An explorer by nature, she had recently returned from a tour of English gardens, and her conversation was filled with the discoveries and incidents of that trip. The novelties had impressed her most—the eucalyptus tree she had seen on the outskirts of London, a subtropical tree flourishing unprotected at the same latitude as Labrador.
Yet coupled with her enthusiasm for the new was an abiding appreciation of the way of life in which she was raised. I had interrupted her in a search through a pile of nursery catalogues; she wanted seed, she told me, of a particular dwarf basil to try in her garden. Dropping a catalogue back on the pile, she berated the nurserymen for advertising not what was proven and good, but merely what would sell. Her house may be new—she built it in 1976—but it's set on land she knows well, thirty acres she has kept from the farm her parents bought in 1933, land that fed and clothed her as she grew up. And she's surrounded the house with rosebushes even older than the farm.
She cannot recall just when she developed her enthusiasm for roses—she's grown them since childhood—but she remembers precisely the occasion of her conversion to the old-fashioned varieties. Her parents had said they wanted to grow "roses like they have in the florist's window," so Lily bought them a dozen Hybrid Teas. Then came the winter of '58-'59, "a real heller," when temperatures dropped to thirty below. Though she had spent her Thanksgiving burying the base of each rosebush with a wheelbarrow-load of sandy soil, most of them died. She was determined to replace the bushes, but this time with something more persistent.
By reading through guides to rose growing, she learned that roses needn't be ephemeral; that they have, in fact, been a fixture of man's gardens since the days of the Pharaohs. William Penn brought garden roses to America in 1699—but according to Captain John Smith, the Quaker had been preceded by the Indians of the James River valley, who transplanted wild roses from wood and field to adorn their encampments. There are still roses the length of the Oregon trail, brought there by Conestoga wagon. Obviously, those gardeners hadn't reordered from the nursery every spring. So Lily turned her back on the roses of the modern hybridizers and returned to the varieties country people had grown for generations. They're tough, those old roses, and she likes that.
The roses Lily sought were not for sale then in any of the mass-market nursery catalogues, but she found she was not entirely alone in her interest. Lambertus Bobbink, a New Jersey nurseryman, had anticipated her by more than thirty years. His specialty was roses, and he had been intrigued by the antiques he had found in France. He'd amassed a collection of 3,000 plants which he shipped back to Rutherford; by 1932 he listed 200 types in his Bobbink & Atkins catalogue. In the booklet he distributed with these roses, Bobbink noted that conservative estimates placed the number of "Old Fashioned Roses" at a total of 6,5000 distinct cultivars. Of these, he calculated, less than a tenth were still in existence.
The challenge implicit in this situation proved irresistible to Ethelyn Keays, a clubwoman from New York who summered in Maryland's tidewater country. Her affection for old roses sprang from the survivors she had discovered on the farm she and her husband bought in Calvert County. She began to supplement this collection with bushes recovered from neighboring plantations, and in 1935, she published a book, Old Roses, in which she described all her finds, together with brief histories and genealogies. This in turn sparked a minor renaissance, encouraging two or three other rose growers, most notably Will Tillotson of Watsonville, California, to advertise limited selections of antique varieties.
Since Bobbink & Atkins had gone out of business in 1957, Lily placed her order with Tillotson's. But that alone didn't satisfy her—she had taken to heart the "Challenge to Rose-Lovers" that was the preface to Mrs. Keays's book. It charged readers with the rediscovery, protection and preservation of antique roses, and sent them out into the field to rescue the survivors of old gardens, to make "a real American collection of old roses still alive."
The white rose that climbs the corner of Lily's house is evidence of her success as a rose collector. She found the creamy, fragrant blossom in the garden of a colonial-era farmhouse down the road. By checking the flowers against Mrs. Keays's descriptions and those of other rose handbooks, Lily eventually identified the bush as Rosa alba 'Maxima.' Once known as the "Jacobite Rose," this blossom was the badge of supporters of the Stuart kings after their exile in 1688.
Lily didn't bother to collect seed, since she knew that garden roses don't reproduce true to form from seed. Even seeds taken from the same fruit (or "hip") rarely produce identical plants; sow 100 seeds from a given bush and, if 100 percent of them germinate, you will find yourself, almost certainly, with 100 different bushes. Transplanting the entire bush was not an option Lily considered very often, since that violates one of the basic rules of old-rose collecting. Unless threatened with destruction, the find must remain in situ and intact, available to other collectors. Instead, the rose must be cloned. That is, a piece of tissue is removed and induced to develop into a new, but genetically identical, plant.
"Cloning" is a modern-sounding word, but in the case of roses, the techniques involved date back, in a crude form, three thousand years, and require no more sophisticated equipment than a sharp knife. Chinese gardeners were the first to discover the principles of grafting and to use them to propagate exceptional trees and shrubs. This is still the method of choice for commercial growers: a bud is excised from the hybrid or garden rose and inserted into a slit the grower has made in the stem of the "rootstock," a rosebush of a type remarkable for its hardy, vigorous roots. Once the new bud sends up a shoot, the entire top of the rootstock bush is removed, forcing the roots to feed only the new shoot. For the nurseryman, the advantage of "budding," as it is called, is that it lends itself to mass-production. The procedure succeeds with almost every type of rose, and it produces bushes of fairly uniform size and quality in a predictable interval of time.
Amateur growers, however, generally prefer the simpler, though less dependable, method of rooting a cutting, and that is what Lily does. She's no expert, she's quick to point out; she just does it. With a pair of pruning shears, she'll cut a flowering shoot from a bush. She has found that the shoot has reached just the right stage of maturity by the time that it flowers: "Just as the bloom opens, or just as the petals fall, somewhere in there." A stem that's "blind" (without flower bud or blossom) she avoids, since "there's some indication that if you keep selecting blind wood, you're going to get a plant that doesn't bloom as much. At least that's the theory. If you keep selecting from a blind shoot, eventually you're going to get a blind bush.
Lily doesn't make the cut entirely clean either, preferring to take the cutting with a "heel," a sliver of the cane from which the shoot springs. Removing the flower, she cuts the shoot back to the "first true leaf"—a leaf that shows at least five leaflets. These cuts she then trims smooth with a razor blade, scraping the bark at the cutting's base, "wounding" it, to promote the formation of the callus that develops into roots. The only advantage that modern technology has given Lily over her Chinese predecessors is in the rooting hormone she uses, a synthetic duplicate of the chemical plants produce to initiate root formation. Dunking the cutting's base in this, she sticks it into a four-inch pot full of sterilized potting soil; though she uses a commercial blend of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite now, she thinks the soil she used to gather from her woods works better. It was in this homegrown "loom" that she rooted her Jacobite rose.
This process of cloning, a strange mixture of empirical plant lore, science, custom and superstition, makes Lily's roses, and those of other collectors, special. The rose Lily grew from that cutting is not a descendant of the rose Jacobites picked to wear in their buttonholes on the birthday of the Old Pretender (James III, the king who never reigned); it is a piece of the very same plant.
Lily's most important role in the revival of old roses, however, was not in collecting but in promotion. At rose shows and meetings of the American Rose Society, she met the handful of other rose growers who shared her interest in old roses, and she won a reputation as someone who not only knew her subject but also was generous with her time. This brought tangible rewards, as her collection swelled with gifts of unknown roses, "foundlings" sent to her for identification. In May of 1975, she collaborated with three other collectors, Carl Cato from Virginia, Miriam Wilkins from California, and Edith Schurr from the state of Washington, to found the Heritage Roses Group. She has been enrolling interested novices ever since.
One of my first questions to her was the definition of an "old" rose, and how it differs from a "new" rose. Lily couldn't give me any hard-and-fast rule, but then, neither could any other collector I've met since. The standard definition is that an old rose in any that appeared before the introduction of the first Hybrid Tea rose, 'La France,' in 1867. Previously, gardeners had grown roses of many different types or "classes." Besides Tea roses there were Portland roses, Bourbon roses, Damasks, Gallicas, Moss roses, Centifolias, Albas, Hybrid Perpetuals and a host of others. 'La France' and its offspring, the Hybrid Teas, eventually swept the others off the market, so their appearance is said to mark the end of the old roses.
Yet one of the roses that was blooming in Lily's house, a red blossom, was 'Monsieur Tillier.' This, too, is a Tea rose, for it shares 'Safrano's' bloodlines and surely deserves inclusion in the same category. But 'Monsieur Tillier' dates only to 1891. The best solution to this dilemma of definitions seems to be the one developed by New Zealander Trevor Griffiths. He prefaces his recent guide to old roses by noting the position of the purists, and then explaining his own rule of thumb. For the purpose of his book, an old rose is any that is not modern.
Imprecise as this may be, it is only a reflection of the field. Old-rose collectors are connoisseurs, not academicians, amateurs in the best sense of the word. Their approach recalls that of Bernard Berenson, the pioneer of art history. When Berenson could not assign a painting to an artist he knew, he would create a hypothetical master, sometimes hypothesizing a school of students as well, to whom he attributed other paintings. This is a practice that outrages modern professors of art history. But so profound was Berenson's knowledge of the field, so accurate his intuition, that the scholars who followed in his wake have discovered previously unknown artists who proved to be Berenson's hypothetical masters. The collectors I have met may be unable to define an old rose except by negatives, buy they know one when they see it.
That's not really such a feat. There is in the old roses a richness, a particular beauty that has been bred out of the modern rose. Rose production in the United States is dominated today by the judgment of the A.A.R.S.—"All America Rose Selections"—an organization founded by nurserymen in 1938 to impose uniformity on what was then a chaotic business. This body has worked with the American Rose Society to eliminate the willful renaming of roses that unscrupulous dealers practiced to pass off inferior stock as popular varieties. In addition, its annual selections of the best roses, the "All America Roses," have become the nurseryman's standard of reliability and favorites with the public. But they are all approved according to a single set of standards.
These new roses are admirable in many ways. They are everblooming; given adequate care, they bloom continuously from late spring until frost. That is something the hardy types of old roses, the ones that flourish throughout the United States, never achieved. The new roses offer a wider selection of colors, too. Sun yellows and oranges in particular are generally a product of modern times, since hardy roses of these hues descend, almost invariably, from a cross that the French nurseryman Pernet-Ducher made in 1900 between an old Middle Eastern rose, 'Persian Yellow,' and a winter-proof Hybrid Perpetual. Finally, the best of the new roses are disease-resistant, less prone to the mildew and blackspot that are the plague of the rose grower. Unblemished, vivid and reliable—yet the new roses all look very much the same. They were all bred to the same set of criteria, to win the same prize, and as a result they lack character.
A hundred and fifty years ago, there were dozens, hundreds of nurserymen all working separately and toward different goals. Few understood the botanical basis of their breeding programs, and all guarded their methods with paranoid jealousy. The roses of each expressed a private vision of what a rose should be. One famous Frenchman, Monsieur Vibert, who had begun his career as an undergardener to the Empress Josephine, specialized in striped and spotted roses—"marbled roses" he called them—and his creations were famous throughout Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. Three generations later, the Dicksons, Alexander senior and junior (the third and fourth in Ireland's leading dynasty of rose breeders), consistently won prizes at British rose shows. According to legend, the son achieved what has always been the rose hybridizer's unattainable dream: a blue rose. His father, a stern old Ulsterman, when he learned of the accomplishment destroyed the entire stock. A blue rose, he said, would corrupt the public's taste.
As idiosyncratic as their creators, no two of the old roses are alike. Whereas modern roses almost invariably aim at the tight, high-centered blossom of the Hybrid Tea, the old roses may be flattened like architectural rosettes, or cupped, with the petals wrapped tightly round the center, or even as huge, fluffy and overblown as a crinoline petticoat. The colors are softer and subtler than those of their modern counterparts. Delicate blends of pink, rose, lilac and mauve were what old-time nurserymen preferred, though they could, and did on occasion, also breed vivid scarlets and pure whites, even an occasional gold. Extraordinary roses were produced, blossoms whose hues are almost indescribable and certainly irreproducible.
Even the perfumes were stronger, richer and more varied. Besides the tea scent, there were roses that smelled of exotic spices, myrrh, cinnamon and cloves. Some were said to smell of apples, others of mangoes, oranges, pineapples and bananas. There are, to be sure, highly perfumed modern roses such 'Chrysler Imperial' or 'Fragrant Cloud,' but too often the fragrance has been bred out in the pursuit of blue ribbons. In the heyday of the old roses, by contrast, it was said that a blindfolded expert could identify different varieties by fragrance alone.
The most obvious difference between the old and new roses, and one that bespeaks a basic difference in aesthetics, lies in their season of bloom. The old roses bore the bulk of their blossoms in a few weeks, with perhaps an occasional encore thereafter. Even the "Hybrid Perpetual" roses, latecomers among the old roses and a class that does continue to flower through the summer months and into the fall, yield 95 percent of their blossoms in June and July. Such a brief season does not reflect a poverty of bloom. Actually the average Hybrid Perpetual bears more flowers each year than the average modern Hybrid Tea, but the Hybrid Perpetual yields its blooms in a single exuberant burst, rather than doling them out, month by month.
Old roses, a collector once explained to me, are the most "people" flowers. People have loved them longest, and their history has always been the story of the people who grew them. Today, it is the story of the people who are rescuing them from extinction. To the extent that I have come to know the old roses, I have done so through the acquaintance of the collectors I've met through the Heritage Roses Group. I've toured their gardens, looked through their libraries, listened to their stories. I've accompanied them on collecting expeditions where their real work is done. In the cemeteries of backwoods Texas, in abandoned gardens in Vermont, and in the black neighborhoods of small Virginia towns, I've plunged my nose into perfumed blossoms, counted leaflets and pulled thorns from my fingers, as the collectors I was with looked for lost roses. Their quarry was blossoms of which perhaps they had only read or heard, but which nevertheless they were determined to find.
In my garden, among the queens, duchesses and other gentry are roses with incongruous titles: "Route 301," "The Hole Rose," "Petite Pink Scotch," and "Margaret Parton." These are gifts of collectors, roses they have rescued but never identified. So they named the bushes after the places or people from which the roses were obtained. These are the shrubs I guard most jealously. Who knows what rarities they may one day prove to be?