June 28, 2017

War of the Roses Comes Down to Survival of the Fittest

The family's "Stoddard" rose

Janine Pineo Photo | The family’s “Stoddard” rose

• By Janine Pineo •

Ah, this is the life. One sultry summer day seamlessly leading into the next, fireflies lighting the brief night like earthbound stars.

Summer presents us with so much to discover, so much to achieve, so much to enjoy, that it is almost a relief to see the end in sight.

Almost.

The family's "Johnson" rose

Janine Pineo Photo | The family’s “Johnson” rose

A verse keeps running through my mind: “To every thing there is a season …” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

I watch the passing of favorite flowers, sorry their show was so brief but fortified with memories for another year until life’s cycle repeats. It is enough because other perennials burst into being, softening the loss and drawing attention from the ones whose season is past.

And so it is with my roses. Some will blossom fitfully until the frost nips them, but the best viewing has already come and gone.

It wasn’t always so. For years, I balked at planting roses. About five years ago, I decided to commit to a few bushes and now I’m hooked.

Oh, they certainly can be a nuisance. Strange bugs, spotted leaves, drooping buds and painful thorns have plagued me since I planted my first. But I have a secret weapon that keeps me from worrying over each bush: I ignore them.

This is the best way for me to narrow down what works. I don’t have time to pamper a few puny bushes through the summer only to have them give up the ghost in January. Not that I’d notice before June, since I am ignoring them.

After several years of many trials, I found that the biggest error is expecting those obscenely magnificent specimens I see in books and catalogs. You know what I mean — a blanket of roses tumbling across old fences, climbing the sides of houses and falling over arbors. And that’s just one bush.

No, I expect a little less now, simply because it’s just too cold in Maine for some of the newer varieties to thrive as if they’re in the tropics. But I have found some lovely roses that are prolific, cold-tolerant and don’t mind being ignored.

A white Rosa rugosa

Janine Pineo Photo | A white Rosa rugosa

Take the rugosa. I even like the name. It sounds rugged — my kind of rose — because it is. My earliest memory of this variety is mixed with the smell of ocean, hot sand and the scent of roses. Rugosas grow wild in Maine, which told me I should buy this kind for a sure-fire grower.

A quintet of colors now blooms around the yard: purple, red, pink, yellow and white. They are probably the thorniest roses I have ever seen, but the flowers are well worth it. My second-year bushes put on a vigorous display, especially the hot-pink Wild at Heart, the pale yellow Topaz Jewel, and the rose-red Linda Campbell.

Fragrance is important, and my rugosas are just about right, their scent soft and subtle even on a hot and humid day.

Hybrid tea, floribunda and grandiflora roses are another kettle of fish. The scents and amazing range of colors drew me like a bee to honey, but the results have been mostly disappointing. These roses like pampering, and the subzero winters at my house are anything but, even though I mulch heavily and wrap them up like newborns.

A pink Rosa rugosa

Janine Pineo Photo | A pink Rosa rugosa

Some types have survived, including Cary Grant (a rich salmon color), Summer Fashion (a soft yellow blushed with pink) and Sun Flare (a creamy yellow). My Peace rose is faltering, and my Princess Grace rose has only just shown some life with one shoot of leaves.
I have decided that the best route for me is to treat these as annuals, trying to winter them over, but not being too disappointed if they don’t survive — c’est la vie.

Surprisingly, a smaller variety, the patio rose, is thriving in my gardens — surprising because one might think that smaller is more delicate, but with patio roses this isn’t the case.

One of the first varieties I tried was The Fairy rose. This rewarding bush (I have four) stands about 18 inches high and blossoms from early July through the fall. The cotton-candy pink flowers are less than 2 inches across, the petals tightly ruffled. The Fairy roses are the oldest surviving rosebushes I have, and they have yet to disappoint.

The relative newcomer, Lady Sundance, has flowered for three summers and shows no signs of stopping. Its barely pink flowers are more like those of tea roses, just in miniature with blossoms well under 3 inches wide.

The best, however, I have saved for last.

A while back, I chanced upon a description for Rose Gallica officinalis, the Apothecary Rose. Its history intrigued me and the picture delighted me, but what appealed to me was the fact that for this rose to be growing in my yard, a piece of it was cut, rooted and grown — over and over again — for centuries, since the time of the Romans. This rose of old spanned the rise and fall of civilizations and now lives in my back yard.

I am awe-struck.

This living piece of history is doing well, along with two bits of the past that are more personal. Just a few steps away from my Apothecary Rose are two tiny bushes that came from plants grown by two of my great-grandmothers.

There is nothing quite as sweet as the smell of plain, old-fashioned roses grown by two women who nurtured the people — and now the plants — I love.

Unraveling a mystery

The verdict is in on one of the mystery plants that sprang to life this spring in my gardens. Ellie May Shufro of Veazie dropped me a note that suggested the little white flower was Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum). I looked it up and I do believe she’s right. Just how it got there I don’t know, probably from bulbs I forgot I planted.

She and Kathryn Stone of Hancock also had an idea on the other mystery plant (daisylike flower, sunflower yellow, 5 to 6 feet tall) that graces my garden. They both said it sounded like Golden Glow. Kathryn wrote that plants fitting my description grew at her grandmother’s home many years ago.

Just what Golden Glow was, we didn’t know. I (and my crack team of researchers) searched high and low, thumbing through reference books, magazines, you name it. Zilch.

Then I went on vacation.

Sun, sand and sea kept me busy until Tuesday of last week when my family and I ventured into Summerside, Prince Edward Island.

Nice little town, Summerside.

My sister, Faith, and I decided to make a return trip to a place we visited last year, Avonlea Used Books. We pawed through the stacks, and Faith found a big, thick book with no name on the binding. She peeked inside and then brought it to me.

“Reader’s Digest Complete Book of the Garden” was truly a treasure. It was published in 1966, became the property of Elizabeth M. Leard of Bedeque in April 1967, and came to me complete with a recipe for pancakes scribbled on the first page.

I was so excited that I nearly dropped my other books. I turned to the index and scanned the column. There it was — Golden Glow.

I looked it up and read the description. It is Rudbeckia laciniata and it grows just like mine: height, color, blossom time, and … oops.
It has double flowers. Not like mine.

So the search continues. Diana George Chapin, the Bangor Daily News gardening columnist, and I are leaning toward the helianthus family. The perennial sunflower she found, Helianthus maximilianii (or Maximilian sunflower), is extremely similar to my mystery plant. But still not quite.

Meanwhile, I’ve got myself a great book for $1.99.

Canadian.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in July 1995.

2012 update: And so what has survived all these years without too much help from the gardener? It would be the four roses pictured here, photographed in late June. There’s a moral to the story in that telling fact.