Readers, my last few posts have been focused on problem areas for gardeners- pests, erosion, environmental degradation, etc. But it’s spring, it’s gorgeous outside, and we deserve to have a little enjoyment along with whatever else is coming our way. For my next series I’m going to write about one of the greatest and most satisfying pleasures in the garden- roses.
Fundamentally, the rose is just a regular shrub, like lilac, viburnum, blueberry, whatever. For the majority of its time on this planet, the rose has minded its own business as a simple suckering bush, producing small, five-petaled pink flowers for about ten days in late spring before retreating to obscurity for the rest of the year.
But of all the plants in the world, the rose has to be the one that has been the most manipulated, contorted, and otherwise interfered with by humans. Almost a millennia ago, humans began selecting for larger flowers, better colors, and stronger perfume among the roses they encountered. Very gradually the number of rose cultivars increased to the many thousands that are available today.
Roses have inspired more poetry than any other plant. They are among the most used images in decoration, stamped on everything from tissue boxes to biceps. They are an important religious symbol, from rose windows in cathedrals to rosary beads. We have variously used the rose to represent the most powerful human conditions: love, death, virginity, and the spilled blood of innocents.
As a gardener who is a lover of history, I can’t get enough of roses, although actually I have had my fill of the most common types that are seen everywhere. Because the rose has been cultivated for so long there are many varieties from all over the world, crossed back and forth with one another to create even more cultivars. A lot of these roses are wonderful, and others, based on my experience, are complete dogs. When you’re buying a rose it’s hard to know which you’re getting, which is why roses can be so frustrating.
I’ve experimented with a lot of roses for a number of years, and have developed a list of underused roses that are entirely lovable in our Philadelphia climate. There are also some tricks for getting beautiful roses without using chemicals. I’m not quite promising you a rose garden right away, but it’s definitely possible to grow lots and lots of roses, making it that much easier to enjoy their many charms.