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A Wilting Look at the Rose

I quite like the idea of a garden as a comfortable place. Not too many things in it with spikes and thorns.

In our humble patch, we give little elbowroom to vegetative porcupines like Berberis ("stems ... very thorny," comments one old gardening book) and none to forms of gorse ("spiny, scale-like foliage," says the same book). Only one or two hollies have been planted with a bah-humbug nod at yuletide cheer; a mere touch of hawthorn; one gooseberry bush, in a dark corner; and a Pyracantha (popular name: fire thorn) whose days, I am coming to think, are numbered.

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But my anti-strigose horticultural stance is, I have to admit, up against a difficulty.


Ah, everyone loves roses! Even in spite of their almost ubiquitous thorns.

Well, nearly everyone.

In theory, I don't. I subscribe to the snobbish notion that roses are not for real gardeners. This may partly have arisen because if there is one plant that inevitably crops up in the gardens of those who - even by their own admission - have no interest whatsoever in gardening, it is the rose: hybrid teas as likely as not.

Take for example Billy and Nana's garden, opposite us. In good years, this brother and sister can be spotted weeding their garden for perhaps 20 minutes. Billy, even then, keeps looking at the sky for signs of rain, which he hopes will drive him back indoors.

He chivies disconsolately at the wiry ineradicable grass that clothes those small areas that cannot officially be called "lawn." And in this ground, what flowers are planted?

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Roses, of course. Uncomfortable, spiky, thorn-barbed roses, woody and awkward. They stand there all through the winter like dead sticks. In summer they flower a bit, hoping for appreciation.

Other gardens hereabouts similarly contain rows of such stick-me-up roses and little else. They are "so little trouble." They need annual pruning, of course; and this is usually spoken of by their owners as an event of exacting expertise and devotion - when the truth is that it takes little time or effort and no skill that a six-year-old panoplied in heavy-duty gloves couldn't master in a couple of minutes.

Yug! Suburban roses! Who wants them?

But the problem is that even I have to concede that these worst sorts of cultivated garden plants, in the intensity of a balmy summer evening, when smothered in flower, may constitute a disarming intensity of altogether exhilarating glory. This summer they have been particularly wonderful, and I have caught myself on dog walks wondering if, after all, I might not plant just a few of them at home....

But on returning, soberer judgments assert themselves. There is, for one thing, hardly an inch of space left in our overplanted, overgrown garden.

And then there is something I have to confess. If I wander objectively around our garden, as I have just done, I find a shocking thing: It already contains no fewer than 25 different kinds of rose, not including three in pots waiting to be planted.

If this is an anti-rose garden, what would it be like if we were what the book trade calls "rose-lovers"?

New rose books come out unceasingly. Another just tumbled through our letter box ("Gardening with Roses: A Practical and Inspirational Guide," by Patrick Taylor, Timber Press Inc., paperback, $17.99) - and I must say that they make it extremely hard to stop oneself from rushing out and buying a hundred of these versatile, felicitous, photogenic plants.

The only answer to this propaganda is severe criticality and rigorous quality-control parameters before any rose's virtues are grudgingly admitted.

Two of the roses that have wheedled their way past all our defenses are in this new book. The first is Rosa moyesii, with its single blood-red flowers of five heart-shaped petals. Mr. Taylor sings its praises: "a stately wild rose," one of the "loveliest of all shrub roses."

Of the other, Rosa filipes, "Kiftsgate," with its ebullient trusses of small, single, creamy white flowers and golden tufted stamens, he writes: "It provides, when mature, one of the most marvellous spectacles given by any flowering plant."

I should add that, against all my better judgment, both these roses are about as thorny as any plant could be. And I should also add that this rose expert describes the first as "too big and too wild for ... a tame position in most gardens" and the second as "not a rose for the timid."

But then I do like to think that the plants one grows, like the dogs one walks, flatteringly echo the character of their owners. Apart from the thorns, that is.

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