Roses and Me

My mother visited me last night in a dream. I told her that I was sorry that I may have killed two roses bushes when I pruned them too severely.

She told me what mothers always tell their kids: don’t worry, that you learn as you go and that even if I made a mistake, some mistakes are worth making. She added that I was fortunate that I didn’t have to chase away the neighborhood dogs who killed the two bushes she had planted at the end of our suburban driveway.

I smiled at that. Unlike most on our street, I didn’t grow up with a dog. Those that trotted by our house dutifully paused to sniff the rose bushes, and other plants my mother arranged around our house. Perhaps they lifted their hind legs out of respect.

When my mother saw one about to tinkle, she rushed out of the house. Before she reached the stricken plants, the dog walkers had pulled their beasts away, but the damage was done. The roses at the foot of our driveway died.

Those in the back survived. She planted about a dozen in a square of soil, each about a foot from the other. I had just enough room to move my toy trucks through what my imagination turned into giant Sequoias. I had to be careful: thorns could snag my clothing and scratch my skin. I couldn’t understand what she saw in these ugly, nasty little things, covered in shiny green leaves, until the weather warmed and they began to bloom.

Then the Japanese beetles would descend and my mother dumped a white powder on the leaves that killed maybe two beetles. She also forbade me to play near the plants because this powder was poisonous and the beetles had to die. Those that didn’t ate holes in the leaves and attacked the blossoms. By August, it was all rather awful.

Because of this, and seasonal hay fever that turned my nose into a sneezing mess, I grew up with no affection for horticulture. My mother, on the other hand, found salvation in it. She was entirely self-taught and filled every room in the house with plants. After she died, my wife took some of those plants to our house, where they continue to grow.

For many years I believed I assumed that whatever genetic proclivity my mother had for helping things grow had skipped me. I thought I had a black thumb and harbored a general loathing of the outdoors. My allergies gradually faded as I grew older, giving me the ability to fire up the lawnmower and give a haircut to the tiny patch of grass in front of my suburban house.

I also developed a taste for landscaped gardens. On a rather extravagant date, my high school sweatheart (who became my wife) and I went to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. When my son was a baby I strolled him through the Azalea Garden behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and deeper into Fairmount Park. I was lucky enough to be on the grounds of Versailles on the rare day when the fountains were turned on. When I spent some time living in New York City, I walked through Central Park as many times as possible, getting to know all the bridges and overlooks.

Best of all was Dumbarton Oaks, a landscaped garden at the top of a hill in Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Go there and you’ll enjoy how the neoclassical elements close to the grand house slowly unravel into a fantastic wilderness that, like most gardens, looks so much better than the real thing. I later discovered it was an important work of Beatrice Ferrand, America’s first female landscape architect.

But I resisted any attempt to put living things in the ground. A neighbor stared at the back of my house and agreed to help me trim the shrubs. He drove his car to a woodsy area and loaded the trunk with plants he said “were fun because they’re free.” A single leave of English Ivy clinging to one of the root balls soon spread itself all over the front, and back, of the house. I was curious: why was it called English Ivy? Did it have something to do with British imperial history?


Shortly before my mother died, I found out that someone in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (of which she was a proud member and patron) named a rose after her. I tried to find out what it was. I even called and e-mailed the society. They never responded.

What was it about roses that made my wife–and my mother–so interested? I really didn’t know, and didn’t care to know, until my wife and I drove back from a long, early springtime day in Washington, D.C. and, to my surprise, she steered into a garden center. A few minutes later we came back with a David Austen rose called Princess Alexandra of Kent.

I didn’t know roses had names and I had never heard of David Austen. All I knew was that my wife liked roses and, having bought her cut flowers frequently, I was happy to see her enthralled with this big, potted snarl of dark green leaves with tiny green buds on the top that were about to bloom.

David Austen roses were special, my wife assured me. Austen was the world’s most famous breeder of English roses in the world. So, for birthdays, anniversaries and for no other reason than to make her happy, I bought her more.

I know the English have their ivy, but I didn’t know the difference between an English rose and any other country’s. When we went to Paris, we visited Malmaison, the rather small villa on the outside of Paris that Napoleon Bonaparte shared with his first wife, Josephine Beaharnais. Though Napoleon had tried (and failed) to breed roses, Josephine succeeded and acquired a collection, of which one, called Souvenir of Malmaison, is named in her honor (legend says it came from her original collection). I saw some roses at Malmaison that, I guess, were French. Later I learned that Souvenir of Malmaison is one of the fussiest roses ever.

Alas, Princess Alexandra of Kent died in our garden (I found her a replacement). Another rose called “hot chocolate” is thriving. Crown Princess Margaretta didn’t do well at first, but now it is proudly climbing our fence. Falstaff, a rose I bought to honor the famous Shakespearian blowhard, also struggled, but is now taller than I am. Among our other Austens are Gentle Hermoine, Port Sunlight, Lady of Shallott, Princess Anne, Windermere (a town we visited in England’s Lake District), the Lady Gardener (in honor of my wife), Empress Josephine and another one whose name I’ve forgotten. We also bought roses from other breeders, some we found at a discount at Home Depot and Lowes. They have names like Old Timer (I guess that’s me), Twilight Zone, Bliss, Ebb Tide, Mr. Lincoln, Maggie (my wife’s nickname), Moonstone, Electron (my wife is a scientist specializing in physics), and Ringo Starr.

Some of our roses don’t have names. They are red, white, pink, coral and orange. Last year, as they bloomed, the air filled with fragrance of extraordinary beauty–that did not bother my allergies.

And the Japanese beetles left as alone.

One has a special name. Called Peace, it was bred to commemorate the end of World War Two. This one also struggled for a while and, yes, I made the joke about giving peace a chance and…

A few days ago I noticed the first red shoots emerging from the root. Yesterday some green leaves popped out. I should have told my mother about this one in my dream but I was disappointed about the two roses that we lost.

Or did we?

We have a section of our garden, way in the back, where we put things that we want to come back. We have good soil back there. We water regularly and add fertilizer. I planted the gnarled roots of those two, stood back and thought about how springtime can be such a surprise: we forget about so much of the stuff we experience, and then, we don’t expect it, they come back. When the air is cool, the sunlight bright and a fresh wind blows through what little hair you have left on your head, to hope for things, no matter how seemingly impossible, irrational or just plain foolish, can bring a different kind of peace.

I pruned those roses so severely because a sudden frost had turned what was green a dark, dingy brown. I remembered how beautiful those roses were last year, and wanted to cut off the dead shoots to make way for the new.

And if nothing new emerges, I will embrace my mother’s advice: some mistakes are worth making.


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