Saturday, July 18, 2015
Old Garden Roses and Dad
Probably the closest I’ve ever felt to my dad was in the late ‘90s when he became interested in old garden roses. I was living in Atlanta at the time, trying to get my first yard going, and suddenly Dad was offering me these wonderful roses he’d rooted himself. Some had delightful fragrances. Others had bunchy, fluffy flowers like Persian kitten faces. All of them were charming.
Dad was the best salesman old garden roses could ever hope for. In his ebullient, enthusiastic way, he told me and my sisters all about them and got us all hooked on them.
He told us that the old roses had begun to fall out of favor when the first hybrid tea was introduced in 1867. Nurseries stopped carrying the old varieties, and they might have been lost completely if not for some stubborn, thrifty, untrendy gardeners who made cuttings and shared their old plants with friends and neighbors. Unlike the new hybrid teas, the old roses were tough and thrived on neglect. They weathered the years of obscurity, hanging on in forgotten cemeteries and other overlooked places until, after a while, people started to be interested in them again.
In the ‘90s, Dad got into “rose rustling,” hunting for old roses on roadsides and in vacant lots so he could cut a few pieces and propagate them. He joined the Tallahassee Rose Society. He built a small library of books about roses, and he gave us rose books for our birthdays and Christmas. In other words, he became a rose fanatic, and every time our family got together, we always had roses to talk about.
For many years, Dad would invite us kids over to his house every chance he got so he could give us a tour of his roses. He kept them in a bed next to his screen porch, planted in straight rows, with his daffodil collection at their feet. He’d lead us down the grassy aisles between the thorny beauties, saying, “Now here’s Mutabilis. . . . Now here’s my favorite. It’s called Perle d’Or. . . .”
He was constantly rooting new roses in his kitchen. They sat on the windowsill under little clear domes made from two-liter Diet Coke bottles, and Dad tended them very carefully and patiently like the scientist he was. (He taught physics at FSU for 40 years.)
Dad doesn’t ask us over to see his roses anymore. I’m not sure why—I think he’s more into music than roses these days. But I miss our old routine, the old ritual, the way he’d show us each and every rose and tell us its name. He had dozens and dozens of roses, and none were labeled. He had committed all the names to memory.
Part of our ritual was to enthuse about the roses after we'd seen them. We’d talk excitedly about how easy they were to grow. You didn’t need to water or fertilize them! You didn’t need to spray them with harmful pesticides! They were good for wildlife. Birds built nests in their prickly, protecting branches, and they ate the hips!
Maybe Dad’s not as wild about old roses as he used to be. Maybe. But that’s okay. He did a lot for these low-maintenance, water-wise, Florida-friendly plants. He turned all his daughters into rose freaks, and now our yards are teeming with chinas, teas, polyanthas, and noisettes. Bunny, my youngest sister, has a riotous, flesh-colored Reve d’Or sprawling over the roof of her garage and veiling her chicken coop. It’s the biggest, showiest rose I’ve ever seen. People come to her door and ask her about it. They ask her where they can get one. And so the love of old roses keeps spreading—thanks to Dad.