Old roses for an old house garden

When I moved from Manhattan to green, leafy Evanston in 1992, I resolved to have a garden.  As a former New York city apartment dweller, I'd shown a thoroughly black thumb with house plants.  Nothing I tried to grow thrived.  One plant, an umbrella plant, shrank, rather than grew, and when it seemed to have died, I put the pot away on a closet shelf, planning to use it for something else.  Six months later when I took out the pot, the poor plant was still alive, pale and tiny from being without light and water for so long.  It felt like murder when I put it down the incinerator chute.

At my house in Evanston, 1028 Judson St., Richard and Evelyn Brown, the prior owners, had landscaped the yard into a handsome, tidy garden with a fieldstone retaining wall, flowering shrubs, ground covers, and a few shady trees at the edges.  I decided to try something more ambitious and less tidy.  There were a few traces of earlier plantings.  One was a small shrub of the Honeysuckle family whose tiny pale pink flowers mature into what look like small styrofoam bobbles.  It is said to have been favored by Victorian householders.  That gave me the idea of trying to grow some older garden cultivars.  Since the main part of my house was built around 1854, I took a look at books on 19th-century gardens. 

I found the roses of those times very attractive, especially the Damask and Bourbon roses (Peter Beales, Roses, Henry Holt, New York, 1992; Liz Druitt and G. Michael Shoup, Landscaping with Antique Roses, the Taunton Press, Newtown, 1992).  The lanky Bourbons and small rounded Damasks were both hardier and more strongly scented than our modern roses.  I'd tried modern roses in the garden - hybrid teas, floribundas, and grandifloras - but like my NY umbrella plant they'd grown smaller and more spindly each year, until they either disappeared or were overtaken by their root stock, a bright red shrub rose called Dr. Huey.  I noticed that Mrs. Brown's roses were rootstock, too, a discouraging sign.  But the Bourbons and Damasks could live on their own roots, I read, so I sent away for some own-root varieties: the Bourbons Madame Ernst Calvat (1888), Madame Alfred Carriere (1879), Madame Isaac Pereire (1881), developed in France from African hybrid stock by the gardeners of Empress Josephine, and the Damasks Marquise Boccella (also called Jacques Cartier, 1868) and Ispahan (pre-1832).  

Most of these older roses have flourished in the yard.  Madame Calvat, my favorite, sends out four or five stout canes most years, if I remember to cut the canes back in late winter. Silvery pink strongly scented roses arise repeatedly all summer long from the leaf-node along the canes.  On the south-facing trellis Madame Carriere drapes its thin, flexible canes, festooned with fragrant, pale pink roses all summer until frost.  Ispahan's big, long canes are thickly covered with intensely fragrant, chubby, ice-pink roses until mid-summer.  The Marquise became so large and bushy that I divided it and now have two on the western edge of flowerbeds outside my kitchen.  On warm days, the rose perfume spreads through the garden and into the open windows of the house.  I collect the petals of the spent blooms for home-made potpourri that in winter reminds me of the summers to come.

Posted on October 9, 2016 and filed under Local Notes.