July 2013 Roses are blooming…..Part 1
Summer has finally arrived and with it comes the highlight of the year at Sissinghurst; the blooming of the roses. The Rose Garden in Summer is an intoxicating place to be with intense colour and scent creating a heady mix. Peonies, irises and roses all flow together to form a perfect and beautiful whole with a wonderfully romantic atmosphere.
Vita Sackville-West had a love and fascination for old roses and when she moved to Sissinghurst in 1930 she had the space and time to indulge in her passion. Originally, the roses were grown in what is now the White Garden but it wasn’t long before they outgrew their allotted space and a new Rose Garden was created in the Rondel Garden in 1937 to accommodate them. Vita filled the Rose Garden (and other parts of garden) with every kind of old rose including masses of climbers which covered virtually every available wall. We know that by 1953, the Head Gardener, Jack Vass, had noted 194 different roses growing in the garden.
The history of old roses is long and complex but Vita became quite an expert on them learning from experts such as Edward Ashdown Bunyard who often visited her at Sissinghurst. She acknowledged that they had their limitations, flowering only once in a gloriously riotous mass in June but she relished their colours, scent, form and beauty and felt that their merits far outweighed their faults. In 1937, she wrote ‘…in spite of these drawbacks a collection of old roses gives a great and increasing pleasure.’ and again in 1954, she wrote ‘I know also that most of them suffer from the serious drawback of flowering only once during a season, but what incomparable lavishness they give, while they are about it. There is nothing scrimpy or stingy about them. They have a generosity which is as desirable in plants as in people.’ For Vita, the romance of the old roses was everything.
Old roses are defined as roses that were bred before 1867 when the first hybrid tea called ‘La France’ appeared. They are divided up into several groups, the main ones being the gallica, alba, damask, moss, centifolia and bourbon and we have examples of all of them in the Rose Garden. It’s not necessary to be a rose expert to enjoy them; their beauty speaks for itself but their history is fascinating, so for those of you who, like me, thought that a bourbon was a biscuit and damask a material, here is a brief (two part) history of some of the old roses that grow here.
The Gallica rose is the oldest cultivated rose in existence today. It is thought to be native to central and southern Europe including France hence the name gallica (meaning of Gaul) and we know that it was grown by both the Romans and Greeks. Throughout its history, Rosa gallica has played a pivotal role in the development of many of the old roses. One of the earliest forms was Rosa gallica ‘officinalis’ also known as the Apothecary’s rose which was used for medicinal purposes from the 13th century onwards. Folklore states that it arrived in Provins, France from Persia having been brought back by the Crusaders in 1240, a notion that, of course, Vita found incredibly romantic.
By the early 19th century, many different gallicas existed including probably the most famous striped rose of all, Rosa mundi. The Empress Josephine grew about 150 gallicas in her famous rose garden at Chateau de la Malmaison, many of these grown from seed by her gardener, Dupont. Josephine was a fanatical rose collector and her goal was to collect all the roses known at that time. She was helped in her mission by the French Navy who were instructed by Napoleon to seize all plants and seeds from captured ships, thus ensuring a steady supply of roses from all over the world. Even more bizarrely, Josephine bought many roses from the English nursery, Kennedy and Lee, despite the fact that Britain and France were at war. The British Admiralty even granted the ship carrying them a safe-conduct pass which allowed it to travel through the naval blockade unscathed. Largely due to Josephine’s influence rose breeding became increasingly important during this time and beyond which explains why so many roses have French names.
Vita particularly loved the romance of the gallica roses, especially the dark and sumptuous ‘Tuscany’ which was also known as the Velvet Rose. She grew many other lovely varieties too including ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’, ‘Complicata’, ‘Camaieux’, ‘Charles de Mills’ and ‘Belle de Crecy’ and these are all still growing at Sissinghurst today.
Next week the history of old roses continues….