Finding Vita’s Lost Roses

It is autumn 1953 at Sissinghurst Garden and Jack Vass, Vita Sackville-West’s Head Gardener, sits down at his desk to look at the latest edition of Hilling’s Nursery Rose Catalogue. As he peruses the multitude of roses for sale, he puts a mark beside any that have already been planted in the garden, perhaps as a way of assessing how he can best add to Vita’s collection of old roses. He is probably surprised when the tally comes to 170. It is a big collection and he knows that at least 24 other roses that are not mentioned in the catalogue are also growing in the garden, bringing the overall total to 194. What he does not know at the time is just how important that catalogue and the markings he made inside it will become in the years to come. He is a Head Gardener just doing his job.

Now fast forward 60 years to Sissinghurst 2013 where another Head Gardener sits at his desk and looks at the list of roses that have come from that very catalogue. He does not know where the catalogue is now but knows that the list was made by Graham Stuart Thomas, who saw the Hilling’s catalogue when he was Gardens Adviser for the National Trust. He realises that many of the roses on the list are no longer growing at Sissinghurst, at least 100 are missing and although Sissinghurst still has approximately 200 roses in the garden, it is clear that at least half must have been planted after 1953. What is not clear is why the original roses were replaced with other cultivars. Were they prone to disease or did they just fall out of favour with Vita and subsequent Head Gardeners? He does not know, but resolves to find the missing roses and replant them in the garden thus increasing the number of rose cultivars and species to approximately 300 and restoring Vita’s original collection. In December 2013, he orders 101 different roses from Peter Beales Nursery. These include all of the missing roses except those that can’t be located plus a few others that sound interesting. They are due to be delivered in early February 2014.

Now it is February and despite the appalling weather there is an air of excitement at Sissinghurst as the long awaited roses arrive packed demurely in three large cardboard boxes. Over the past few weeks we have been preparing for their arrival like anxious parents awaiting the arrival of a new baby. Poles have been placed in the ground all over the garden indicating potential planting sites. These have been dug over and compost added. Other sites have been sterilised where necessary. Research has been carried out into the new roses and charts made containing a host of information about them so that the best site and conditions can be chosen. Our research has included notes on their history, growth habit, the final height and width, the type and colour of flower, the scent, foliage, hips, thorns and shade tolerance. In fact, we have tried to give as much information as possible so that the roses thrive in their position and look stunning with their companions in the garden. All this information has been typed onto Excel by Vicky, our administrator here at Sissinghurst so that it can be amended over time as we find out more about their characteristics.

But not all the roses are destined to go immediately into the garden. Those that need further observation will be planted in rows in the nursery so that we can assess them. Roses such as ‘Roger Lambelin’ have a reputation for being prone to mildew and other diseases so it is likely that we will observe it in the nursery for at least a season. Others need to be assessed for flower colour before an ideal place can be identified for them. For now though, they have all been unpacked and ‘heeled in’ in the nursery and if it ever stops raining we will soon have the exciting task of planting out a whole host of new roses. They may not look very exciting at the moment but hidden within these seemingly lifeless skeletons lie an extravaganza of colour and scent. It’s going to be an interesting summer at Sissinghurst this year….

Helen Champion

19 thoughts on “Finding Vita’s Lost Roses

  1. A really lovely idea but as you explain, not as simple as it sounds!
    I should so love to see the list of roses, any chance of you printing it on this blog?

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    • Thanks for the comments and replies. We hope during the course of the next few months to bring together all of our research into a booklet, that will be available.
      Troy Scott Smith – Head Gardener

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  2. I sent a link to friends in Australia who love Sissinghurst and set out their reply:
    What a wonderful thing they are doing at Sissinghurst. I wonder if anyone bothered to record that Gary Smith found the long lost La Maque rose against the Priest House wall? It had been overgrown by bigger plants.
    We only found it because it was having a late flush. Gary pulled apart the ‘weed’, looked down at the few small white blooms and said-“Yep- That’s it. It’s the same as the one at home.” I could not stop laughing- to him it only
    had validity because it was identical to the three which we have here on the other side of the world!
    I do not know if the scent differs with climate; but here, La Maque smells like fresh lemons. I often walk outside and stuff my head into the bush, which has decided to climb & is now about 9 feet tall! Gary opined that
    ‘our’ LM is far superior to that in UK.
    Talk about colonial arrogance. At least some of us now know where it is- hope they look at it in June/July. That rose is the only one planted at Sissinghurst, by Vita- in 1953. She & Harold had a fight over it, because it was, in his opinion, a plain little thing, unworthy of space in their garden.
    She was late with a riposte- but it came, when she informed him that his avenue of pleached Limes, looked like “A row of commuters at Charing Cross Station.” Harold’s Limes had to be removed, due to disease, [can’t quite
    recall the year], but the gardeners were faithful to Harold’s original avenue & the ones we have all seen are exactly as Harold’s were.

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    • This is the first I have heard of this, it all sounds very interesting. Thanks for the information – I shall look into the La Maque rose and let you know.
      Troy Scott Smith, Head Gardener

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      • I am certain this is the same rose I have as Lamarque – a near white cream climber with a lemony scent. I recall reading somewhere that it prefers a warm climate and that could explain why the Australian specimen was superior!

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      • Hi Conrad, we use a couple of methods to deal with rose replant disease. Firstly, if we are to replant in the same place we always sterilise the soil prior to planting and secondly, we always plant our roses with mycorrhiza on their roots as this greatly helps with root establishment and helps the plants get off to a good start. Some gardeners plant new roses in a cardboard box filled with sterile compost, the theory being that by the time the cardboard breaks down, the rose will be well established and able to withstand harmful pathogens in the soil. We haven’t tried this method at Sissinghurst yet. Hope this is helpful. Helen

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  3. Troy I sent your remarks to Australia and they replied:
    I am delighted that you have told someone at Sissinghurst about LM & where it is. Gary has confirmed that it is growing against the farthest post of the pergola which was built out from the Priest House.
    The growth we saw on LM was very spindly, from lack of sunshine. They will have to look carefully and hack the stuff growing all over it, in order for it to thrive. It will be so worthwhile if they can locate it, if only because it was the first white rose grown by Vita at Sissinghurst.

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  4. I’d read books about Sissinghurst (Anne Scott-James, Jane Brown) prior to my first, and up to now, my only visit, in summer 2012. So when I did actually visit the garden, I was extremely disappointed to see far fewer roses than I was anticipating. Now I understand why. What a brilliant idea to bring the missing roses back, and the perfect excuse for me to make a repeat visit.

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    • Hi Neil, most of our new roses grew really well this summer and some even flowered. By next summer the display should be even better so I hope you can come and see them. We now have about 300 roses in the garden so hopefully next time you won’t be disappointed. Helen

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  5. Hi Helen, I love old roses – especially, like Vita, the bourbons which she wrote about so enthusiastically. This year I have planted Mme Ernest Calvat, Bourbon Queen and Mme Lauriol de Barny, adding to Souvenir de la Malmaison, Louise Odier, Reine Victoria, Mme Pierre Oger, Zephirine Drouhin and Kathleen Harrop which I already had. I have a board on Pinterest if anybody is interested https://www.pinterest.com/jackojoey/bourbon-roses/. Going back to my comment above, to be fair to Sissinghurst, 2012 was a horribly wet summer and a lot of the rose flowers had been spoiled by the rain. Many people will be thrilled that you have planted more wonderful roses and I will try and visit again in Summer 2015 – something to look forward to that will get me through the dreary winter!

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    • Yes, you’re right, 2012 was a horribly wet summer and the roses did struggle with many of them suffering from rose-balling. I hope we don’t have another summer like that again! I enjoyed looking at pinterest board, it took me back to summer. Helen

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  6. I have really enjoyed discovering this post – especially as there is a chance I might visit Sissinghurst again (from South Africa) for the first time in 20 years in June 2015! Identifying lost roses makes me think of my Aunty Corrie rose that remains a mystery – I have blogged about it towards the end of this rather long post. Any comments from the experts will be greatly appreciated 🙂
    http://sequoiagardens.wordpress.com/2010/11/14/a-tad-more-of-my-old-roses/

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    • Hi Jack, I hope you do make a visit to Sissinghurst next summer, it would be great to meet you. Most of our new roses grew really well in the summer so I hope that many of them will flower well in 2015. As for your rose, I will show your photo to the other gardeners and see if we can come up with any suggestions. I had a quick look at my photos of the Rose Garden but didn’t see anything that matched your rose but now that we have more roses it’s quite possible we might find a match so don’t give up hope. Merry Christmas, Helen

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