Into the Rose Garden
By Michael Pollan
The New York Times Magazine, February 17, 1991
PREPARING A BED FOR ROSES IS A LITTLE LIKE getting the house ready for the arrival of a difficult old lady, some biddy with aristocratic pretensions and persnickety tastes. The stay is bound to be an ordeal, and you want to give as little cause for complaint as possible. All of a sudden the soil that has served well for years seems lacking, its drainage dubious and its pH level off. So you begin digging, hauling bales of peat moss and blowing all at once the precious cache of compost it has taken years to accumulate. Up to now, I’ve avoided growing roses (real roses, that is “” I’ve always had a tough climber or two). But last winter the ripe catalogue shots of roses took hold in my imagination, and I decided to take the plunge.
I think it must have been the two-page spread of “old-fashioned roses” in the Wayside Gardens catalogue that first seduced me. Here were a half-dozen ladies (and one debonair gent: Jacques Cartier) that looked nothing like roses were supposed to look. Instead of the trite, chaste, florist-shop bud, these large, shrubby plants bore luxuriant blooms: unruly masses of flower petal just barely contained by form, which in most cases was that of a teacup’s half globe. Wayside photographs its roses when they are well along, almost over the top, and then crops the pictures to make it seem as if the blooms were breaking out of their frames, pushing forward, almost in your face. The whole effect is vaguely lascivious.
Yet the names of these roses push you in another direction, back toward the drawing room. Meet Madame Hardy. Please make the acquaintance of Mme. Isaac Pereire. Je voudrais presenter La Reine Victoria, Belle de Crecy, the Konigin von Danemark, Souvenir de la Malmaison. Names that withhold more than they disclose, society names, their full significance revealed only to those in the know. You do remember Madame Hardy, the widow of M. Hardy? Didn’t he used to tend Empress Josephine’s rose garden at Malmaison? Then the distinguished rosarian Sir Graham Stuart Thomas (author of the 1956 “Old Shrub Roses,” a classic polemic masquerading as genteel garden chat) draws you aside to ask if you don’t find Madame Hardy “sumptuous and ravishing. . . . There is just a suspicion of flesh pink in the half-open buds,” he confides. Hard to tell, here among this group of old roses, whether you’ve stumbled into a Second Empire drawing room or a Left Bank brothel”"whether it is their pedigree or sexuality that gives these ladies their allure.
Dazzled, I ordered four old roses from Wayside. Madame Hardy, of course; Jacques Cartier, a suave 1868 variety; Konigin von Danemark (“a jewel beyond price” and so presumably a bargain at $12.75); and Blanc Double de Coubert, an 1892 hybrid rugosa rose that has been called “the whitest rose known.” From another firm, Roses of Yesterday and Today, in California, I ordered Maiden’s Blush, a 15th-century shell-pink alba about which the catalogue copy is unequivocal: “Nature has created nothing more exquisite in plant or bloom.” And then I ordered a single modern rose, Queen Elizabeth, a clear pink hybrid introduced in 1954 to commemorate Elizabeth’s coronation the year before.
While I awaited the arrival of this sextet by U.P.S., I read up on roses. I was soon reminded of the reasons for my former reluctance to plant them, as book after book retold the familiar horror story of their multitudinous afflictions. The catalogue of what could go wrong was impressive. I had better dress my roses warmly for the winter, I read, for without protection all but the hardiest would succumb to a January in my northwestern Connecticut garden. In summer, my roses would insist on plenty of water (an inch a week straight through the hot months), yet because they “don’t like to get their feet wet” the drainage of their soil had better be impeccable. So I dug the bed to a depth of two feet and added large quantities of organic matter: compost, cow manure and peat moss.
But even a perfect bed, I was warned, will not halt the battalions of pests and diseases that have singled out the rose for conquest. The catalogue of these occupies fully eight depressing pages in America’s Garden Book, the New York Botanical Garden’s reference guide. I would know a rose had contracted black spot when the leaves developed said black spots and then dropped off. This can’t be cured, according to the book, but prevention (with regular applications of fungicide) may be possible. Even that can’t be said for the baffling disease known as bronzing. And then there’s brown canker, stem canker, leaf rust, powdery mildew and a wide assortment of nasty viruses.
If a rose escapes these dismal fates, others lie in wait: rose aphids want to suck the bodily fluids from your plant. Hordes of sleek green Japanese beetles can reduce a healthy rosebush to a rickety skeleton in a matter of days. Then there are the leaf rollers, red spider mites, rose chafers, rose curculios, rose midges, rose scales, rose slugs, rose stem borers and rose weevils. What other plant has had so many insects named in its honor?
But pests and diseases aren’t the only things wrong with roses. As gardeners are fond of pointing out, the modern rose industry appears to have modeled itself after Detroit. Each year it introduces a handful of “exciting” new models, many of them in neon and metallic shades better suited to a four-door, and each bearing a name dreamed up on Madison Avenue and duly trademarked. Chrysler Imperial is actually the name of a rose, as is its offspring Mister Lincoln, a somewhat hackneyed hybrid tea with classic tight vermilion buds. Then there is the patented two-tone wonder Princesse de Monaco (in pink and ivory, inspired by the official colors of the principality). And Patsy Cline. Penthouse. Sweetie Pie. Twinkie. Teeny Bopper. Innovation Minijet. Fergie. Good Morning America. Sexy Rexy. Givenchy. Graceland. And Dolly Parton (a rose with, you have probably guessed, exceptionally large blossoms). It seems to me that the slick, commercialized world conjured up by these roses is precisely the one we come to gardening to escape.
THIS WAS ROSES, OR SO AT least I thought until I wandered into the quirky, rarefied realm of the “old-fashioned roses.” In that unexpectedly cantankerous world, I found that I was scarcely alone in my dislike for hybrid teas”"in fact such disdain is considered a mark of both common sense and refined taste. Here I ran into eminent American garden writers, like Eleanor Perenyi, who speak of their disgust with the “planned obsolescence” of modern roses and go on about the “unforgettable perfume of old roses.” But it’s the English who’ve really got the critique of hybrids down: modern roses, as Vita Sackville-West used to complain to anyone who would listen, are insufficiently subtle, too highly colored, altogether too . . . bourgeois. Sackville-West was the forerunner of a whole faction of rose Tories who agitate (decorously, of course) against modern roses and cling to dreams of a restoration for their beloved albas, gallicas, damasks, Bourbons and centifolias. The world of roses, which I had always thought of as a mild province inhabited by harmless old ladies, turns out to be a site of seething conflict.
Today the leading spokesman for the old rose faction is the English rosarian Graham Stuart Thomas. Most old roses are undeniably hardier than modern roses, Thomas argues, and most of them are much less susceptible to the various rose plagues. Old roses also possess a much more powerful perfume”"scent, like disease resistance, having been more or less ignored by the modern breeder in his quest for novel colors and perpetual bloom. But here is where the modern rose enjoys an edge. As Thomas acknowledges, old roses offer a relatively narrow range of colors (from white to pink to red; no vermilion or yellow to speak of). And as almost any garden catalogue will remind you, old roses bloom heavily just once a summer (some, as we’ll see, manage an encore), whereas the modern hybrids bloom all season long.
Proponents of the old rose have more than disease resistance and a nice smell on their side, however. Their champions may not acknowledge it directly, but a large part of the appeal of old roses is based on snobbery. It is when rosarians are chronicling the history of the rose that issues of class, never far from the gardening world, rise to the surface. In their hands, the history of the rose is a thinly disguised parable of class struggle in Europe, as told from the perspective of a superannuated aristocracy. For a plant, the rose has been made to carry an awful lot of cultural and political baggage.
Until 1789, the rose world in the West was dominated by a small handful of “families” that had enjoyed unchallenged supremacy for centuries. These included the gallicas (the pre-eminent rose during the Roman Empire); damasks (a medieval cross between the gallica and a wild rose); albas (a damask crossed with the species Rosa canina); centifolias or cabbage roses (the variety favored by Dutch Renaissance painters) and moss roses, which are thought to be an offshoot of the centifolia family. From the Roman Empire through the Enlightenment, members of these five royal families more or less ran the show in Europe. Change was seldom, though not unheard of: now and then two great families would come together in marriage and thereby found a new line, as when Damask and Alba joined to launch the centifolia in 17th-century Holland.
This was the rose world’s ancien regime, and it was to last no longer than France’s own. For in 1789, as Graham Stuart Thomas ruefully notes, “the rose was to suffer a great revolution in common with its most ardent admirers of that time.” The upheaval was caused by the introduction in Europe of the China rose, chinensis, which had the ability to flower more than once a season. The rose world suddenly faced a crisis of rising expectations, and it wasn’t long before the old families gave way to a new generation. The first of these remontant (recurring) roses was the Portland (of which Jacques Cartier is one). But the most important rose of this type was the Bourbon, a naturally occurring hybrid found on the Ile de Bourbon, a small island near Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and sent back to Paris in 1823 by a visiting plantsman. It soon became the most popular rose of its time.
The introduction of the China rose to Europe “provided great opportunities,” as David Austin judiciously observes in “The Heritage of the Rose,” “but, as is so often the case with such opportunities, also certain dangers.” Fortunately, the new roses proved to be exceptionally well behaved: Austin judges the Bourbon rose as “the best of both worlds,” possessing the remontant trait as well as the beauty of the Old World blooms. These new roses may have toppled the ancien regime, but their own demeanor turned out to be decidedly more aristocratic than Jacobin. Here was new blood, true, but it displayed imperial rather than democratic aspirations. The rose’s Napoleonic Era had begun.
The label is all the more appropriate for the fact that it was the Empress Josephine’s passion for the rose that helped make it the pre-eminent ornamental flower of the 19th century. Previously, its fame had rested as much on its fragrance and medicinal properties as its beauty, but now at Malmaison, Josephine’s country estate near Paris, “there was such a gathering together of roses,” Thomas writes, “as had never before been seen.” All the old roses were represented, and many new ones “” including the Portland and the Noisette. It was also Josephine who set Redoute to work on his monumental series of rose paintings, many of which were done at Malmaison. Thus the year 1789 was doubly significant for the rose: it marked the introduction of the China rose in Europe and, with the French Revolution, set off a chain of events culminating in the rose’s shining moment at Malmaison.
WITH THE RISE of the middle class in France and England, the rose begins its long decline. The same inventive and competitive impulses that helped spur the Industrial Revolution were brought to bear on the rose, and breeders for the first time deliberately sought to develop new hybrids with specific traits designed to appeal to a marketplace dominated by the middle class. Its particular tastes and requirements soon led to revolutionary changes in the rose “” to the point where, in David Austin’s tactful words, it became “to all intents and purposes, a new flower.”
This new flower had several distinguishing characteristics. First, it was no longer a shrub, but a bush. Middle-class gardeners simply did not have the space an old rose commands (many of them grow to a height of six feet). And with the development of the hybrid perpetual, introduced at mid-century, the shape of the rose plant was completely sacrificed to the period’s consuming obsession with the bloom. This obsession was no doubt stoked by the Victorian fad for flower shows, to which thousands of amateur rose fanciers rushed to enter their prize specimens in competition. Since only blooms could be submitted for judging, it wasn’t long before rose breeders stopped paying attention to anything else.
In 1867 (the very same year that the Second Reform Act extended suffrage to the middle classes in England), a French breeder produced La France, by most accounts the first hybrid tea. The hybrid tea was a petite bush (rarely more than three feet tall), and it bloomed nonstop “” “with no thought to the future,” in the alarmed words of one rosarian. Also, with its long, shapely bud, the hybrid tea was destined to triumph on the show bench, since it was at the bud stage that roses were usually exhibited. “The pointed bud of the hybrid tea . . . can be of exquisite beauty,” David Austin observes. But there is a high price to pay: “Unfortunately, the open flower tends to be shapeless and lacking in quality “” a jumble of petals of no particular form.” The rose at its peak is no longer a rosette but a bud just beginning to open. It is at this point that the image that the word “rose” summoned in the mind of Shakespeare’s audience gives way to the very different picture the word evokes for us.
By now the once-noble shrub had been dwarfed, dubbed with a series of undignified names, dressed up in ridiculous hues, and often made to stand shoulder to shoulder in a crowd, the glory of its individual blooms subordinated to a mass effect, to a crude “blaze of color.” As for this elevation of the bloom above the shrub and its traditions “” well, isn’t that just like the parvenu, to flaunt the trappings of wealth while paying no heed to its substance? To breeding? Yes, yes, the modern rose certainly has pretensions to nobility “” just look at those names: Princesse de Monaco. John F. Kennedy. Cary Grant. Noble, perhaps, but so . . . so nouveau. Arrivistes, all of them! Is it any wonder that the old rose fanciers went underground for nearly a century, retreating to their country estates, there to pen acid tracts and despair of the age?
AS I SAID: AN AWFUL LOT of baggage for a flower to carry. I thought about this the afternoon my roses arrived, because they seemed far too frail to bear so much significance. Little more than sticks, barerooted and swaddled in newspaper, they were completely dormant; apart from a faint swelling at the buds, they looked dead. Hard to believe I had dropped a total of 75 bucks on these twigs, let alone that Western civilization had had so much to say about them.
The instructions said to soak the canes overnight in a bucket of warm water and plant them as soon as possible. The next morning, I molded a mound at the bottom of each hole to serve as a kind of pillow for my fragile charges, set the bud union on top of this soil cushion and spread the roots down the sides. Here in New England, Wayside recommends burying the bud union two inches under the surface to protect it from winter stresses. I checked the distance, filled the holes with soil and soaked them deeply to insure complete contact between the roots and the surrounding earth. Then I tamped the ground around the plants with my foot. After a few days of moisture, the roots would send their delicate tentacles deep into the underlying mound, and the alchemy would begin by which the rose promised to translate this black mass of manure and decayed vegetable matter into blooms of legendary beauty.
That seemed pretty far off, though, as I stepped back to examine my handiwork. It didn’t look like much: six clutches of rose cane jutting at skewed angles out of the mud. Here was the rose shorn of all its associations, its burden of metaphor “” here, it seemed, one could glimpse the rose with what Wallace Stevens called “a mind of winter,” as it was, without our tropes. Without Shakespeare. Without the Wars of the Roses . . . the crown of thorns . . . rosy fingered dawn . . . sub rosa . . . rose is a rose is a rose is a rose . . . the rosary . . . the Rosicrucians . . . “Romance of the Rose” . . . the Rose Bowl . . . bed of roses . . . by any other name would smell as sweet . . . Dante’s white rose of Paradise . . . the fire and the rose are one . . . the Run for the Roses . . . toward the door we never opened/into the rose garden . . . through rose-colored glasses . . . Rosebud . . . weeping white rose . . . Aphrodite’s flower . . . the Virgin Mary’s, too . . . blood of Adonis . . . symbol of love . . . purity . . . transience . . . eternity . . . symbol, it almost seems, of symbols.
All this the forlorn, stubby skeletons seemed to hollow out, render faintly ludicrous. Here it was: a plant, a brier. Period.
AFTER ONLY A FEW DAYS the buds reddened and swelled, and by the end of two weeks the canes had unfurled around themselves a deep green cloak of leaves, paler, daintier and in finish more matte than the high-gloss foliage of modern roses. In late June, after a month of rapid growth, Madame Hardy sent forth a generous spray of buds.
I had by now read so much about old roses that I frankly doubted they could live up to their billing. But Madame Hardy was beautiful. From the small, undistinguished bud emerged a tightly wound bundle of pure, porcelain-white petals that were held in a perfect circle, in the quartered form of a rosette. The blooms made me think of the rose windows of cathedrals, which had not before looked to me anything like a rose.
It was hard to look at Madame Hardy plain, hard not to think of her as an expression of another time “” which of course, as much as being an expression of nature, she is. Though Madame Hardy did not appear until 1832 (bred, you’ll recall, by Josephine’s rose gardener), she embodies the classic form of old roses. When Shakespeare wrote of roses, this must have been pretty much what he had in mind.
IF MADAME HARDY CALLS attention to her pedigree”"the exquisitely poised blooms, like true aristocrats, seem oblivious to the hardy peasant stock of the plant that supports them”"Maiden’s Blush, the alba I planted beside her in my garden, seems to press her sexuality on us. Her petals are more loosely arrayed than Madame Hardy’s; less done up, almost unbuttoned. They are larger, too, and they flush with the palest flesh pink toward the center, which itself is elusive, concealed in their innumerable folds. The blush of this maiden is not in the face only. Could I be imagining things? Well, consider some of the other names by which this rose is known: Virginale, Incarnata, La Seduisante and Cuisse de Nymphe. This last is what the rose is called in France, where, as Vita Sackville-West tells us, blooms that blush a particularly deep pink are given the “highly expressive name” of Cuisse de Nymphe Emue, which she demurs from translating. But there it is: the thigh of an aroused nymph.
No, Maiden’s Blush is certainly not the old lady I expected when I planted roses. And though Maiden’s Blush bears an especially provocative bloom, every one of the old roses I planted, and all I’ve since seen and smelled, have been deeply sensuous in a way I wasn’t prepared for. Compared with the chaste buds and modest scent of the modern roses, these old ones give freely of themselves. They flower all at once, in a single, climactic week. Their blooms look best fully opened, when their form is most intricate; explicit, yet still so deeply enfolded on themselves as to imply a certain inward mystery. And their various perfumes”"ripe peaches, burnt almonds, young chardonnays, even musk “” can be overpowering. More than most floral scents, the fragrance of these roses is impossible to get hold of or describe “” it seems to short-circuit conscious thought, to travel in a straight line from nostril to brain stem. Inhale deeply the perfume of a Bourbon rose and then try to separate out what is scent, what is memory, what is emotion; you cannot pull apart the threads that form this . . . this what?
By the time all my old roses had bloomed, I had begun to think that maybe Marx has less to tell us about the world of roses than Freud has. I returned to the rose literature, and sure enough, the same rosarians whose prose had seemed to bristle with class consciousness now read to me as slightly sex-crazed. Would it be disrespectful to suggest that Sir Graham Stuart Thomas O.B.E., V.M.H., D.H.M., V.M.M., has a thing for old roses? The scent of Maiden’s Blush reduces him to the rapturous ineffables of a trashy romance writer: her blooms are “intense, intoxicating and delicious . . . my senses have not yet found the means of conveying to my pen their qualities.” Marie Louise, a damask raised at Malmaison in 1813, brings out the Humbert Humbert in him: “To lift up the leafy sprays and look steadily at the fully open blooms is a revelation. . . .” I was beginning to understand why rosarians tend to be men. Men, and Vita Sackville-West, who could certainly work herself up writing about old roses: “Rich they were, rich as a fig broken open, soft as a ripened peach, freckled as an apricot, coral as pomegranate, bloomy as a bunch of grapes. . . .” Your opinion, Dr. Freud?
If the allure of old roses is in the frank sensuality of their blooms, then what are we to make of the development and eventual triumph of the modern hybrid tea? Maybe the Victorian middle class simply couldn’t deal with the rose’s sexuality. Perhaps what really happened in 1867 was a monumental act of horticultural repression. By transforming the ideal of rose beauty from the fully opened bloom to the bud, the Victorians took a womanly flower and turned her into a virgin “” a celebrated beauty when poised on the verge of opening, but quickly fallen after that.
As for the prized new trait of continual bloom, that too can be seen as a form of sublimation. Instead of abandoning herself to one great climax of bloom, the hybrid tea rose doles out her blossoms one by one, always holding back, never quite finishing”" an idea that would have struck the Elizabethans as perverse; one of the things they loved most about the rose was how it bloomed unreservedly and then was spent.
TO LOOK AT A flower and think of sex”"what exactly can this mean? Emerson wrote that “nature always wears the colors of the spirit,” by which he meant that we don’t see nature plain, only through a screen of human images. So in our eyes spring becomes youth, trees truths, and even the humble ant becomes a bighearted soldier. And certainly when we look at roses and see aristocrats, old ladies and virgins, or symbols of love and purity, we are projecting human categories onto them, saddling them with the burden of our metaphors.
But is there any other way to look at nature? Thoreau thought there was. He plumbed Walden Pond in winter in order to relieve nature of precisely this human burden “” to “recover the long lost bottom of Walden Pond” from the local legends that held it bottomless. Thoreau was confident he could distinguish once and for all between nature (the pond, which he determined had a depth of exactly 102 feet) and culture (the “mud and slush of opinion” about its bottomlessness).
But this neat segregation of nature and culture gets complicated when you get to garden plants like the rose, which perhaps begins to explain why Thoreau preferred swamps to gardens. For the rose not only wears the colors of our spirit, it also contains them. Roses have been “cultivated” for so long, crossed and recrossed to reflect our ideals, that it is by now impossible to separate their nature from our culture. It is more than a conceit to suggest that Madame Hardy’s elegance embodies something of the society that produced her, or that Graceland’s slickness embodies something of ours. Thoreau could not get what he wanted looking at a rose; the rose has been so heavily burdened with the “slush of opinion” that by now there is no hard bottom to be found there.
But if the Dolly Parton rose suggests that our intercourse with nature will sometimes produce regrettable offspring, that doesn’t necessarily mean we must settle for swamps. Rather than try to choose between nature and culture”"which is no longer possible anyway “” we would probably be better off trying to learn how to mingle our art with nature in ways that culminate in a Madame Hardy rather than a Dolly Parton”"in forms of human creation that satisfy culture without offending nature.
Yet even to speak in terms of a “compromise” between nature and culture is not quite right either, since it implies that the two terms are necessarily opposed, that we are not part of nature. So many of our metaphors depend on this rift, on a too-easy sense of what is nature and what is “a color of the spirit.” What we need is to confound our metaphors, and the rose, with its long, quirky history of give-and-take with man, may be able to help us do this better than Thoreau’s unsullied swamp.
That perhaps is what matters when we look at a rose blossom and think of sex. In my garden last summer, Maiden’s Blush flowered hugely, some of her blossoms flushed so deeply pink as to deserve the adjective emue. So what does it mean to look at these blossoms and think of sex? Am I thinking metaphorically? Well, yes and no. This flower, like all flowers, is a sexual organ. The uncultured bumblebee seems to find this bloom just as attractive as I do; he seems just as bowled over by its perfume. Yet its allure, for me, has something to do with its resemblance to women”"to the thigh of an aroused nymph. This is a resemblance my species has bred, or selected, this rose to have. So is it imaginary? Merely a representation? (But what about the bee? That’s no representation he’s pollinating.) Are we, finally, speaking of nature or culture when we speak of a rose (nature) that has been bred (culture) so that its blossoms (nature) make men imagine (culture) the sex of women (nature)?
It may be that we need more of this sort of confusion.