Rosa 'Veilchenblau' ('Blue-Violet') blooms on
an arbor

          The roses are blooming in Traveler’s Joy*.  Every year I suspect them of tarrying, but when I check bloom dates for previous years in my Garden Log, they’re always flowering on schedule.  Peak bloom time for these beauties is the third and fourth week of May, coinciding with my mother’s birthday and with the first whiff of honeysuckle spilling out of the woods on our eastern boundary.  It’s my own impatience that deceives me – impatience that’s forgotten once I am fully engulfed by fragrant, downy, damask-petaled perfection.    
            Not all roses are created equal, as every gardener who has struggled with thrips and blackspot knows.  Over the years I’ve documented the performances as well as the bloom dates of many plants in my Carolina gardens, with especially keen observation being directed at roses, considering how much care they require and how prominently they feature in the landscape.  Since 1996 I’ve been evaluating rose types and cultivars for resistance to blackspot, thrips and Japanese beetles.  With my nascent awareness of better environmental practices developing as I gardened and learned, I also began grading roses for their hardiness in our heat zone and their ability to stay healthy with only an occasional spritz of insecticidal soap. 

The fragrant climbing rose, R. 'Celestine Forestier' is a
noisette rose.  Noisettes originated in Charleston, S.C.
Those varieties whose blooms are transformed into beetle-coated lollipops every June, or who languish in fragile health lacking massive infusions of pesticides, have been exiled.  That includes a small purple-flowered hybrid I couldn’t resist (but should have), called ‘Midnight Blue,’ virtually all modern teas, and most of the so-called ‘English roses’ which are no doubt ravishing in British gardens, where summers are cooler and winters milder than in the continental U.S. and where the soil pH tends to be higher than in our acidic Carolina clay, but which struggle in our long southern seasons of brutal heat and high humidity that have more in common with Kowloon than Cornwall.

            What I’ve discovered over the years of tending, treating and admiring roses – and you’re going to wonder how anyone could be so dull-witted when the obvious truth was staring her right in the face – is that those roses which perform most reliably in my South Carolina garden are those that have been growing successfully in southern gardens for generations.  Noisettes, for instance, those heat-loving climbers with blooms like frilly petticoats, originated in Charleston in the early 19th century, and the noisette rose ‘Celestine Forestier’ which I planted three years ago in my garden on Kent* Street has grown vigorously on my fence with little fuss.
From l to r:  Ninebark 'Coppertina,'
R. 'Veilchenblau' & R. 'Mme. Alfred Carriere'
             R. ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’ is a divinely fragrant and vigorous noisette climber whose pale, blush-colored flowers are the first to open in my garden.  I am training that rose on an arbor, not having a 17th century stone wall for it to clamber on, as the specimen at Sissinghurst does.  (On that subject, my husband is so tired of hearing me say “one just like that grows at Sissinghurst” that he has banned the ‘S’ word from conversation, along with the other ‘S’ word – “Sackville-West.”  This is how gardeners bore the bleep out of their non-gardening spouses…)
            It rubs shoulders with ‘Veilchenblau,’ the blue-violet rambler initially brought to Texas by German settlers, which I grow in a sunny, well-drained bed designated specifically for roses and iris.  ‘Veilchenblau’ strikes an intensely romantic note in the May garden, its profusion of bloom clusters opening to bright cerise flowers that gradually fade to the color of old denim.  You must bury your face in the flowers to detect the scent (something I’m not ashamed to do), which evokes clean linen drying on a line. 
            Through my log notes I also determined that those roses which do best are own-root roses, meaning roses propagated from cuttings rather than those which have been grafted on to rootstocks.  It’s been convenient living within an hour’s drive of Laurens, where the own-root nursery Roses Unlimited is located.  This mail-order nursery holds Open Houses for the public in April and May.  When I was developing this garden I made the pilgrimage there several times to pick up gallon-sized plants of old favorites I left behind in my last garden, as well as new varieties I wanted to try. 
R. palustris scandens, the swamp rose, is worth the space it requires.
Use it to bring color and architectural interest to a damp spot

            The native swamp rose, Rosa palustris scandens, with its bright pink single flowers, was one of the species roses I had enjoyed before and needed to have back in my life.  Its fountain-shaped habit of arching branches is favored by birds who like to swing up and down while waiting their turns at the birdbath. 
            Another favorite is R. ‘Buff Beauty,’ a vintage musk rose.  This floriferous pillar is slowly climbing the arbor that shades the gate to my vegetable garden, where it mingles with the black muscadine grapevine ‘Noble.’ ‘Buff Beauty’ displays blossoms of rich apricot gradually fading to honey.  The flowers have a splendid citrus fragrance.
R. 'Buff Beauty' is richly
            On my last trip to R.U. I also bought an old-fashioned hybrid perpetual, another Frenchman to keep company with Mme. Carriere.  Since R. ‘Souvenir du Docteur Jamain’ is reportedly tolerant of shade, I sited it in the raised southern bed, which is partially shaded by a mature dogwood in summer.  (This rose also grows in the ‘S’ garden across the pond, where it was a favorite of the ‘S’ woman, whose name I may not utter aloud.)  It’s still early days, but after two years in the ground the doctor dazzled us this month with voluptuous, claret-colored flowers.  The cabbage roses are the texture of crushed velvet, with swoon-inducing perfume.  With a companion planting of airy evening primrose growing at its feet, this rose is a stunner.

R. 'Souvenir du Dr. Jamain'
is a stunner.

            I’ve experimented with a variety of organic fertilizers for my roses, because they are heavy feeders in any soil.  I think I’ve finally stumbled on a keeper, originally recommended by Paul Zimmerman, the writer, rosarian and former owner of an excellent rose nursery in Landrum, S.C., that has since closed.  Zimmerman sold a line of roses developed by British rosarian Peter Beale, who also produces an organic line of rose mixes.  It wasn’t until I walked into a garden store in February and saw a bag of the P.B. Good Day Roses rose food formula for spring and summer that I decided to give it a try.  The results this May have been extraordinary – I’ve been treated to frothy masses of bloom, with shrubs that formerly wore a tasteful modicum of flowers now decked out like parade floats.   This fertile mixture of chicken manure, worm castings, cottonseed meal and other ingredients is distributed by Organic Plant Health right here in the Carolinas. 
The old polyantha rose, R. 'Perle d'Or,' thrives with very little care.

            While I’m fond of all the plants in my garden, the roses present themselves to me as distinct personalities.  This is probably because so many of them bear the names of real people, but I think it’s also due to the fact that roses, like children, demand conscious and specialized nurturing, rewarding their caregivers with a joy that can’t be quantified.  I try to be level-headed about my attachment to them, but I’m sometimes reminded uncomfortably of my dear mother’s relationship with the hedge of leggy, nameless shrub roses that lined the path to her front door.
R. 'Celestine Forestier' blooms a second time in the fall

            Near the end of her stay in that house I was visiting M. J. with the motive of keeping her increasingly disordered environment from spiraling out of control. Since I could at least have an effect on the outdoors, I traveled there with my shears, shovel and pruning saw, hacking away at the long grass and vines and cutting back the low-hanging branches of trees that had gradually crowded together until the rooms of the house were cast in permanent shadow.  I tried repeatedly to prune the roses, whose thorns tore at your clothes whenever you entered or exited the front door, but Mommy always made an excuse for why that job could wait.  Finally one day I asked her why she didn’t want me to cut them back.  She patted the nearest one, thorns and all, saying, “They work so hard for me.  I can’t bear to hurt them.”

The sole David Austin English Rose
I allow myself to possess
(having had my heart broken by short-lived
Brits too many times before) is the
fragrant R. 'Jude the Obscure.'  In bloom, he is
anything but.

         A certain amount of detachment is healthy, I remind myself – for the gardener as much as for the roses.  But who could be blamed for favoring these beautiful belles of the mixed border?  On a scented May morning, they’re all we have eyes for.

Note: 4/6/14 -- since posting this entry I've learned that OPH, Organic Plant Health, abruptly closed down operations, and their line of plant foods are no longer available.  I'm still trying to find a substitute, without much success.  Please let me know with a 'Comment' if you can recommend an organic rose food  that works for you.
RESOURCES  This place outside Laurens is a bit hard to find, so take a Google map along. I still dream of visiting this fabled English garden, someday…  Zimmerman offers expert advice on the care and feeding of roses through the gardeners’ forum on his website.