MORE ROSES FOR THE SOUTHERN GARDEN; Cultivating Poetry Along With Plants

Rosa 'Lady of Shalott,' a David Austin English rose that bloomed in my garden for the first time

Extremes of weather are common where I live, meaning that even the most adaptive plants may struggle to perform.  This year a hard winter characterized by single-digit lows and frequent storms gave way to a mild, wet spring that brought on growth quickly.  Unfortunately for the plants that flower in May (the vast majority, of course) this period of growth was followed by a dry spell coupled with high heat, conditions that discouraged all but the hardiest growers.  The result has been a shortage of bloom. My bearded iris were a complete write-off this season: out of perhaps a hundred sturdy rhizomes, exactly ONE stunted flower opened fully on one variety, despite the irises' well-drained, sunny location in alkaline soil combined with the same feeding and cultivation program they received last year when the plants were blooming their hearts out.  

Rosa 'Madame Alfred Carriere,' a climber

And the roses, which flower in such frothy abandon in good years, were plagued by

bud blast

this spring, that troublesome, wet-weather fungus that causes fully formed buds to dry up and fall off the plant before opening.  This disease can be treated with a strong fungicide, but it is very hard to control considering the amount of surface tissue that has to be sprayed and the re-applications that must be made after heavy downpours.  I do my best to cut the affected buds away and clean up leaf litter, as the fungus spores will overwinter and the disease will return with favorable conditions, but I can't prevent the rain from falling!  Since most OGRs (Old Garden Roses) bloom only once in a season, there's not much you can do when the buds have been destroyed except hope for better weather conditions next year.

Bud blast on R. 'Celestine Forestier'

Bud blast plagued nearly all my classes of roses this spring, from David Austin teas to vintage ramblers and floribundas like


'Veilchenblau.'  The exception was species roses, like the swamp rose,

Rosa palustris scandens

.  I missed the peak bloom for my large swamp rose this May, being gone for a week on a road trip to Mississippi.  However, I saw a beautiful specimen of that rose in the one-acre garden at The Hermitage, Andrew and Rachel Jackson's preserved homestead outside Nashville, Tennessee.  Giant pink peonies and mock orange were also blooming on my visit there, with nary a blasted bud in sight.

R. palustris scandens, the American swamp rose, blooms in the garden at Pres.

Andrew Jackson's estate in Tennessee, The Hermitage

It's a good thing that several of the earlier blooming roses in my garden got in a fairly good show before the botrytis took hold. It's not a species rose, but my


"Yellow Knock-Out" may be as bullet-proof as a modern hybrid gets.  This 5 x 5' shrub is cloaked with butter-yellow buds in April that open into lemony single flowers.  The second flush of bloom was not as healthy, but it still performed better than many of the roses with impressive pedigrees.

R. 'Yellow Knock-Out'

A rose that bloomed for the first time in the garden this spring was the thornless Bourbon climber,


'Zepherine Drouhin' (1868).  I found her in Charlotte NC at Wing Haven last spring, and she has twined herself according to plan around the stair-rail leading from the back deck to the garden, offering up richly ruffled blossoms of dark pink with a light raspberry fragrance.

R. 'Zepherine Drouhin,' a climber, bloomed for the first time in my garden

Planted at the same time was


'Cadenza,' a tough climber for a challenging site on the upper boundary of my garden, a place where the mid-summer sun scalds any plant trying to grow in the unimproved clay.  Cadenza's scarlet flowers are easy to spot from more comfortable perches in the shade, and her strong, thorny canes are not put off by the sun or by the chain link fence.

          In mid-April, during a short-lived period between downpours when we were still on frost-watch, I made my annual trip down-state to the rose nursery where I've purchased plants in years past.  However, I think this will be my last trip to the nursery for the time being, as more and more of the plants in the greenhouse are set aside for special customers and are not for sale, leaving little stock to shop for.  

R. 'Cadenza' also made her debut

Additionally, among the three roses I settled on was a climber which I allowed a staffer to select for me.  Once I got the plants home and studied each one closely before putting them in the cold frame I realized that the climber's stem was infected by a fungus; it snapped off easily in my hand. Rule #1: if you are an experienced gardener, there is no excuse for buying a plant you have not inspected carefully, from the tips of its leaves to the bottom of its root ball!  I'm kicking myself for not having gotten up close and nosy before packing the plants in the 4-Runner for the long drive home.

R. 'Veilchenblau,' before bud blast set in

Considering how carelessly I made my purchases, I'm lucky that the other selections proved more durable.  One was a conversation piece, the old-fashioned Green Rose (1845),  usually listed as

Rosa chinensis viridiflora,

but which I've seen in vintage guides identified as

Rosa monstrosa

, so named, I assume, because its green flower more closely resembles an alien insect than it does a traditional rose blossom.  The Green Rose stays small, so it can be kept in a container on a patio where your friends will be sure to ask "what is THAT???" when they see it.  I bought this one with the purpose of marking a friend's milestone birthday.  I was surprised and pleased to learn that my friend, an accomplished organic gardener, had never before laid eyes on a


. Apparently, there are new things under the sun.

The Green Rose

For myself, I was happy to end my nursery stint in April by hunting down the one


'Lady of Shalott' not already marked 'SOLD.' With the heat so formidable already, it's potted for now, but I plan to add this rose permanently to my literary garden.  This garden is still very much in the formative stages, with


'Jude the Obscure' and


'Barrett Browning' the only members thriving in the collection so far. 'Shalott' is a David Austin English rose, so I know I am taking a risk with it in my punishing South Carolina climate (my beloved 'Jude' was badly affected by bud blast this spring), but I couldn't resist.  DA named the rose for the Tennyson Society, which is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the poet's birth. 

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Not only is Tennyson's poem one of my favorite Victorian ballads, one I used to squeeze into the English 102 curriculum when I was still teaching college literature, but the rose itself is magnificent: a blowsy, peony-sized explosion of tangerine color and richly sculpted petals. It puts me in mind of another gifted poet's lines, those of Emily Dickinson, writing about one of the beloved roses in her Amherst, Massachusetts, garden:

"I had rather dwell like her/Than be "Duke of Exeter" --/Royalty enough for me/To subdue the bumblebee."

(Poem 968)  Since the Lady's fragrance is mild, scent is not the main reason to grow this plant, but I needed a pillar rose for a particular spot and at 4 feet wide by 8 feet tall, this shrub will suit very well, especially with those bumblebee-subduing blossoms.

          I have written here before about the importance of names when selecting roses ("Roses in the Southern Garden," 5-23-13), while apologizing to Shakespeare for contradicting his claim that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  This continues to be quite true for me. While I was willing to ditch David Austin's


'Graham Thomas' several years ago when it shed every one of its leaves come August, it would take much more than total nudity on Jude the Obscure's part to make me chuck him.

R. 'Jude the Obscure,' in the morning rain

That's because Hardy's novels were a huge influence on me while I was becoming an adult, and I believe that influence continues to affect my creative imagination.  Every time I bury my nose in one of those creamy cabbage roses with the center like a peach cupcake, I am transported to the 'Wessex' countryside.  I can see the lanes and villages where Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead trudged in search of some better way to live and to be, and I imagine the shabby rented rooms where their dreams, and their family, ended in a cupboard. 

("Done because we are too menny."


          I'm sure this strikes some people as far-fetched, not to mention that it's a morbid association for such a beautiful rose. However, for me the transitory nature of the flower's beauty is counter-balanced by the enduring quality of the great literature which it conjures.  You probably don't need me to tell you that this is not an original idea.  Will Shakespeare expressed it memorably in his celebrated Sonnet 18, as well as in a coxcomb-full of other poems and plays:  

"...But thy eternal summer shall not fade/Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;/Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,/When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st.'

R. 'Souvenir du Docteur Jamain, with clematis seedhead

 In Tennyson's poem, "The Lady of Shalott," an artistic young woman in King Arthur's time has been cursed for some unknown reason, and is condemned to live in a hut on an island where she is set to weaving a magic web upon a loom.  She may only view the world in the face of the mirror that stands beside her loom; if she attempts to join the world and engage with the people in it she will die.  Despite knowing this, the woman sees Lancelot reflected in her mirror as he rides along the riverbank and immediately falls in love with him, leaving her hut and leaping into a boat in an attempt to follow the knight to Camelot.

"She left the web, she left the loom

She made three paces through the room

She saw the water lily bloom

She saw the helmet and the plume

She looked down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror cracked from side to side;

"The curse is come upon me," cried

 The Lady of Shalott."

The Lady of Shalott

, painted by John William Waterhouse, 1888

The boat sinks, of course, and the lady sinks with it slowly, singing her own haunting dirge to the end.  While the courtiers gathered at Camelot crowd the water's edge to witness the spectacle, the handsome knight barely notices the tumult. The only comment he makes about the drowning woman is that

"She has a lovely face/ God in his mercy lend her grace."

          When I was an undergraduate, I kept taped to my bedroom wall a reproduction of John William Waterhouse's 1888 painting of the lady, which depicts her setting out in the boat with the knowledge of her doom already contorting her pale face. I purchased it at the Tate in London when I was sixteen; I came away from that museum with my romantic sensibilities fully inflamed by the pre-Raphaelite painters, several of whom painted portraits of Tennyson's enchanted lady.  These artists were influenced by the same revival of medieval themes and ideals that had inspired the poet forty years earlier and that guided William Morris when he was formulating design principles for the Arts & Crafts movement. 

R. 'Henri Matisse'

I'm sure the tale influenced my subconscious sufficiently to compel me to write a play when I was barely out of college about another weaving heroine, the virtuous wife who waits twenty years for Odysseus to come back to her.  In Homer's


, Penelope attempts to placate her horde of aggressive suitors by telling them she will select one to be her husband when she finishes weaving a tapestry on her loom; however, every night she unravels the work she has done by day, so that the weaving never progresses. (What I didn't realize until years later was that J.W. Waterhouse painted Penelope, as well.  

Penelope and her Suitors

was completed in 1912, near the end of his career.)

It's easy to see why "The Lady of Shalott" resonated so strongly for women poets and writers coming of age in the latter part of the 20th century.  Tennyson's heroine abandons her own ideals and creative work (the 'web') for the love of a man who barely acknowledges her existence, much less her sacrifice.  Although she pre-dated the feminist movement by several years, the American poet Sylvia Plath (a Fulbright scholar to Oxford) was clearly influenced by the poem.  She penned "The Mirror" not long after her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, left her and their two young children for one of Sylvia's friends, and shortly before she put her head in the oven of her flat in London and committed suicide in the winter of 1963. 

"Now I am a lake.  A woman bends over me,/ Searching my reaches for what she really is."  

As a college freshman I performed in a dramatic adaptation of a Plath poem in the university's theater department, as Plath was all the rage among female students like myself, who took ourselves and our responsibilities as artists VERY seriously.  Hence the 'Lady' poster, and the play championing Penelope.

Sylvia Plath

In the Odyssey, the dueling gods finally allow Odysseus to return home to Ithaca where he promptly slaughters Penelope's mooching suitors, reuniting with his son Telemachus and his long-suffering wife.  Then they settle down to live many happy years together. In my retelling, however, which starts where Homer's tale ends, I sought to dramatize how Penelope confronts the fact that after two decades coping on her own she is no longer the submissive girl she was when she married and her husband is not the man she idealized for all those years. She begins to understand, as we all do eventually, that LOVE is an ideal -- like freedom. Honor. Beauty. Truth. We are shaped and informed by our aspirations toward these ideals, but at some point we must accept realistic manifestations of the concepts or live without them; otherwise, we will find ourselves leading unhappy and dissatisfied lives. I think this is what it means to grow up. To be


the world, rather than



Penelope and Her Suitors

, by John William Waterhouse, 1912

Naturally, my contemporaries and I took it for granted that ours would be the generation of women who broke the mold and set the world on its head.  While every generation overestimates its own potential for good or ill, feminism definitely 'liberated' us and the women who followed us (including, most importantly, our daughters) from outmoded values and limiting roles. It provided new ideals, like the dream of building a partnership with a man instead of a relationship based on an imbalance of power.  Again, we discovered that we had to negotiate a realistic version!

          It may seem silly that so many long-held memories, images, passions, beliefs, myths and lines of poetry should flicker to life in one's brain with a simple tactile stimulus: the act of stroking a downy, flame-colored rose petal between one's fingers.  Maybe that's why as I grow older my garden gains in value -- it as much a repository for my world as it is for my plants.

Southern white peony and R. 'Zepherine Drouhin' in a window


If you have the right conditions for David Austin's English roses, and if you have a literary bent, DA offers many varieties named for characters or literary works, with nods to Chaucer, Shakespeare, A. E. Housman, and more (Wife of Bath, Othello, A Shropshire Lad, Wise Portia, etc.).  For information and photos, go to:

David Austin Roses

To read all 19 stanzas of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott" (1842), as well as his 1833 version, go to:

Text of Lady of Shalott

To read the poem "The Mirror" (1963) by Sylvia Plath, go to: 

Text of The Mirror