Thursday, April 23, 2009

Earth Day Again: Remembering Roses

It is very hard to write when roses are in bloom. I want to spend long periods outside, just observing each rose in different light at different moments of the day, noticing how the fragrance becomes lighter or more intense in different weather patterns or at different times of the day.

Of all flowers, roses are as much idea as execution of soil, light, leaf, air, and water. It is impossible to look at or smell a rose and not think, somewhere deep in the collective unconscious of one’s mind, of mysticism and romantic love, of the high gardens of the ancient Near East that gave this marvelous flower to the world. We do not grow roses by accident in gardens in Little Rock or Omaha or Chipping Norton or Buenos Aires. We do so because they are part of our cultural heritage, a long tradition rooted in something more than soil. Roses mean something. And so we struggle to grow them and enjoy their bloom for brief periods of glory each year even in climates of alternating heat and cold, drought and humidity, that defy easy cultivation of this flower of lore and myth.

My roses mean something even more particular to me, and this is part of what draws me repeatedly out of the house when they are in bloom, to look and smell. There’s the old red climber that we have had now since the mid-1980s, and have taken with us everywhere we have moved since then, so that it has offspring all around Charlotte and in Florida, and now lives on all sides of our house in Little Rock, climbing up and along each fence.

We call it the Mouton Bickham rose, because it came to us from an elderly neighbor with that name, on whose shed it rambled prolifically, without any care, fragrancing the entire section of Tremé in which we lived in New Orleans in the 1980s. Mr. Bickham died while we lived beside him, and the rose means even more to us now, as a reminder of his life, of his gentle, quiet, humorous presence on his stoop each evening, as he sat in the shade to try to catch a cool breeze, any breeze, in the torrid New Orleans summer.

Neighborhoods die when Mouton Bickhams leave and are not replaced. And how does one replace a wise, elderly African-American man whose very presence on a porch in the evening, as he exchanged greetings or stories with passersby, stabilizes and humanizes a neighborhood?

I’ve tried for years to identify our Mouton Bickham rose. I knew it had to be an old rose, because it requires no care, is not susceptible to black spot in our ferocious summers, and has the sprawling habits and intensely fragrant blooms of many old roses. Its smallish doubled blossoms of an indeterminate red somewhere between crimson and mauve are not particularly prepossessing, but have the classic, simple, beauty of roses before they were fussed with (and often made horrible) by hybridizers and landscape mavens.

I’ve decided at last that it’s a climbing sport of a rose once common in old New Orleans gardens, Louis Philippe, which came to New Orleans in 1798 and established itself there with such alacrity that it is now often called the Creole rose—or the Florida rose, since it grows well in that semi-tropical climate as well, something to which we can attest, after we brought a cutting there and saw it, in one summer’s time, grow from a small slip to a rose high enough to reach the roof of our house.

When it blooms, the fragrance is so intense—a heavy, true, classic rose scent with undertones alternately sweet and spicy, but always intensely redolent of the inimitable smell we think of as rose—that people would stop their cars in front of our house in North Carolina to ask what smelled so good around our house. We gave I don’t know how many cuttings to neighbors, friends, strangers there. It does my heart good to think of Mr. Bickham’s old climbing rose, his Louis Philippe Creole rose, now fragrancing one garden after another in the Carolina Piedmont, far from its geographic and cultural origins in New Orleans, and in France before that.

Intertwined with the Bickham-Louis Philippe on a white trellis on the south side of our house is another old climber whose name I do not know. This is a very fragrant, beautiful yellow rose with large, flat, open blooms that shift from apricot to gold as the blossom opens. Its fragrance is lighter than, but as intense as, that of the Louis Philippe—a cleaner, spicier rendition of classic rose tones, with a slightly herbal underscent. Its blossoming habit is blowsy: the rose opens and flattens quickly, revealing a pronounced, beautiful circle of yellow-brown stamens at its center.

I cherish this rose—and worry about it: it is difficult—because it has belonged to people I love, in my family, for over half a century now. All through my childhood, it climbed up the northeast side of my grandmother’s house, around the windows of her kitchen and breakfast room. It was a fixture in the rose garden that stood just outside the kitchen on that side of the house.

None of us ever knew the name of the rose, because it had been a pass-along plant rather than one my grandmother brought from her beautiful big country garden when she, my mother, and my mother’s siblings moved into the city as World War II ended. A neighbor passing by the house, who saw my grandmother at work among her roses one day around 1950, returned home, clipped a cutting from her yellow climber, and brought it to my grandmother.

Who cherished the rose that grew from the cutting for the rest of her life, up to her death in 1968. At which point, it became a carefully guarded treasure of my mother’s oldest sister, who inherited her mother’s house, and who tended this rose alone as she let the rest of the rose garden (and all the other beautiful, fragrant shrubs and trees around the house: gardenias, glossy abelia, hydrangeas, forsythia, flowering quince, camellias, bridal wreath, dogwoods, Japanese magnolias) languish and die.

In the period after my grandmother’s death, the rose became, in my mind, Kat’s rose, her favorite yellow climber, on which she never failed to remark as she worked in the yard or walked to the stores up the street to do her daily shopping. The rose became identified with Kat for me, too, because it was yellow, her favorite color, one she wore with green, russet, and other fall colors, to set off her red hair. When she died in 2001 and the house was sold, I dug the rose up and brought it to my garden several blocks away.

Where it has struggled for several years to establish itself, and where I can get no cuttings to root. It is not an easy rose. It seems to respond neither to fertilizer nor mulching, lack of mulch, increased light or increased shade. It does its own thing, and I have decided to let it do whatever that thing is, as it sends its tentative new canes among the rowdy, prolific Louis Philippe beside which it’s planted.

To study these roses when they bloom, to bring their blossoms to my nose and draw in their scent, is more than an exercise in gardening or aesthetic appreciation. It’s an act of remembrance—of people and worlds now gone, bits of which and bits of whom have been entrusted into my hands.

So that I remember. And care. And pass along who they were and what they cherished, in the hope that someone after me will continue to remember and to care.