It sounds straightforward: but in practice the subject is thorny and hard to grasp. A lot depends on where you live. My friend was talking about the roses that climb gracefully and tastefully up walls and pergolas in the gardens of Kensington, Fulham and Chelsea - inner London's bijou westerly villages.
Elsewhere, things look different. The market for roses is crowded and confusing. Dozens of specialist growers across the country offer several hundred varieties in their catalogues, some exclusive to them, and add new and improved versions every year. They supply both individual customers - mainly by mail order - and garden centres.
To compile a national 'Top of the Pops' for roses would therefore be a daunting task. But Cants of Colchester in Essex, one of the leading nurseries, has for some years been doing the next best thing by compiling hit charts based on its own sales. Some of its findings are reproduced here. What they show beyond argument is that we gardeners share at least one quality with the best modern roses - we have a high degree of resistance bred into us. In our case it is resistance to fad and fashion rather than to mildew and black spot.
Consider first the hybrid teas. These bush roses, with their large, showy blooms and long flowering season, were introduced here early this century and have since then swept all before them. Yet in recent years the garden gurus and style-
setters have been spreading the message in print and over the airwaves that the hybrid tea is a bit . . . well, a bit naff. They urge a return to the more discreet old-fashioned shrub varieties, redolent of cottage gardens, with their pale colours and smaller flowers that may appear only once a year but smell wonderful when they do.
So what do Cants' tables show? That of the ten overall best-sellers last year seven were hybrid teas, including the top two: the copper-
coloured Just Joey and the orangey-yellow Michael Crawford. Moreover, Just Joey - which Cants introduced in 1973 and which now appears in several other catalogues - has been at the top of the chart ever since counting started in 1983.
Angela Pawsey, a director of Cants and a descendant of the 18th-century founder Ben Cant, says that about three hybrid teas are sold for every floribunda - which produce flowers in clusters rather than singly - and about 20 for every old-fashioned shrub rose. Well over half the firm's sales are of hybrid teas. 'The type of customers we have are very much traditionalists,' she explains. 'They've been brought up with hybrid teas. Their parents used to have them.'
Although hybrid teas were developed in France, the current taste for them is peculiarly British. In the rest of Europe they are outsold by floribunda varieties; but the gap is narrowing. 'Floribundas are beginning to get more popular here because there's more shape to them now,' Ms Pawsey says. 'And people used to think you didn't get fragrance with floribundas: that used to be true, but it isn't now. That's why I think they'll become more and more popular.'
The white Margaret Merril and the pale pink English Mist are among the best-scented and they head Cants' 10-year floribunda chart. Last year, though, they were overtaken by the newer Dame Wendy and Colchester Beauty, both slightly deeper pinks. Harkness of Cambridge says its most popular floribunda is Many Happy Returns, a new pink variety.
People want roses to smell like roses. Amanda Beales of Peter Beales Norfolk nursery, which boasts one of the world's largest selections with 1,100 varieties, says: 'The most common request is for good scent.' Why, then, do hybrid teas and floribundas still outsell the often stronger scented older varieties? Chiefly because they have a long flowering season, while the old-fashioned roses flower just once and are not attractive for the rest of the year.
Richard Bisgrove, in his book The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll (Frances Lincoln pounds 25), describes roses accurately as 'essentially beautiful flowers on rather ugly sticks'. To solve this problem a few gardeners still grow the formal standard rose, which flowers on top of a bare, straight four-foot stem tied to a post.
To satisfy nostalgia for old roses, David Austin of Albrighton, near Wolverhampton, specialises in cross- breeding them with modern varieties to produce what it calls English roses. These have old-fashioned fragrance and shapes but they flower throughout the season, come in a wide range of colours and are much less susceptible to black spot and mildew. Among the most popular are the strong pink Gertrude Jekyll, the paler pink Countryman and rich yellow Golden Celebration.
So what about those roses that you notice tumbling over urban walls and fences? None of the varieties in Cants' overall top 10 is a climber.
Albertine, with salmon-coloured buds and paler flowers, just squeezes into 10th place in the list dedicated to climbing roses and is also 10th in the climbers' table covering the last 10 years. New Dawn has been growing in popularity - probably because it flowers repeatedly - and is now eighth. 'Albertine is a very distinctive rose and people notice it when it's in flower in June,' Ms Pawsey explains. 'We get a lot of interest then, but everything goes quiet when it stops flowering.'
Cants' most popular climber of all for the past three years has been Leaping Salmon, repeat flowering and highly scented. One that does well for many growers is the white Madame Alfred Carriere. Beales re-ports good demand for Rambling Rector (creamy white and very vigorous), known as 'Shakespeare's musk'. An increasingly popular climber is the dark pink and nicely scented Aloha. In the Harkness catalogue it is bluntly described as 'the best short growing climber in this colour'. Short climbers do not reach much more than 6ft and Aloha is also sometimes grown as a freestanding shrub rose.
Gay Search, in Front Gardens (BBC Books pounds 13.99), calls it 'the ideal climbing rose for a small garden', while Stefan Buczacki, in The Budget Gardening Year (BBC Books pounds 4.99), says it is 'for me, almost the perfect modern rose'. On the strength of this I went out and bought one; it is a tough, disease resistant, stocky little plant that does not look as if it will easily adapt to being trained.
Two newly fashionable categories are patio and ground cover roses, but the growers I spoke to had reservations about both. Amanda Beales said: 'Ground cover and patio roses have actually been around for some time, but they've been given new names for commercial and marketing reasons.'
There are two types of ground cover rose. One grows about 2ft high before arching back towards the ground, and the other has stems that grow laterally a few inches above the soil, producing intermittent vertical flowering shoots about 2ft high. Cants ranks them among its shrub roses, and one of each type made the top 10 - the arching pink Surrey and the lateral white Kent.
Michael Marriot, nursery manager at David Austin's, warns that some thought is needed before planting roses for ground cover. 'Don't forget that you may find yourself having to weed between their thorny branches.'
Patio roses are simply small floribundas that grow to less than 2ft, and are suitable for containers as well as beds. 'We get people asking what's the difference between a miniature and a patio, and it's a fair question,' Ms Pawsey says. 'Miniatures are a bit bigger and bushier. The word originally referred to the size of the flower and not of the plant.'
Mr Marriot warns that some patio roses can be prone to disease and for his taste their colours are too bright. For some years the fashion has been for more subtle shades of all types of rose - but colour can be affected by where they are planted. If they are in partial shade, they are darker than they are in full sun.
Despite the taste for muted colours, one of the most popular patio roses is also one of the brightest: Top Marks, a dazzling scarlet variety that blooms prolifically. It is outsold only by Sweet Dream (a charming shade of peach). Harkness even does a range of what it calls 'patio ground cover' roses. The most intriguing is Laura Ashley (pinky-violet flowers with a prominent yellow centre), but like most of the patio roses, it has little discernible scent.
A wealth of choice. If Gertrude Stein had been any sort of a gardener, she would never have written that 'a rose is a rose is a rose . . .'-
HOW TO KEEP EVERYTHING COMING UP ROSES
BUYING AND PLANTING
Specialist growers, including the four listed here, send roses bare-rooted through the post, and this accounts for the bulk of their business. They should be ordered in late summer for delivery and planting between October and March.
Cut away damaged roots and any dead wood. Dig a hole deep enough for the union (where the rose was grafted and where the roots meet the stem) to be level with the surface. Making sure the roots are moist and well spread, put the rose in the hole and fill with half topsoil, half peat and a handful of bone meal.
Buying roses in containers is increasingly popular. These can be bought and planted at any time of year. Now is a good time, because you will be able to see them in flower and be sure they are exactly what you want, although if it is dry you will have to water regularly. Dig a hole for the entire root ball and firm in, covering with the same soil mix as for bare-root roses.
The spring after planting, hybrid teas and floribundas should be pruned to about 6in from the soil. Others need much less pruning - mainly to keep the right shape.
ADDRESSES OF GROWERS
David Austin Roses Ltd, Bowling Green Lane, Albrighton, Wolverhampton WV7 3HB.
Peter Beales Roses, London Road, Attleborough, Norfolk NR17 1AY.
Cants of Colchester, Nayland Road, Mile End, Colchester CO4 5EB.
R Harkness and Co, Cambridge Road, Hitchin, Herts SG4 0JT.
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