GARDENING / Roses with a healthy future: Black spot, rust and mildew have ravaged the English rose. Michael Leapman on the quest for a disease-proof bloom

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IF YOU judged only from the more apocalyptic gardening writers, you would imagine that the rose is swiftly going the way of that other great English institution, the Conservative Party. We are constantly being told that it is out of style, prone to chronic and irremediable disorders and suffers from being in the same place for too long.

The figures bear out this conclusion, although you might not guess as much from strolling past suburban front gardens this weekend, as the season approaches its peak. In the Sixties, some 60 million rose bushes were grown in the United Kingdom. Now the figure is around 20 million.

Yet gardening is not politics and even the evaporation of two-thirds of its support does not mean that the rose has lost its majority. A survey last month among readers of the magazine Gardens Illustrated showed it is still easily the most popular flower, with 37 per cent of people nominating it as the single plant they insist on having - four times as many as voted for the second-placed hellebore. (Which may, I suppose, tell you more about the upmarket readers of Gardens Illustrated than about your average sod-turner.)

Of the accusations levelled at the rose, the most pervasive is that it is too prone to diseases; mainly black spot, rust and powdery mildew. These complaints have become more prevalent since we stopped burning coal in open grates, for soot is a powerful antidote to fungal disorders.

Most modern roses are bred for their resistance to disease but, as gardeners discover to their disappointment, resistance is not at all the same as immunity. Keeping a rose healthy through the summer demands repeated spraying - a degree of commitment to which many aspire but which few, in the event, attain.

A glimmer of hope is at hand in research being carried out at the University of East London by Dr Andy Roberts. He and his team are working on ways of crossing the rose with its relative the bramble, which resists black spot but which until now has proved impervious to attempts to graft roses on to it.

Yet even if a truly disease-proof rose does emerge from Dr Roberts's laboratory, not all the problems of the species will have been solved. Some of today's critics object to it on aesthetic rather than medical grounds, decrying its whole habit of growth. While the flower may be spectacular and often fragrant, they say the stems look untidy and uninspiring when the leaves have fallen - what the trade calls the 'dead stick syndrome'.

At last month's Chelsea Flower Show, I discussed these morbid matters with several leading growers. They accepted that there was a problem but were in no mood to concede that their market was in a state of terminal wilt.

Mark Mattock, manager of the Oxfordshire firm Mattock's Roses, said: 'It isn't enough today just to have a spectacular flower - a rose has to earn its place by being a good all-round plant. It's competing with everything else at the garden centre. It has to have a good shape and scent and it has to be in flower for a long time. I've been in the business for 40 years; in the Fifties everyone grew hybrid teas, but then the floribunda came in. A lot of those didn't have a good shape: that was when the dead stick syndrome started.

'There was over-production of roses until every supermarket seemed to sell them. That made the prices come right down. Now the price is more realistic and people are prepared to pay for good stock. They like patio and ground cover roses - the short ones - and they like the repeat-flowering climbers.'

Cindy Fryer, of Fryer's Roses in Cheshire, maintained that a lot of the complaints about unhealthy roses come from people still growing very old plants in soil that has not been refreshed for 20 years and more. 'They should get some of the new resistant varieties and get rid of the old diseased soil.'

The grower who has done most to shape modern tastes is David Austin, a former

Staffordshire farmer who, in 1970, introduced what are now called English roses. These

combine the attractive shape and fragrance of

old-fashioned varieties with the long flowering season of floribundas and hybrid teas.

His son and heir presumptive, David Austin Jr, said: 'We get very annoyed at the criticism of the rose. They don't need more attention than any other plant that's grown well - we certainly don't have time to mollycoddle ours. But it's obviously important not to ignore them. Like any plant, if you do that they aren't going to perform.'

Successful rose breeders have to keep track of the pendulum of taste. In recent years soft colours - romantic pinks and whites - have been the rage. This year the new varieties in the catalogues reflect a switch to more

assertive shades.

Austin's have Molineux, a striking yellow based on the colours of the Wolverhampton Wanderers football club, named after its home ground and launched at Chelsea by its former international star Billy Wright. And of their four new pink roses, three (Trevor Griffiths, Radio Times and John Clare) are at the bold end of the colour's spectrum rather than the anaemic. The cover of this year's Harkness catalogue is a case in point. Eschewing pink altogether, the 130-year-old Hertfordshire firm gives top billing to its new bright yellow multi-flowering bush rose, Conquest.

Joint managing director Philip Harkness said: 'We're coming to the end of the pastel phase - it's all strong colours this year. To sell a rose today it has to be compact, easy to look after and repeat flowering. All the new ones have those qualities. But you won't be free of disease unless you keep ahead of the game. Spray them with fungicide at the beginning of the season, before they show signs of trouble. Prevention is better than cure.' So it's back to basics - not unlike politics after all.-