Irrational minds in revolt against the rose

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The Independent Online
'I hate rose gardens,' says Sir Simon Hornby, the next president of the Royal Horticultural Society. 'I never know why people have them - they don't have weigela gardens or philadelphus gardens. A formal rose garden is as ugly a thing as you can find.'

As ugly a thing as you can find? Let's get some perspective on this. Sir Simon, who was being interviewed in the new magazine Gardens Illustrated, is the chairman of W H Smith, which was once a chain of bookshops. And the ugliest thing he has been able to find in his life is a formal rose garden. Extraordinary.

But the animus against the rose garden is surprisingly common among garden writers, and I'm interested (as a keen rosarian) to know what lies behind it. For, of course, Sir Simon's view is not rationally expressed. He knows that people of a certain cast of mind very much enjoy creating specialist gardens - collections of rhododendrons, camellias, or any flowering plant that lends itself to a great degree of variation.

A love of taxonomy will lead you in directions that require all the skills of the botanist - as in the creation of a saxifrage garden. A philadelphus garden would not be an absurdity (Constance Spry had a philadelphus walk, which is half-way to a garden). The purpose of this garden would be to crate a glade with an astonishing mock-orange fragrance in season.

I doubt that the objection to a rose garden has anything to do with this kind of semi-scientific specialisation. Rather, it seems to derive from a rebellion against the unique affection people have for the idea of a rose garden, for the hold it has on the imagination.

In this sense, the rose garden resembles the herb garden - writers may tell you until they are blue in the face that it's crazy to plant

herb gardens, that many of the plants are without great merit, that they get out of hand,

etc. But the bookshops are full of books about herbs and herb gardens. So the general public pays no attention to the garden writer on this point.

The lure seems to be that the herb garden is The Garden That Is Good For You - an immensely powerful idea - indeed, a myth. Here is a wort that I have plucked from my herb garden: it will heal your wound/purge your blood/ease your menstrual flow/banish melancholy.

Banish melancholy] That's just what I need. I'd noticed an excess of black bile in the system. Give me as much of your wort as you can spare]

The garden writers object to this kind of soppy thinking because it seems to distract from the pure virtue of gardening itself. Vita Sackville-West clearly rather despised the people who gushed over her herb garden. She was soppy in a different way.

She was soppy about dead aristocrats, and the roses that appealed to her had both names and associations that meant that a rose garden, in her hands, would turn into a sort of spectral court. The meaning of Sissinghurst is this: this is the palace out of which they tried to cheat me because I was not born a man. Roses, irises and lilies - being heraldic flowers of antique symbolism - have the ability to impart that feeling to a garden. Weigelas may be great, but they can't perform that trick.

But the symbolism of the rose is a much bigger thing than the symbolism of Sissinghurst. It takes in all estates of man, slaves included. Constance Spry (who did not just put flowers in vases, but was also a remarkable gardener) wrote in her Garden Notebook just before the Second World War:

'In the days before slavery was abolished the negro servants were encouraged by their mistresses to plant roses on the graves of their friends. The negro cemeteries were generally - possibly always - the property of the slave owners, and in some cases have passed down to their descendants today. It was, and I believe still is, a penal offence to trespass on these graveyards, and in them some of the old roses, lost in other countries, still survive.'

She goes on to express the hope that a correspondent of hers, who is the owner of one of these graveyards, will send her some samples of these unknown roses, and she even thinks that some she already has may be derived from slave graveyards.

When Graham Stuart Thomas was making his collection of old roses, after the war, he went to Constance Spry, among others, and received material from her. So it may be that the rose garden at Mottisfont, Hampshire, which is based on Thomas's collection, contains a rose originally bred in, say, France, which travelled to America to adorn the garden of some slave-owner, which then took the fancy of a slave, who took a slip and planted it on a friend's grave - which act preserved that rose for posterity.

If so, I should like to know which rose this was, for I should dearly love to obtain one for my rose garden, where it would take its place alongside the Sacred Rose of Abyssinia as a plant of extraordinary historical interest.

The most comprehensive rose garden in the world, they say, is the one at Sangerhausen in the former East Germany. It is like a reference library for roses, with numbered beds and charts so that you can look up anything you want. The ramblers and climbers are grown on pillars, and they provide, I should say, most of the beauty. But the collection is extraordinary mainly for its comprehensiveness and the vicissitudes it has suffered, rather than as an example of a beautiful garden.

The two great rose gardens of the Paris region, the Bagatelle and the one at Roseraie de l'Hay, brilliant formal creations, have this drawback, seen as a whole: they paint with the whole palette of rose colours, but this palette is itself restricted, and one longs for a restful patch or so of blue.

The garden at Mottisfont, which uses companion planting to extend the palette, is formal in design, being contained within two walled gardens. This is the most breathtaking of the rose gardens I have seen, and it confounds the haters of rose gardens while reminding one of what it is that they rebel against.

When people say that Shakespeare is the greatest poet who ever lived, this sounds wrong - for how could you measure one greatness against another? Nevertheless, if you must have a greatest poet, Shakespeare is the best candidate. It's the same with the garden flowers: it's wrong to say that the rose is the greatest of all flowers. But if you had to choose a greatest flower, it would have to be the rose. So a great rose garden would have to be a place of the most transcendent beauty.

And that's why the small mind of Sir Simon Hornby rebels.