June 21, 2017
Haven’t you heard the stories of gardeners who, after a single rose-thorn puncture, lost an arm, or more?
It’s not that I hate roses. I will acknowledge that, in certain circumstances—breeze-ruffled in the lilac dusk of a Provençal evening, say, or trained by generations of grateful college servants against honeyed Oxford limestone—a rose can achieve glory: the platonic ideal of flowers. Like anyone else, I can appreciate the fat, whipped-cream Tranquillity rose, the kind of bosomy, full-petalled flower one wants to bury one’s face in; or the deep, rich perfume of the Gertrude Jekyll, named after the famous Edwardian plant-hunter and horticulturalist, friend of both the Pre-Raphaelites and Robert Louis Stevenson. Everybody loves roses: they are the symbol of virtually everywhere, from England to North Dakota. They are an international icon for innocence, and beauty, and rugby; the knee-jerk favorite of politicians, poets, and other enemies of civilization. Recently, the Democratic Socialists of America have given the rose emoji a boost on social media. Rose prints, meanwhile, seem to be having a moment in the fashion world, and we shouldn’t be surprised. Have you ever seen a tattoo of a forsythia? Are any rock stars or famous songs named after hydrangeas? Exactly.
So what kind of monster would be anti-rose? Well, me.
Be honest: the roses one encounters in daily life are, mostly, hideous. Think of the colors: syphilitically inflamed orange, or highlighter-pen salmon, or nylon pink, or overripe-banana yellow. How often have you bent to smell a neighbor’s rose, ready to snort up a lungful of Turkish-delight deliciousness, only to discover no scent at all? The names, too—Newly Wed, Scentimental, Golden Smiles, Admiral Rodney, Bright ’n’ Breezy—put breeders of pedigree dogs to shame. But worst of all is the plant itself: drab little leaves, plagued with leprous brown spots or grazing aphids; prickled shoots whipping in the wind above gnarled, charmless trunks. And no one knows how to prune them. Invariably either overdisciplined or scrubby, viciously trained into a municipal pygmy or as amateurishly hacked at as a young porcupine with a home haircut, the vast majority are tragic shadows of the perfect rose in its ruffled, scented bounty.
What’s more, they are dangerous. Which other common garden plant requires one to wear chainmail to perform the simplest tying-in, sharpened secateurs for ceaseless deadheading, a full hazmat outfit in which to spray it with the toxins required to keep it pretty? Haven’t you heard the stories of gardeners who, after a single rose-thorn puncture, lost an arm, or more? Would you keep a shark in your front yard? Precisely.
When I moved to my current house and proudly took possession of my first garden, every visitor ignored its puny size, the crumbling walls full of sexually active mollusks, the toxic, coal-ridden, polluted London soil. As if enchanted, they all exclaimed the same words: “Roses! Lucky you!” Idiots.
As in Greek mythology, or my father’s favorite Jewish joke, each of these roses came with a curse. The most vigorous produced savage thorns and beautiful ivory flowers, which swished tauntingly at the ends of fifteen-foot-long stems, protected by a thicket of ivy and wild clematis—tantalizing, faintly sarcastic. And, because my vegetable bed lay beneath its falling petals, the ravening slug-hordes that plagued my vegetables could recover from an exhausting session of sex and lettuce-eating with a lovely scented snooze. There was worse: the most visible rose, bang opposite the kitchen door, had glamorous blue-gray leaves, tempting scarlet hips, and simple blossoms in an inexcusable knicker pink. And the prettiest variety, its blooms the rich raspberry of an excellent ice cream, had stems that looked like the bastard child of a cat-o’-nine-tails and a hedgehog, so thickly encrusted with mildewed prickles that they looked like weapons.
Even I, in my ignorance, knew that these were roses, but the previous owners had failed to provide labels to help with further identification. Was the whitish one a climber or simply frisky? Was the pink monstrosity a damask, burnet, gallica, large-flowered hybrid tea, modern bush or English or species rose, eglantine, cluster-flowered floribunda, or merely a shrub? How on earth was I meant to prune them? Nothing was high enough to reach them—no stool, no stepladder. The loppers were too heavy. Like a child trying to reach a jar of cookies, I propped a kitchen chair in the flower bed and, with a mighty stretch, managed to grab a low-hanging branch, only to discover that the sturdy-looking bamboo cane on which I was relying for support had not had an easy winter. I bought an extending string-operated snipper, like a sharp flamingo, and instantly, efficiently, snipped through the string.
Roses are not urban beasts. So, although we may dream of an elegant granite wall with a Mme. de Something rose arching against it in sweet-smelling pearly swags, the reality is considerably grimmer: my taxi-driver neighbor’s viciously pruned, yellow-budded toilet brushes, or the suburban crematoria whose residents are united by the horrible lollipop standards on their resting places. There is a simple solution: let’s give up on the scentless, hard-pruned, spiky Day-Glo disasters. Henceforth, licenses will be issued only to those with space to do them justice. They can cultivate Comte de Chambord for orgies of inhalation, or the huge, dark pink blossoms of the famous old Madame Isaac Pereire. The rest of us will be left to grow more manageable and, frankly, more interesting beauties: bloomily translucent Muscat grapes; explosively tart wild strawberries; calendula and cosmos, glowing like quiet fireworks; aromatic bay and thyme and sage—the daily miracle of horticulture, available, without pretension or personal risk, to anyone with a windowsill.
Charlotte Mendelson is a prize-winning British novelist and the author of “Rhapsody in Green,” a memoir about her passion for gardening.