That was a happy find. I was in the garden department of my local Home Depot this spring, viewing with faint condescension their promotional loss-leader truckload of second-string hybrid teas, when I spotted the ringer: a brushy litle own-root polyantha. I belatedly recognized the name: Caldwell Pink, an interesting rose, one of the Texas found roses.
Here’s the story. Roses have been bred and hybridized for a long time. The promising ones are given names and put on the market. If the distributor subsequently goes out of business, finding and identifying surviving specimens can get iffy. Roses get moved and propagated. Sometimes they hybridize on their own. There’s a group called the Texas Rose Rustlers that’s into finding, salvaging, and identifying old roses. One of them found Caldwell Pink in Caldwell, Texas.
When a rosarian finds an unidentified rose and puts it into play, it’s given a purely descriptive study name based on who had it, where it was found, or some other identifying characteristics. That’s why there are roses named Cemetery Keeper Peach Tea and Highway 290 Pink Buttons. As far as I can tell, the rose keeps the study name even after it’s been identified, because some people will inevitably feel that it hasn’t been proven to be the same one. There’s a good chance that Caldwell Pink is actually “Pink Pet,” a polyantha introduced in 1928, but it’s still being sold as Caldwell Pink.
I brought mine home, dug it a nice hole in a sunny spot, and let it do its thing. You could practically hear it revving its engine. It has since sprawled out in a vigorous and comely fashion, and at the moment is covered with clusters of pink roses in the flattish dense-packed old-rose style. By report, it should keep blooming like that, off and on, until serious cold sets in.
There in a nutshell is My Secret for Growing Roses: pick a good one, dig it a nice hole in a good spot, maybe throw some bones into the bottom of the hole if you’ve got them around, and then keep the thing watered until it settles in. That should be enough, if you give it a little extra water during dry spells and keep the weeds from choking it. If you find yourself having to treat multiple rose diseases and infestations every summer, you didn’t pick the right one.
One of my most cherished gardening beliefs is that “may become invasive” is a strong recommendation. Some plants just try harder than others. This is especially pertinent with roses because plant breeders have fiddled with them so much, in many cases sacrificing vitality for unusual flower colors or some other desirable characteristic. I’m not into single perfect blooms a few times a year. My gardens are too small for that. Fortunately, that’s the direction roses are going anyway.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether that long period of Americans growing cranky, unattractive, disease-prone Hybrid Teas, with their small number of florist-quality blooms and their constant neediness, wasn’t a manifestation of some of the problems Stewart Brand talked about in How Buildings Learn. If you’re buying roses from a catalogue or nursery on the basis of a color photograph of said rose, single perfect blooms are going to be your best selling point.
A few years back, when I lived reasonably close to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, home of the Cranford Rose Garden, I had an informal project going. Every week or two I’d visit the garden and make notes on which roses were looking good that day. It was educational.
In early June, every plant with rose in its genetic makeup will bloom or die trying. The Cranford Rose Garden is so intense that you could think you’re hallucinating. Everything is covered with flowers. All those old roses that only bloom once a year are out in force, and their scent’s enough to knock you over. The hybrid teas and grandifloras and floribundas are in their first flush of improbably perfect bloom, and their foliage, being brand-new, is likewise in a seldom-seen state of perfection.
This is a terrible time to be making decisions about which roses to put in your garden. Unfortunately, it’s also the point in the cycle where all that exuberant display is likely to make you want to buy some plants. This explains a great many things about the commercial rose world.
A few weeks later, lo, how changed. The once-a-years had packed it in, of course; they do that. What was startling was how many other roses had done the same thing. For instance, two current bestsellers, Gertrude Jekyll and Abraham Darby, had been impressive during the first flush, but afterward they slacked off, rebloomed sporadically, and slowly fizzled out in late July, not unlike most of the other roses on the market. Nothing special there.
The modern tea roses in general were just awful, and the AARS annual selections, which had their own little section, practically deliquesced. As of about the first week in July, they were almost uniformly flowerless, and plagued by black spot.
Granted, they were in an exposed spot. Granted also that it was a rough summer for disease-prone roses, with warm heavy rains plus wind in June, and spells of high heat and humidity but not enough rain in July and August. But so what? Summers like that will happen. I don’t want to hear about how great a rose would have been if only I’d grown it under laboratory conditions.
The summer wore on. I kept taking notes. When it was all over, the House Cup went to all the little polyanthas and to the rugosa hybrids. They’d looked good, stayed in bloom, and kept their leaves all summer.
Two things happened that make me feel good about my observations. One was that I got an unexpected result. I kept noticing roses which, while not quite the nonstop bloomers of my final list, seemed to always look significantly better than the other roses of their sort: Polka, Charles Aznavour, Frederic Mistral, Johann Strauss, Leonardo da Vinci, etc. When I checked on them in some of the online rose databases, I discovered that they were all bred by one company, Meilland, and that most of them were in Meilland’s “Romantica” line, which I think is their answer to David Austin’s “English Roses” line.
IMO? Meilland’s Romanticas are much better—sturdier, more vigorous, with clean dark-green foliage, and lots of gorgeous flowers that smell like Granny Smith apples.
A more recent thing that made me feel good about my results is the recently announced EarthKind Roses program at Texas A&M. In an attempt to get away from the constant pesticides, fungicides, fertilizing, and pruning of conventional rose growing, they grew 117 different kinds of roses in high-alkaline Texas clay soil. They didn’t fertilize them, they didn’t spray for insects and diseases, and they didn’t water them after the first year. Eleven of their 117 varieties turned in spectacular performances anyway. Of those, five were on my own final list. suspect some of the roses that weren’t on my list simply weren’t in the Cranford Rose Garden.
Their list: Sea Foam, Marie Daly, The Fairy, Caldwell Pink, Knock Out, Perle d’Or, Belinda’s Dream, Else Poulson, Katy Road Pink, Mutabilis, and Climbing Pinkie.
My list: The Fairy, Stanwell Perpetual, Seafoam, Perle d’Or, Baby Love, Cecile Brunner, Bloomfield Abundance, Happenstance, Mutabilis, Else Poulson, Golden Wings, Marie Pavie, Bonica, Jeanne LaJoie, and Verdun.
Note: if the rose the Macdonalds call Drunken Lady keeps going this summer the way it has so far, it’s going to make my permanent list.
Rugosa hybrids: Hansa, the Grootendorsts, the Pavements, John Davis, Henry Hudson, Yankee Lady, Rosarium Uetersen, Rugosa Magnifica. Honorable mention: Fru Dagmar Hastrup, Roseraie de l’Haï¿½, Blanc Double de Coubert.
Good climbers: Aloha, Awakening, Compassion, New Dawn, Jeanne La Joie.
Oldies but surprisingly goodies: Gruss an Aachen, Marquise Boccella.
Not the most floriferous, but unaccountably makes me happy: Sparrieshoop.
Your mileage may vary. Have fun traveling.