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With beauty and scent, everything's coming up roses

July 04, 2009|By MAUREEN GILMER / Scripps Howard News Service

I miss the old roses terribly.

They are growing few and far between because these old species don't often fit into yards, and their bloom season is but a few weeks in late spring. I miss them because they are fragrant. I miss their cabbage-shaped blossoms. And when I do come upon them I am transported back to Queen Victoria and the gardens of her realm when horticulture was all the rage.

I suspect the English fellow, David Austin, was similarly afflicted long ago. This longing drove a life spent re-creating a nostalgic flower that once nearly disappeared from gardens. While other breeders were seeking to create the most carefree floriferous roses, such as Knock Out and Flower Carpet, Austin was moving in another direction altogether. He was searching for the romance of early Victorian roses, so he could capture their beauty with modern-day ease of cultivation. In short, Austin literally reinvented the rose.

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The old roses that graced Victorian gardens were often dubbed "cabbage roses" because their flowers were rounded and tightly packed like the leaves of a cabbage head. This stands in striking contrast to the fluted bud of the later hybrid teas. Cabbage roses have distinctly different looks, more charm and a sense of nostalgia. In England, they became the symbols of the empire years. In a vase, the flowers flop and lean - giving a sense of relaxed elegance impossible with stiff-stemmed moderns.

Forty years ago, Austin sought to define exactly what kind of rose he wanted to create, and laid it all out for us in his newest book, "The English Roses: Classic Favorites & New Selections" (Firefly; $35).

This incredibly well-illustrated book is, in a sense, his manifesto, the document that establishes what he tried to do as a breeder. In glorious color it shows us the fruits of his efforts. Perhaps "photographs" isn't the right word for the full-page color illustrations that I dub "photographic art." I've seen a lot of garden books, and few compare to the beauty and - dare I say - femininity of these illustrations. They make me want to cut them out and frame them for a bright bedroom or an elegant dining-room wall.

I couldn't help but conclude that this book is a Mother's Day gift, or a gift for her birthday extraordinaire. Even if Mom isn't a gardener, the sheer beauty of this paperback will have her sitting for hours digesting the roses.

There's even a chapter devoted to fragrance. I now know there's a difference between musk and myrrh, stamen fragrance and petal fragrance. And, of course, the chapter on the ancestors of the English rose tells me what species or early hybrids contributed what to the Austin hybrids.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Read the blog at www.MoPlants.com/blog.

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