By Stephanie Cavanaugh
WHAT IS a rose without scent? A thorny flower that’s somewhat pretty, or at least colorful. It might as well be fake. In fact, fakes can often be more attractive; copying well the blousy bourbons, the dazzling hybrid teas, the double-headed damasks.
When I was small my family had a house on Long Island, set on an acre or so of grass and trees that flowered and drooped and stood tall, surrounded by beds of flowering shrubs and bulbs.
The only roses (as I recall) were red ramblers that scampered along the fence that fronted the property. They were not particularly distinguished-looking, just medium-size and red, but their powerfully sweet and spicy scent lingers in my mind so many decades later.
I don’t what they were called, as I wasn’t particularly interested back then, but my mom would go out early in the morning when the roses were dewy and cut a cluster for my teacher, the stems wrapped in water-soaked paper towel and then in foil so the thorns wouldn’t bite me and the flowers stayed fresh.
I think the thought was maybe—as this was the tail end of the school year—if there was any question about shoving me forward a grade (I was an abysmal student) perhaps the roses would do the trick. The scent of a rose has powerful mojo.
In those days, most roses appeared only in the spring and, depending on the climate where you lived, lasted a few weeks to a month or so. For most of the year they were prickly and unattractive and quite often blackened or insect-bitten, requiring doses of toxic sprays or a dousing with white powdery stuff that was more unattractive than the blight it was supposed to be curing.
I’ve never understood why roses—of any variety—are treated as prized specimens, set into circlets of mulch and sitting prickly and, honestly, quite boring and ugly 11 months of the year. Which is why, in grand public gardens and estates, they’re usually to be found in areas devoted to their nurture. They are meant to be enjoyed during their brief bloom time and then abandoned until the next spring, attention moving on to primping hydrangeas and such, flowers that will look good throughout the summer.
Then came the Knockout. Developed in 1989, a hybrid of several tea roses, they hit the public in 2000 and became the best-selling rose of all time. Other than arboretums and grand gardens, today one would be pressed to find anything else but Knockouts and their copycats, particularly in small gardens where one doesn’t have room to spare for the shy violets of the gardening world. You want a lot of Boom Boom Pow!
Available originally in a shade of red so simple that if you think of the color red, that’s the shade these first flowers were. Then they added pink. More recently the color range has expanded to include white, salmon, lilac, cream – something like 10 different hues. But they all share the same uniform look, a neat and unremarkable flower, that starts as a tight bud, then opens with no particular drama, unfurling to about a two-inch-round, then they die.
Utterly reliable and disease resistant, just keep them dead-headed and they add cheery color to the garden all summer long—and absolutely no scent, which is terribly sad. An insult to the nose, in fact. A bad joke. I hate being fooled by them—passing a patch with my squirrely brain saying, Ooh! Rose!, and I stoop to sniff and, bah. Nothing.
I’d be less offended if they were treated like accents. Not the main show. Roses of any variety are more appealing in a tumbled mass, like a fantastic bouquet, surrounded by dahlias and ferns, thistles and Queen Anne’s lace—all in a tangle, like a fabulously wild flower arrangement. Not a crown of thorns.
The curbside garden that illustrates this piece is a breathtaking example. The various flowers mingle with the roses in a display that lasts months. Flowers coming into their turn, fading, being replaced by others. Fireworks along the sidewalk.
Boom Boom Pow.