Postcolonial flowering, Alistair Fox

The Essential Old Rose: Growing and Using Old Roses in New Zealand 
Trevor Griffiths
Viking, $34.95, ISBN 0 670 87187 7

The New Zealand Book of Roses: The best 150 Varieties,  2ed
John Martin and Colin Hutchinson
Viking, $34.95, ISBN 0 670 86944 9

New Zealand Patio Roses: Roses for Today’s Smaller Gardens 
Margaret Hayward
Viking, $39.95, ISBN 0 670 86025 5

Trevor Griffiths concludes his new book on old roses in New Zealand with the following poem by the sixth-century BC Greek poet, Sappho:

Its beauties charm the Gods above,
Its fragrance is the breath of love,
Its foliage wantons in the air,
Luxuriant, like the flowing hair.

It is an apt quotation, for these few words come very close to identifying the essential features of old roses — sometimes known as heritage roses — that help to explain their extraordinary revival in New Zealand gardening during the past 20 years: their incomparable charm, fragrance, appealing form and foliage, and romantic associations.

The roses that Sappho saw would have borne no resemblance to what most New Zealanders will think of as “roses” — the modern hybrid tea, with its stiff upright growth, pointed bud and bright colours (often with tones of yellow and vermilion). Most likely they were flowers of rosa gallica, in which case they would have had the bright scarlet colour of the roses depicted on the walls of the ancient palace at Knossos in Crete, or of rosa alba and possibly of rosa damascena, in which case they would have been white or pink. In form their flowers would have been flat, probably single, with an intoxicating, refined, but powerful, perfume. It is from these ancient roses that most of the roses discussed in Griffiths’ book descend, as distinct from the Chinese roses that are responsible for the distinctive characteristics of the modern roses with which gardeners will be most familiar.

The old European roses had their heyday in the nineteenth-century. In France, the Empress Josephine assembled a huge collection of all the known roses of the day at her retreat, La Malmaison, and they were painted in wonderfully fine detail by her painter, Redouté. In England, Victorian belles used to wear old roses in their hair and on their gowns, while the men would wear them on their jackets. The European roses, as beautiful as they were, had one disadvantage — they flowered only once, usually in early summer. When repeat-flowering Chinese roses were crossed with European roses to produce a continuous-flowering new type called the hybrid tea in the late 1860s, this new class quickly displaced the old varieties until by the mid-twentieth century the old-fashioned varieties had become practically unknown. Since the 1970s, however, there has been a remarkable resurgence of interest in the old rose, particularly in New Zealand, and it is worth speculating why.

In the first place, New Zealand probably has the best climate in the world for growing roses. Apart from certain tough species, such as rosa rugosa or the members of the rosa carolina group, roses are temperate-climate plants which cannot stand the extreme cold of Canada, for example, yet need a sufficiently cold winter to impose a dormant period in their growth cycle. Most parts of New Zealand satisfy their growing requirements ideally, which is one of the reasons why so many old roses are still found growing here.

When European settlers arrived from the 1840s onwards, they brought the European roses with them, many of which, because of their inherent hardiness, can still be found growing in old cemeteries and along roadsides in remote areas. Some varieties, in fact, have been reintroduced to Europe from New Zealand because they survived here after they disappeared in the country of their origin. The advantage to New Zealand gardeners was that when the taste for old roses began to revive, many of the roses introduced by the settlers were available to be collected and preserved through the efforts of enthusiasts such as the late Nancy Steen (whose experiences are wonderfully recounted in an indispensable book, The Charm of Old Roses). Thanks to a number of specialist nurserymen — including Griffiths himself at Temuka, Nigel Pratt at Motueka and Frank Mason and Son at Feilding — a very large number of old roses are readily available.

The second reason for the contemporary revival is the sheer beauty and charm of these remarkable flowers. Once-flowering they may be, but, because they do not have to keep producing their blooms throughout the season, they often produce a spectacular flush of flowers that more than compensates for lack of blooms later in the season. There is far greater variety, too, in the shape and form of their flowers: they can be cupped and quartered, button-eyed, scrolled, quilled, of rosette formation or pompom. Their form is also usually more bushy and shrublike than hybrid teas, with foliage that is much denser, and they often have pleasing tones of light-green, lead-green and even blue-green that make for a welcome change from the characteristic red shoots and glossy dark foliage of roses with rosa chinensis in their genes. Instead of being shown to best advantage massed in beds, old roses fit well into mixed borders and shrubberies and the great upsurge in their popularity probably owes something to the revival of the cottage-gardening style in recent years.

Third, there may be deeper cultural reasons for the contemporary popularity of old roses. New Zealand is in the process of formulating its postcolonial identity. Since the entry of Britain into the EEC in the late 1950s, New Zealanders of European descent have felt a progressive separation from the countries of their parent culture. There is, nevertheless, a nostalgia for that culture and old roses — as indeed the cottage gardening style itself — may symbolise a desire to retain a connection with the old world at the same time as we are seeking to come to terms with who we are in the new.

One final cause of the new popularity of old roses is that they have become “chique” as a social signifier among the baby-boomers who are now turning to gardening for pleasure and recreation as they hit middle-age. As Kerry Carman pointed out in an article in the Listener several years ago, horticulture among the baby-boomers can tend to take on overtones of “haughty-culture” and old roses, having become fashionable, now seem to have become an essential aspect of the “gentrification” towards which many of the upwardly mobile in this country aspire.

As for the book itself, Griffiths is the doyen of New Zealand old rose enthusiasts and one of the foremost authorities on old roses in the world. Coming from someone with such vast experience and knowledge, The Essential Old Rose is, as one would expect, impeccably well informed and beautifully presented — the quality of the photos, in my view, is much better than that of the three volumes which comprise his earlier publication, My World of Old Roses.

This is, however, emphatically a book for beginners, in accordance with the aim of the series in which it appears. Griffiths gives a clear history of the rose, describing the origins of the main rose families — gallica, damask, alba, centifolia and moss — along with a recommended selection from each class. He also gives notes on their care and cultivation and suggestions for the use of old roses in potpourris and various recipes.

The varieties Griffiths recommends include most of the classic old roses one would expect, but there are a few surprises. Among the albas, for example, there is no mention of “Félicité Parmentier” or the wonderful “Königen von Dänemark” which readers are far more likely to come across than rosa alba “Suaveolens”, which is included. Within the limitations of a book of only 64 pages the author necessarily had to be selective but in my view it is a great pity that no space could be found to describe the multiflora and wichuraiana ramblers or the noisettes, which gardeners are likely to want to incorporate into their garden schemes.

A similar complaint could be made about the absence of reference to the Chinas, Bourbons, Portlands, sweet briars and teas, as well as some of the beautiful species roses, but in a book this size one cannot hope for everything. Those wanting more detailed and more comprehensive information will need to go to more encyclopedic recent treatments of old roses given by Peter Beales, David Austen and Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix. For those who are just beginning to become interested in old roses and want some lucid, reliable guidance on where to start, Griffiths’ book would make an ideal introduction.

In recent years an ongoing polemic has developed between enthusiasts for the old rose, like Griffiths, and proponents of the modern hybrid tea. The other side of the story is represented in the second edition of The New Zealand Book of Roses: The best 150 Varieties, by John Martin and Colin Hutchinson. This is essentially a history of the hybrid tea, tracing its origins in the crosses made by Jean Baptiste Guillot in France and Henry Bennett in Britain and the stages by which new colours, notably yellow and the orange-scarlet we know as vermilion, were introduced into the modern rose.

The authors’ prejudices are plain — their belief that the flowers of the hybrid tea are superior to old roses in their continuity of blooming, their better shape and colour and their easier use in garden displays because of their smaller, more compact size — but their enthusiasm is infectious and the book is very beautifully presented, with superb photographs and detailed descriptions of the varieties selected. A gesture is made towards the ongoing appeal of old roses by the inclusion of four of Austen’s “English roses”, a new style of repeat-flowering rose bred to reintroduce the flower-shape of the old-fashioned roses back into the modern rose. Both hybrid tea enthusiasts and those who feel no need to choose one side at the expense of the other will enjoy this new edition.

Final mention should be made of Margaret Hayward’s New Zealand Patio Roses: Roses for Today’s Smaller Gardens, a very fine book which gives a comprehensive guide to the smaller growing roses that have been bred during the last 10 years. Although not officially recognised by the World Federation of Rose Societies, the term “patio rose” has become the generic description for these roses in popular usage, even though the class includes low-growing florabundas and even some of Austen’s English roses. Apart from providing a comprehensive dictionary of patio roses, Hayward gives expert, detailed information on all aspects of growing them, from advice on the selection of suitable companion plants to advice on choosing roses that are suitable for different types of climate, as well as on cultivation, pruning and propagation. Anyone who knows the same author’s A New Zealand Guide to Miniature Roses will find this new volume just as indispensable.

Three fine books, then, eminently suited as Christmas presents in a country that nature seems to have designed specifically for the cultivation of the rose — the “Queen of the Flowers”, as Sappho called it, whether one inclines towards the old-fashioned type or the modern roses described in these new books.


Alistair Fox has studied the genealogy and history of old roses for more than a decade and has a specialist collection of over 200 old roses in his Dunedin garden. 

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