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The Luxury of Roses

Yesterday I made my long-awaited first visit to the Antique Rose Emporium in Independence, Texas. Last fall it first dawned on me that I too could grow roses, where my gardening had previously been limited to wildflowers, a few native plants here and there, and other seemingly low-impact, low-maintenance gardening. Then I decided to buy a rose for my birthday and in my trying to pick one, I ended up with two, and a week later, a third.

Roses had previously seemed to me the haute couture of the gardening world, rarefied and unattainable and perhaps not worth even looking at. But my attitude changed toward five-thousand dollar dresses. Sometimes high art gets associated with wealth, even by the artists themselves, but I have since gotten over my folky alienation from high fashion. Although I can’t always afford it, I make a point of going to actually look at, touch (and sometimes try on) those dresses that are kept under lock and key. It’s more of a poverty of attitude on both parties that keeps one from enjoying creative excellence, and I have worked to overcome that.

Anyhow, yes, I knew that roses had that same rarefied personality.. As they should. But unlike Alexander McQueen they won’t break your bank, and you can reproduce them if you want. After my success with my three roses, I knew I would start a collection, and started a dream-list of over 20 roses. This year for my birthday I wanted nothing better than to take a trip to a rose garden to see these roses in person.

Although Heritage, an English rose, awkwardly battled too much shade this year, and got a little leggy from stretching toward light, it finally produced a long awaited fall bloom. A bee buried itself inside this flower all day long. Heritage is my favorite, I think, for it’s absolutely perfect shell pink color and delicate fragrance that hints of cinnamon.

It surprised me to find out that some of the roses on my list were were pretty but not necessarily something that stays in your mind after you’ve left it. The climbing rose “New Dawn” for example has a pretty soft pink that I like and its flowers are delicate and cute but it wasn’t exactly the thing I need for my one climbing rose. I need a Chanel, something that just kills when its in full bloom. I am drawn to the totally exotic, fully double, crammed-with-petals sorts and especially kinds that open their flowers softly and slowly (and their colors too), For example, I loved all the English roses, perfect tea-cup forms with a kind of stately propriety and beauty. I love just about any French rose, especially the bourbons.

My husband and I went in different directions and when we met again together I was curious which ones he liked. He’s an artist and can always tell which piece has something special, authentic and storied about it. His favorite was “La France” which had been far down on my list, and I knew it was famous for being the first Hybrid Tea rose, but in person we both agreed it was a special rose. He knew nothing about its history. All in all, I think the two of us agreed that we wanted the ones with the stories, the beautiful stars, and I don’t mind if they are fussy or expensive to care for at all. That’s the point of haute couture!

The rose emporium is decidedly Texan, a large rambling outdoor garden on the property of what appeared to have once been an elegant ranch home. The old houses in nearby Brenham have lovely enormous and classically Southern wraparound porches with delicate white railings, and so did the front house of the emporium. What I love about this garden is that its edges blur into vast wide-open Texas prairie land.

And the garden has a way of drawing attention to that wild beauty. It is an informal garden of granite pathways. lovely native trees and masses of native plants and vines. And of course, thousands of roses. The last rose garden I visited was in Kew Gardens in London and that of course is a completely different experience. Each rose bed was symmetrical, the roses evenly spaced apart, and within each rose bed the roses mostly of the same height and personality and sometimes color. This way of using roses is very formal, and full of Greek symmetry.

Except for Kew’s display of rose trees, gargantuan rose moschatas and others, which I loved for its kind of Asian orchard beauty, I found this overall way of presenting rose-ness a little like the way of showing purses in a Louis Vuitton shop. They are different aesthetics (different countries, different purposes) but roses to me don’t lose any of their rarefied presence when they are placed among the dailiness of life. It somehow makes them even more lovely to me when the precious is among the brambles.

However they are arranged, roses will never lose their rarefied presence in a garden and there is a point where too much is too much. (I feel the same way about too many designer pieces. They are meant to be special even if I happen to wear them to the grocery store.) A massed rose garden is not to be trifled with fragrance-wise. By the end of our visit I was dizzy, and not in a good way, but in that way that I used to feel as a kid when I begged my mom not to walk through the perfume section of the department store.

I have a pretty strong sense of smell. A friend of mine who is a massage therapist always tells me that scent is the fastest way to the limbic system, faster than external applications of medicine or even pills at times. That helped make sense of why I always leave perfume counters with headaches (and why I now avoid them like the plague). It’s like too many types of scent in one place with no organization about them.

I can’t even imagine what it would be like to work in a rose garden, let alone work as a perfumer. It would be difficult to “organize” scent as one would organize color or shape in a garden, but why not try? All those fragrances in one place were dizzying not just because they were fragrant but because there was no variety, or no rest from it. The one tone that runs consistently through rose fragrance always suggests velvet and cloudy dreamy states. Something needs to clear your head out occasionally or help you think clearly especially if you’re going to buy anything. (Which is why I usually refrain from buying anything in a store that smells like patchouli or sandalwood. It’s just not a clear-thinking atmosphere.) I don’t like being manipulated or allured by things.

But my essay on scents is for another time. After all that fragrance, one would never question the absolute queenliness of rosedom. Even in a brambly, wild Texas cottage garden. At the moment, I am just glad to know that I am worth their beauty and they mine.

it changes in a flash

After a month and a half of no rain, temperatures constantly above 90, including one last gasp of summer on Thursday–in which my local temperature rose to almost 100–fall has finally come. Overnight intense 50 mile-an-hour winds hit, knocking down limbs, chairs, the rest of the pecans, and dumping with them about 4 inches of rain.

From drought to drench, you never know in Texas how the weather will shift, and when it does it is never subtle. It arrives with great gusto, no gradual adjustment: one big dump of heavy rains or winds and it says, “There ya go: Fall is here.” It’s very Texan in a way, quite direct.

This is what I suspect sets Texas apart from the rest of the South, which even in human personalities is generous and hospitable but known for its hiddenness, “secret South”, and gentility. As a born northerner, I find the South to be exactly as the stories go: a beautiful part of America, at times haunted by its past, and most certainly not straightforward. It does not show its cards all at once. Texas, on the other hand, has to be more direct; it is kind but much more of a pioneer, has much more of a “wrestling with the elements” spirit, and that sets it apart.

My husband is from North Carolina, and I from Michigan, and Texas is like neither of us, really, but its personality is the place where our cultures meet. (And it is literally where we met.) My family literally comes from hard-working auto factories of Detroit, very direct people, and my husband’s family from hard-working homesteaders and farmers, story-tellers and singers. I find a match of these spirits here in Texas, and in the weather.

Unlike in other parts of the Scotch-Irish south where the weather and the land is a character in a grand story, a personality of its own–often people speak from the weather, not about it (which is very much true about Scotland)–the weather in Texas is more like something to be conquered, to brave, and there is much more of a practical, direct relationship with it, rather than a mystical relationship. The frontier mind has a much different attitude. Land was carved, built and rebuilt, oil wells were dug. The tough cowboy, the frontiersman, the ranch, and the outpost town (all of which are still visible in Texas) are completely different archetypes than the mountain villages, the plantations, the farm villages, the pastorals of the rest of the South.

Not that Texas is all archetype but it seems to me that gardening here will forever have some of that frontier-mindedness. The weather is not for the meek. In spite of the fact that we want to be able to create gardens that take care of themselves, withstand the weather extremes, I wonder if gardening will always be a psychological challenge Texans secretly like to take on.

So, complain as I might, I think I secretly love wrestling with the fact that things inexplicably die, inexplicably grow. And that I just love to get outside and labor, fix problems, rearrange things. As I write I have over 500 plants in pots outside that have been waiting to be planted because 1. the dirt has been too dry to dig new beds into and 2. its been to hot to plant cool season flowers. Everything is in seasonal transition, but that means none of it is safe from the weather. (Containers are the worst thing to have laying around in times of either drought or floods.)

We have absolutely no “cool” season here, no gradual transition from summer to fall, or from winter to spring, and cool season flowers and vegetables that most climates can grow in a nice long spring or fall must get in quick, and in a window. It went from 90 to 60 in one night. So, there you go: It’s Fall.

The weather will always throw a wrench; we can sow our buffalograss, start our plants early enough, find the right varieties, dig deep enough, add enough nutrients, but it doesn’t take long for the land to return to its wild ways. Gardening is, after all, a much bigger metaphor for cultivation and “stewardship” and even restoration. We can return it to its natural canvas and try add paints that canvas might like to receive, but that canvas is quite unpredictable. And I guess something in me not only likes that unpredictability, it likes the challenge of working against it, which all those early pioneers did.

Bluebonnets are easy!

I am so excited to begin my second full year of wildflower sowing. I had to pull many plants out over the summer before they went to seed because they were just growing in odd areas–like the 7-foot sunflower that grew right in the middle of the backyard. That was definitely not planned… I attribute it to one of the ‘wildflower mixes’ that i threw out in the summer before I knew what I was doing. I was sad to see it go because I never got to see it flower. It was nice, but a bit of an obstacle for my friends who were helping me water all summer.

Anyhow, I had beautiful bluebonnets all spring and as a result now have so many bluebonnet seeds that I can afford to scatter a bunch of them about and let them grow if they want to, or not. There are some areas, however that I’d really like to see them and those areas need a little more “insurance”.

The best bluebonnets I got last year were from nursery transplants. Many nurseries here sell them this time of year. Nice-size transplants are good insurance. They get rooted in the ground, don’t grow much until mid-to-late February, when they take off, and then usually start blooming in March. (Mine started blooming in late February.)

Last year I threw a ton of wildflower seeds out, and of the bluebonnets only a few germinated in fall. The rest of them started germinating just as most of their season had passed. Although they germinated and began growing quickly with the abundant rains of this year’s spring, they didn’t start blooming until early May, at which point it is really too hot to have lasting bluebonnets.

Bluebonnets aren’t like California poppies or Drummond phlox or Indian Blanket, which can germinate in a couple of days with a little bit of watering. They have a tough seed coat, and in the wild, like many wildflowers, they throw their seeds out and some don’t germinate for couple years–until weather shifts and rain and cold and hot break them down.

And so even though most advice says to sow in fall, some smart gardeners let their bluebonnets go to seed in June and at this time they collect the seeds and scatter them about so they have a head-start on germinating over the summer. This is their natural sowing time, after all.

Still, even with this method, you are dependent on rain and weather conditions and your own patience!

Since I have limited space, not a big wildflower pasture, I really want to make sure they grow in certain areas. Rather than buy transplants this year, I’m trying a much easier and cheaper way. Bluebonnets made easy! This fall I tried something different; instead of just throwing out all the seeds I collected from last year’s flowers, I decided to ‘scarify’ them first. There are different methods of scarifying, but basically this means doing something artificial to get the seed coat to break down so they germinate quicker.

I got my scarifying idea from a brochure at the Wildflower Center. First, I stuck them in the freezer for about 24 hours. The next day I pulled them out, dumped them in a coffee cup and then poured boiling water on them, just barely covering the seeds, and let them sit in the cup for a couple hours as the water cooled off. (Yes, boiling water. This didn’t hurt them.) Then I poured them out into a paper towel, squeezed out most of the water and went outside to do my sowing, just pressing them into the top of the soil.

Within 5 days almost all of them germinated, and exactly where I wanted them. It’s been a week and a half since I sowed them, and here is what they look like:

bluebonnet seedlings

They will be a nice size before November, almost the same size as the transplants I put in last year, so hopefully I’ll get lovely bluebonnets again! I should mention I keep these seedlings moist, which is no easy task right now. After this year’s intense rainy summer, Texas has decided to give us a fall drought. I still have tons left of bluebonnet seeds so I’ve thrown the rest about, just as I did last year… and they can come as they wish.

I wouldn’t recommend this method for large-scale sowing because it loses some of the mystery of wildflower-growing (and in the case of bluebonnets, security measures against bad weather in the form of hard coats).

Purple Passionflower

Do I love, love, love this vine. And I am so proud that something this ridiculously showy could be native to Texas. It has proven to me that wildflowers don’t have to be rustic (and I do like rustic).

After my failures with the Passionflower ‘Incense’, which was repeatedly chomped on by caterpillars, I decided to try another type. This is definitely the more frequently-grown kind, and the showier. Passionflower incense–i.e., passiflora edulis–has smaller leaves, and smaller flowers which are pale purple whose petals sort of fly backwards, rather than splay out. Passionflower incarnata, however, takes over with just a little bit of sunshine.

Seriously, I did not water this plant for 3 months of its first summer, other than the first week it was planted. And did it grow, covering about a 25-foot long fence and starting to climb up our barn. I’m hoping beyond hope that it doesn’t turn into another aggressive vine like trumpet vines, which I’m desperately trying to get rid of and yes, have resorted now to chemical warfare, since the roots go down at least 2 feet and despite Pilates and all my Detroit strength, cannot get down there.

However, I don’t think I’d mind as much if this popped up somewhere else. It it just too pretty to miss, and its effortless care makes one feel rewarded for all the work of keeping things alive in Texas.

And do butterflies love it, and bees, and anything that flies, really. It’s a banquet feast. And for whatever reason, it appears only one or two leaves here and there got eaten… I did see a few Gulf Fritillaries around it but maybe they were lured off to my Passiflora Incense to lay their eggs (which as I write has 2 leaves on it… is still alive, so maybe I’ll keep it on as bait!)