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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.