Rambling Roses, Growing Wild

The nose that knows: Nick Weber savors a rose, and life. At right, the garden entrance.
The nose that knows: Nick Weber savors a rose, and life. At right, the garden entrance. (Photo by Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006

Climbing roses occupy a special place in the gardener's heart. No other bower is quite as beautiful, fragrant or romantic.

And yet a plant so essential to the dreaminess of a garden is not grown much anymore. There are reasons for this: Antique varieties of climbers and ramblers are hard to find, they grow too big for today's smaller landscapes, and most bloom only once. People will snap up dogwoods and azaleas that bloom once, but not roses.

Nick Weber knows what they are missing. He is luxuriating in May and June in his garden and one-man rose nursery in Brookeville. On his second-floor balcony, a monstrous bower named Paul's Himalayan Musk now joins him and his wife, Rosanne, for a glass of wine in the evening. The blooms are a shade of lavender-pink and small, but the canes that bear them so profusely are now up about 20 feet.

In a garden of scores of such climbers and hundreds of old shrub roses, it is easy to stop studying the blossoms and foliage and to surrender, to let the rose bliss wash over you. This paradise has been 20 years in the making by a rosarian (and retired Food and Drug Administration scientist) who has become a quiet but persistent champion of forgotten heirloom roses.

Even hobby gardeners might be reluctant to follow his lead, to dedicate more than an acre to big roses that are bloomless after July. But you can capture the essence of this Shangri-La on a smaller scale. Just one or two (or better yet, five) plants will provide a sufficient level of enchantment.

A few of Weber's roses have taken more than a decade to mature (the most vigorous may be Mrs. Keays' Snowbush, now 50 feet into an Asian pear tree), but others have grown in five years or less into landscape plants -- bowers with as much presence as a tree or large shrub.

Climbing roses fall into two basic classes: the climbers that tend to be single-stemmed and large-flowered, and the ramblers, which are especially vigorous, developing multiple stems. Ramblers regenerate freely and their blooms are arranged in clusters. One variety, New Dawn, has always remained popular. This is a great rose, vigorous, re-blooming and with clean, blue-green foliage, but overused. There are so many more, each hitched to some distant point and place in time, such as the Aviateur Bleriot, bred in France around the time of the pioneer aviator. In a world consumed by novelty and supposed improvement, these stalwarts draw us back, and in.

Weber is particularly fond of a rose named Chevy Chase, bred in 1939 by Washington hybridizer Niels Hansen. It is a climber that is showy but not all-consuming, modest in height and with intense crimson flowers whose petals are arranged in whorls -- "quartered," in rosarian speak. "This is, of course," says Weber, "the ultimate red rambler."

And consider the rose whose floral bounty is wrapped up in its Latin name, Rosa polyantha grandiflora . Now 12 feet high and moving another 12 feet in opposite directions, the rose is draped over a hedgerow and is festooned with single white blossoms with showy yellow stamens. It has a sweet fragrance. As a wildling, it sets decorative orange fruit -- rose hips -- in late summer into fall.

In another part of the garden, Weber has constructed four trellises of post and wire, each about 100 feet long, propping up a total of 60 climbers and ramblers. The Chevy Chase is demure in comparison to, say, May Queen, which looks like the blanket that covers the winner of the Kentucky Derby, except the plant is 10 feet high and 15 feet across, and the blooms are a lavender-pink, semi-double with two rows of petals.

It is also exceedingly fragrant, disease-resistant and happy with the limited sunlight in this area, bounded by tall evergreens.

Others catch the eye, including two huge bedfellows: the Garland, a 12-foot bower of salmon-colored buds opening a creamy white, and next to it the Seagull, here 15 feet high and 20 feet across, a semi-double white with yellow stamens and unforgettable in its floral excess. My vote for the most handsome rose of the day went to the Francis E. Lester, which had climbed a metal arch and was now reaching far along the railing on both sides. Its blossoms (single, hot pink and white with yellow stamens) are borne above the leaf planes in showy clusters.

Around the corner, where the fence becomes a wooden picket, was another keeper. It formed a long garland at waist height, but because it was bare below it gave a lightness that would make it suitable for any garden, big or small. It is the aforementioned Aviateur Bleriot, a sweet-scented rambler with yellow buds opening cream. It was already 30 feet long. "You ain't seen nothing yet," said Weber, leading on to another French rambler, Francois Juranville, with flowers 2 1/2 inches in diameter in a clear, quartered pink. His four-year-old plant is 50 feet long, three times what the books say it will grow to. "It should be pruned."

The lesson is that all these roses can and probably should be cut back, and will happily occupy a space just 10 feet across with methodical care. Otherwise, let them go. The roses in the climbing rose garden are pruned only to keep the canes from interfering with the grass paths, and they flower freely and with little evident disease problems.

I had called to invite myself to Weber's Heritage Rosarium after it dawned on me that my one lone and splendid rambler, Moonlight, was waning for the season and that I had no others. At my previous garden, I had lots of climbers, but Moonlight alone was carrying the flag, and, after 12 years, it was time to send in reinforcements.

The peril of visiting Nick Weber's is that, once home, you need to go on an ambitious construction program to support all the roses you desire (see the box above). Fortunately, he had sold out of some of his gems, so I bagged just three with the promise of more to come (after he propagates them by cuttings). I crammed into the trunk of my car a Mrs. F.W. Flight, an Aviateur Bleriot and a Debutante. To the unsuspecting spouse, they all look young and cuddly. Like polar bear cubs, I suppose.

Weber's nose is keenly attuned to the differences in rose fragrances and their blends, much as a wine expert can distinguish between grapes and labels. Musks, damasks, teas and Chinas all have nuanced scents. After plunging his nose into a flower, he might say, "I get some myrrh on it," or "It's got clove, and it's got damask on it."

Now 64, Weber had a potentially serious illness diagnosed five years ago. It has been held in check with medication, but the episode played a big part in his decision to retire and to let the rose bliss wash over him. "It made me stop and smell the roses," he said.

Heritage Rosarium is open by appointment. The season is past peak, but roses are still in bloom. Call 301-774-2806 or e-mailheritagero@aol.com. The rosarium's Web address is http://home.comcast.net/~heritagerosarium. Stock is limited for 2006. Other sources of old garden climbers: The Uncommon Rose, Corvallis, Ore., 541-753-8871 or 541-223-1940,http://www.uncommonrose.com. Many out-of-stock varieties will be available in September after the summer break. Antique Rose Emporium, Brenham, Tex., 800-441-0002,http://www.antiqueroseemporium.com. The new shipping season begins in early fall.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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