THE LITTLE old China rose, in bloom today as always, reminds the gardener that no rose is perfect or complete in itself, but requires sympathy if its exceptional merits are to be discovered at all.
This flower is called 'Old Blush' or 'Common China' or 'Daily Rose' or 'Pink Bengal' or 'Pink Daily' or 'Parsons' Pink China.'
It is clear pink with a slight touch of blue in it, like pink baby ribbon, but not so much blue as you find in pink mints at the drugstore. The plant is an inverted cone, the foliage smooth, neat and relatively unharmed by blackspot (though it can get blackspot).
The flowers are the size of a large sliced lemon, or larger, and have little fragrance. What fragrance there is soft and not specially sweet, yet agreeable in a minor way.
Without this rose and its companions the 'Red Bengal' or 'Red Daily' or 'Red China' or 'Semperflorens' or 'Slater's Crimson' (for these two roses made incredible impact when they were introduced to Western gardens from India at the end of the 18th century, though China is where they were bred, and both roses have the tribute of many synonyms . . .
I think I shall make a new sentence. Without these two roses, then, we would not have had such current rose varieties as 'Peace' or 'Tropicana' or any other roses that bloom through the warm months.
Because formerly there was no rose in the West that bloomed except in spring, then rested all through the summer and sent out no new blooms until the next spring. (There was one quite minor exception to this - the autumn damask, which had a few flowers in September).
But with these China roses, possessing the priceless gene for repeated flowering through the summer, it became possible for the first time, in the West, to have roses such as we take for granted.
To get back to 'Old Blush' specifically, I would say that except for the grav defect of not having fine scent, it is as valuable as any rose in cultivation.
If any of its descendants bloom as constantly as it does, I do not know it, though the oldish hybrid tea, 'Radiance,' comes close.
This because of constant flowers production would be reason enough for thanks, just in itself. To find that trait combined with flawless texture of petal, disease resistance and perfect elegance of shape (the rose is slightly more than semi-double) seems too good to be true.
Among those who know roses well, many would probably say 'Old Blush is the most wonderful of all garden roses, all things considered, despite its smallish flowers and relative lack of perfume.
In city gardens, small as they are, I marvel that space can be found for plants of less than superlative quality and behavior, and yet you almost never see 'Old Blush' in gardens where roses vastly her inferior are charished.
These two China roses are often said, in books, to be quite fragrant. I do not know why peiple say such things. Unless they have never smelled the great albas, gallicas, centifolias, mosses, damasks, to say nothing of the hybrid perpetuals, Macartneys, while banksias, hybrid teas and teas - all of which have varieties of knockdown sweetness.
Angels, as they are conceived, are glorious enough without saying they have orange stripes. And the China roses have so many virtues they hardly need the false claim of great fragrance. The real reason you do not see them much is that they are not hardly in the North, and they do not have much scent. Valid objections.
But objections to be weighed against all those virtues, which are almost endless.
Now then, having said the Chinas are incomparable in garden value, let us pretend we do not know them and station ourselves in front of such a non-China as 'Celsiana,' a damask rose probably of 18th-century origin. When we see and smell it, we shall dismiss the China without a further though, lost in awe at 'Celsiana' scent, which goes up the head like ether but which is uterly sweet and flawless all the way.
You know how some smells, like hyacinths and daffodils, are sweet?
But if you keep sniffing them you get something rank and not at all sweet. The same is true of peonies and, for that matter, jasmine. (The solution is not to proble too deeply, of course).
But clove pinks, lilies of the valley and certain roses are sweet to smell in away that stays sweet no matter how persistent you are. Their fragrance dies away after a few seconds because the nose get anesthetized, but there is never any underlying rankness as there is in the other flowers mentioned.
So when a gardner encounters a scent like that of 'Celsiana' he is likely to say. "That's it. And now that I know it exists, I won't have any rose that cannot equal it."
But 'Celsiana' blooms only a few days in the spring. A few days a year. Meanwhile, the Chinas are cranking out new flowers till Thanksgiving.
On the matter of scent in roses, let me say modern roses are often gloriously fragrant. 'Grandada' has as fine a smell as any rose I know - a tea scent - and 'Crimson Glory' and 'Etoile de Hollande' are as good with damask and gallica perfume.
So I in no way reproach those who grow only modern roses.
I do say that if anybody has grown a lot of roses and stumbles for the first time on 'Old Blush' - even without fine scent - something is going to get grubbed out to make room for it.
I remember the first time I ever saw the 20th-century rose, 'Mermaid,' a rather large ivory-yellow single rose that either climbs or makes a 10-foot high mound of a bush. I though it was good-looking, and the owner said: "It ought to be, since it's the greatest rose in this world."
Well I don't know that's so. But I do like a certain ringing confidence. Certainly there are roses so distinct that one may safety say, "This is the greatest of all roses."
It cannot be true, of course. No rose will give you the smoldering deep red of 'Mirandy,' 'Guinee' or 'Ami Quinard' combined with the scent of damask-gallicacentifolia-alba-musk-tea.
Just as no human combines the varying beauty of Marily Monroe, Whistler's Mother, the Victory of Samothrace and Greta Garbo or, for that matter, Liv Ullman.
But among roses, there is a beauty of dark red ones, and a different beauty of the off-white ones with pink centers, and quite another beauty of the almost single yellow tea fading to white. And beyond that, there is the beauty of plant fern - great substantial billows instead of gawky little crippled stems - such as you find in 'Madame Plantier' and certain others that make huge bushes and whose flowering will stop any gardener dead.
Beyond even all that, there are roses of such wonderful effects of light, as the light is caught in the petals, that you think 'Etoile de Hollande' or 'Madame Gregoire Staechelin' or 'Violette' or 'Tuscany' is the loveliest of roses.
And then again you say, no, nothing quite equals a rose of modest pink color that blooms steadily from May to November, like the two Chinas, especially 'Old Blush.'
And at last - or somewhat before the last, preferably - you see that variety is part of the beauty of things, and no one thing, not even the greatest of the roses, has a corner on it.
Also, needless to say, tastes vary. A collection of roses could be got together to include perhaps 50 of superlative splendor that a young gardeners might be disappointed in. I have myself known gardeners who though 'Peace' was a great rose, simple because it is huge, beautifully colored, gloriously healthy, free-blooming and possessed of fine foliage and a great sturdy bush.
Those are not trifling qualities in a rose. Indeed it is hard to think of another rose that possesses quite the ones that 'Peace' does, or in such measure. And yet I would never think of considering it among the 200 finest roses, if I were to make the selection. It lacks grace and scent. As much as anyone I admire meat and potatoes and good solid workhorses and all that, and of course 'Peace' excels in every plebean virtue.
There ought to be in the rose, even though no rose can be supreme in every merit, some combination of merits that makes the gardner say, "No rose in the world can equal this."
It is precisely that excitement I never felt in the presence of 'Peace,' though if anyone else admires it, I say more power to him.
My point today is that a rose can lack scent, or fine color, or fine foliage, or tremendous health, or grace of habit, or freedom of bloom in the fall, and still be a rose to end all roses. But it cannot lack too many of those great qualities.
I know that some people can gaze at 'Old Blush' and walk off as if you had shown them a cat. To them it looks ordinary.
For all I care, it can be judged a rose not worth growing. But I am too old to love flowers for any other reason than that they rather bowl me over when I see them. And by that est, 'Old Blush' is of the first rank. Grow it with dusty miller or lavender or anything else and wait three years.
It blooms its head off the first year, but wait three years to give yourself time to get the hang of it. You may then silently bless me the rest of your life for calling it to your attention, even if 'Peace' was formerly your notion of a perfect rose.
Unfortunately 'Old Blush' is rarely solid, and the only source I know at the moment is a firm called Roses of Yesterday and Today, 802 Brown's Valley Road, Watsonville, Calif. 95076. Their catalog costs $1, and the rose
If it is sells out, order it again in June for delivery the following March. I know better than most how annoying it is to want a plant and finally locate a source and then find it sold out. Look, I do not rule the world or its commerce. I do my humble bit, merely reminding you that life is impossible and worthless without this particular China.