Paris was hot and dry last week, and the two great public rose gardens were at a peak of bloom presenting a sight probably unequaled in the world of roses.
I was there as garden guide for a tour sponsored by Horticulture Magazine and White Flower Farm, a Connecticut nursery, and this may be the place to say I have no ties to either company except the magazine occasionally asks me to write something. Once I sent a box of roots of the citron daylily to the nursery since they didn't have any and wished to propagate it -- this was of course a gift. Last year I was garden guide for a similar tour of English gardens for them.
The greater garden is the Roseraie de l'Hay, three miles south of the Place Vendome. The garden was started in the 1890s by Henri Graveraux, who made money in department stores and decided to grow 100 of the most beautiful roses. In no time he acquired not 100 but 7,000 varieties, and the garden became so famous the little suburb changed its name from l'Hay to l'Hay les Roses.
Between the wars the garden deteriorated, but at the end of World War II it was revived, bought by the state, and now is an outstanding collection of roses of the world. There is a great border planted with some hundred roses grown at Malmaison, house of Napoleon and Josephine. A long border is devoted to tea roses.
There is a collection of wild roses -- I had not seen the pretty Rosa stellata myrifica with single lavender blooms before -- and some of the old noisettes, along with many hybrid teas of yesteryear and roughly a billion current hybrid teas and floribundas.
But the glory of the garden as June turns into July is the magnificent collection of wichuraiana and multiflora ramblers. These are grown on iron arches across the numerous radiating walkways. The arches are about 12 feet wide and 8 feet high, each devoted to one variety of rose that is planted on both sides.
In the center of the garden is a great reflecting pool, like black crystal, backed by an enormous trellis. At the sides of the pool are iron obelisks or pylons, some 12 feet high, completely covered with ramblers so that no metal shows.
The huge trellis is covered with one rose alone, "Alexandre Girault," a light red (with a good bit of blue in it) rambler raised by the breeder Barbier in 1907. The huge pylons are devoted alternately to "Paul's Scarlet Climber" and the amazing pink rambler, "Mrs. F.W. Flight."
The pink one has semidouble scented flowers about an inch or so wide, but in clusters sometimes as large as those of a large pink hydrangea. It is very free blooming, like most of these ramblers that became popular after the turn of the century. I found it stunning.
All the multiflora ramblers bloom only in the spring in Washington (in May) and while some of the wichuraiana ramblers bloom off and on, feebly, after the main flush, they too are best thought of as once-blooming ramblers. You cannot count on a real display in October, as you can with the hybrid tea and floribunda bushes.
Apart from blooming only once a year, for two weeks or so, many of these ramblers are afflicted with mildew. And the main thing about them is that the flowering trunks are cut out completely once the flowers fade. Vigorous new stems shoot up from the base, and once the old trunks are cut out, the new growth is tied to the iron arches, with cloth or rafia. Thus a good bit of work is involved.
It is partly this labor that led these roses to lose favor. But it was partly a dissatisfaction that they do not bloom during the later summer and fall that caused a resentment against them. Once gardeners got the idea that climbing roses could bloom all summer, hardly anybody wanted these old kinds that just sat there. And besides all this, these old ramblers have small flowers, most of them only an inch or so, although they come in great clusters. Gardeners began to want climbers with flowers four or five inches in diameter, on good stems for cutting.
So that in the 1930s, when the new large-flowered climbers that repeated their bloom finally became possible, almost every gardener in the world pitched out the old ramblers and got the new bouncing beauties like "Climbing Etoile de Hollande," "Climbing Mrs. Sam McGredy," and so on.
But there are a few snags. First, the repeat-bloom climbers do not in fact bloom as much as you might hope, once the spring display is finished. Most of the climbing hybrid teas, for example, do not bloom at all after May, or if they do they usually produce one flower this week, two the next week, none the third week and so on. Nothing to get excited about.
And if you reflect on our weather here in recent days, who gives a hoot whether the roses are blooming or not? It is too hot to care.
There are some modern climbers that do bloom fairly freely during summer and fall -- "Blossomtime" is a superb example. But in general the gardener will be greatly disappointed if he thinks he is going to find a climbing rose that produces florist-shop blooms steadily throughout the growing season.
Besides that, in exchange for large flowers and repeated bloom through the year (even when the repeated bloom is not very abundant) we gave up the willowy grace of some of these old ramblers. If you try to train a modern climber over an arch you will discover the canes are not pliable and cannot be bent to shape. Even if you drag and haul them into an approximation of your arch, they will look stiff and tortured. And usually the flowers will be borne on those long stems you wanted, straight up in the air, so the birds can see them.
The truth is, you cannot have everything. There is no such thing as a climbing rose that produces large flowers good for cutting, in profusion through the warm months, on a plant full of grace.
The nearest thing to such a rose is probably the series of Noisette roses, which are on the tender side and often suffer or die in the winter, and these fell out of favor because their colors are soft and because they make huge plants, when the gardener usually wants something that just covers a fence.
But of these ramblers there is one that blooms fairly freely through summer and fall, that has flowers good enough for cutting, and that has a more graceful habit than most modern climbers, and that is "New Dawn," the ubiquitous blush-pink scented climber that gets most of its floral beauty from its tea parent, and its splendid shiny foliage from its wichuraiana parent.
Too often in America we look down our nose at this great American rose, but it is the nearest thing we have to a graceful repeat-blooming scented climbing rose. The French, in their two great Paris gardens, make no such mistake. New Dawn is everywhere, trained over arches, grown like little trees on six-foot trunks and allowed to weep down.
Another rose of incredible beauty was "Thalia," a rambler of white clusters, fragrant and superb with its dark glossy leaves. But not a flicker of bloom from it once its great spring display is finished.
Now that we have the large-flowered repeat climbers for our gardens, we need no longer lust for them. As with so many things we desire, once we get them we see they are not quite as marvelous as they were in our dreams. So I foresee a renewal of interest in the older ramblers, especially the ones that are fragrant and have good foliage. Nobody to speak of sells Thalia or Mrs. F.W. Flight nowadays, but I see the day of their returning to our gardens, partly because we have nothing new that is quite comparable to their lavish bloom, exceptional grace and general hardiness. They are work, with all that pruning out of old wood, but I suspect an increasing number of gardeners are going to want to have them once more.