At Lynchburg the long wall of the Confederate Cemetery has been planted with roses mostly dating from the 19th century. They were in full bloom toward the end of May when I saw them at a field day held by the Garden Club of Virginia, with people from around the state attending.
The most spectacular variety was 'Marshioness of Londonderry,' a gigantic flower of pale blush or almost off-white coloring. It looked more like a sprawling climber than a shrub, and its dozens of flowers were almost all perfect.
Another old rose that everybody likes is 'General Jacqueminot,' which sired a whole dynasty of rich dark red perfumed roses. Like the marchioness, it is a hybrid perpetual, but the name is misleading as this class of rose does not repeat very freely once the big spring flowering is past.
There are certainly several old roses posing as the general, and some of them even have his strong damask sweetness, one of the finest smells among flowers. Carl Cato, the nationally recognized authority on old roses, said there is a sure test for the true general:
Look at an opening flower. Once the guard petals (the outer petals that open first) have opened, look at the central conical bud containing the rest of the petals that will open in a day or so. If this conical central part of the not-yet-full-blown bud shows four overlapping petals, it is the true general.
A rose that Cato is fond of and that he has propagated widely for sale to benefit the Alzheimer Foundation is 'Aviateur Bleriot,' which looks like an orange-apricot noisette rose and is a seedling of the pretty orange 'William Allen Richardson.' The aviator, however, was not introduced until 1910. Like its parent, and like all noisettes of orange tone, it quickly fades to cream or buff, but a large plant with hundreds or perhaps thousands of smallish flowers, 2 1/2 inches in diameter, is stunning. Like noisettes in general, it is very fragrant.
Cato likes to see it grown up to eight or 10 feet, supported there on a horizontal metal bar, and allowed to cascade downward. I first saw this rose a few years ago at the Henry Botanical Research Center in Philadelphia, where a fine plant was strictly controlled at the front door of Josephine Henry's house. In Lynchburg I saw it covering the side of a small barn at Dr. and Mrs. James Lynde's garden. There the sloping roof comes to within six or seven feet of the ground, and when the rose tries to grow over the roof (which it is keen to do) the strong winds blow it back. Even so it makes a solid mass the length of the barn and perhaps seven feet high.
The Lyndes grow many other roses, old and new, in a formal rose garden with brick walks and a remarkable gazebo in the center, built by Dr. Lynde. It has a rectangular copper roof of ogee outline, and he confessed that when he was installing it (of copper sheets about a foot wide, arranged in long strips but laid up like shingles) he had several surprises, despite the care with which the mathematics had all been worked out in advance. He eyeballed it here and there and the result is splendid.
The worst fault, when we gardeners build little summer houses or pavilions, is that they look too slight and spindly. Lynde's gazebo is overscaled in all its parts, though less than 8 by 8 feet in ground plan.
In downtown Lynchburg just below the old courthouse, from which a magnificent flight of wide steps leads down the hill toward the James River at the bottom, they have clipped Magnolia grandiflora into tall narrow rounded shapes. Generally it is a mistake to fiddle with this great magnolia, but in this formal dramatic site the trees provide great architectural dignity, as well as something to look at while huffing and puffing up the endless steps.
A small long narrow garden opens off the steps about a fourth of the way down the hill, like a shelf. A high retaining wall to the north affords a good background to various roses including a notable large specimen of the yellow five-petaled (sometimes a few extras thrown in) everblooming climber 'Mermaid.' This is a rose of the World War I period, thus not very old, but it is certainly among that select handful of roses that might reasonably be called the most beautiful rose in the world. It has ferocious thorns, so it is just as well that it does not need or like to be pruned. It is tremendously vigorous also. I knew one in Memphis that ran all the way around a house, an amazing sight. I once grew it on an ordinary six-foot-high fence, leaving it to its own beautiful devices to billow as it pleased. Both in San Antonio and Memphis I have seen it as a huge free-standing shrub without support, almost globular to 10 feet.
As a descendant of the wild (and rather unmanageable) Rosa bracteata, its glossy foliage is never bothered with black spot or mildew. Sometimes there are a few thrips in the flowers, but nothing to get in a fit about. It is hardy perhaps to Philadelphia or, with a warm wall, possibly Long Island Sound, but it will prove tender as one moves inland. There it needs and fully deserves special protection in winter, perhaps with evergreen branches tied against it and a heavy mulch.
This rose is said not to propagate at all well by budding, and as budding is the usual commercial practice the rose is rarely offered for sale. It roots easily, however, from cuttings.
One thing -- I knew a plant of 'Mermaid' in Washington that was a sore affliction to the gardener, who bought the house where this rose was already planted by a wall. The new owner, supposing it was a regular bush, kept pruning it down to reasonable bush size, with the result it rarely bloomed, and was moreover a continuing bloodletting exercise. Though I rarely presume to tell anybody what to do in his own garden, I did holler up and down for a while about this butchered plant. It was thereafter left alone, and for the first time began to show its exceptional beauty. It blooms off and on all summer and early fall and is fragrant.
As you see, some of these "old" roses are not all that old, and they are not to every gardener's taste. Some of them are not good for cutting. Others among them bloom only in the spring, and not all of them are heavily perfumed. They are no doubt an acquired taste, but it is interesting that those who know roses well are often the ones who like the old ones best. There were about 100 gardeners, women of the Garden Club of Virginia, and a few men, including the awesome authority Charles Walker of Raleigh, N.C. He and Cato can identify an astounding number of obscure roses on sight. Cato's favorite rose, almost, is 'Mme. Gregoire Staechelin,' which shows you how sound his judgment is, and Walker will undoubtedly harp along with the saints some day as he provided me with a replacement for my long-lost 'Princesse de Sagan,' a red China tea of 1887.