To bury your nose in an old-fashioned rose is one of the garden’s most sensory pleasures. Their season can be short – some bloom for just a few weeks – so take time this November to stop and smell these roses.
Around Wellington, collections of old roses grow in Bolton Street Memorial Park, Pauatahanui Burial Ground, Otaki’s Trinity Farm and at Nairn St Cottage Museum, where I maintain the heritage garden.
One of my favourites at the cottage is the Bourbon Great Western, suckering vigorously alongside the back path, with fully ruffled, deep crimson, highly fragrant blooms. Bourbon roses originated on the island of Réunion – at the time a French colony, Isle de Bourbon, now part of Mauritius. On Réunion, hedges of Parson’s Pink or Old Blush China (brought by tea ships, en route to Europe from China) formed a natural hybrid with pink autumn damask roses brought from the Mediterranean by Arab traders. The first Bourbon rose was brought to Europe in 1817; Great Western was bred there in 1838 and named for the first transatlantic steamer.
Bourbons mark the first cross between the original European/Arabic roses – the pink-toned damasks and gallicas, originating in dry, sandy Mediterranean soils and having suckering rather than bushy habits – and the Chinese and Burmese roses, which introduced yellow tones and repeat flowering to the global gene pool, from which rose breeders continue to create a huge variety of flowers.
Along the garden path from Great Western grows a much lower and longer-flowering Bourbon rose, the palest of pinks but with an equally powerful fragrance. Souvenir de la Malmaison is named for the famous rose gardens of Empress Josephine. According to Nancy Steen in The Charm of Old Roses, this was a favourite to plant on the graves of children in Victorian times.
Steen spent years travelling the world in search of old roses. Her travels around New Zealand focused on old graveyards, mission stations and goldmining sites. Old roses are often one of the only signs of former settlement – a testament to the longevity and toughness of these plants, alongside their beauty and scent.
Some of the toughest roses are the Rugosas, originally from Japan where they grow wild on windy sand dunes, making them an obvious choice for coastal conditions. A fine white rugosa, Blanc Double de Coubert, grows near the Nairn St cottage gate.
If you want to know your Moss roses from your Perpetual Teas or Centifolias, Steen’s book combines history with horticultural tips. Another cracking read is Jennifer Potter’s The Rose, which looks at the cultural history and symbolic power of roses over the centuries.
And Karen Piercy at Trinity Farm in Otaki runs rose history seminars, complete with lunch including rosewater pavlova and rosepetal shortbread.
Old roses, now at their flowering peak, can be seen at:
Trinity Farm, 202 Waitohu Valey Rd (off SH1 at northern end of Otaki), ph 0800 955 555, www.trinityfarm.co.nz $5 for a season pass;
Bolton Street Memorial Park, Wellington Botanic Garden;
Nairn Street Colonial Cottage, 68 Nairn Street, Mt Cook, garden open daily.
Where are your favourite roses?