Rosa gallica versicolor, Rosa Mundi.
R. gallica var officinalis, Apothecary’s Rose.
A view of the Potomac River on a summer afternoon.
Writer Ira Glackens, son of painter William Glackens, was a conservationist before it became fashionable. He was an expert on heirloom apples, many varieties of which he planted at Labrador Farm, the Glackenses‘ country home, in New Hampshire. I remember chatting with him about Sheep’s Nose, Fameuse, Sops in Wine and Thomas Jefferson’s favorite, Spitzenburg. Unfortunaly, I had no great interest in apple trees, at the time. The tri-state (WV,MD, PA) area where I lived produced excellent apples and until recently one could buy Winter Banana, Grimes Golden, and Northern Spy at roadside fruit stands. One hardly needed an orchard unless one were Ira, who added a a dozen or so fruit trees to the back yard of the grist mill where he and his wife Nancy would spend their final couple of decades. That done, he went out and got himself a bright red Jeep so that he would have something sturdier than his Volvo and and vintage Jaguar to drive when he felt the urge to spray his pocket handkerchief orchard.
The fruit trees still remain where he planted them, thrity some years ago. Sadly, his heirloom roses and most of the the shrubs are gone. Gone, as well, is the Carolina sweetshrub, Calicanthus floridus he planted by the gate to the mill. Though lilies remain in some of the circular borders, the Rosa hugonis that leaned against a brick wall opposite the calicanthus shrub, has vanished. Nothing is left of the Gallicas officinalis, versicolor, and Tuscany Superb, the Albas Konigin von Danemark and Cuisse de Nymphe, the Bourbons Variegata di Bologna and Madame Isaac Pereira, Centifolias Chapeau de Napoleon, Fantin Latour and Rose des Peintres, and Tour de Malakoff, the Hybrid Perpetual Baronne Prevost and La Reine Victoria, the Moss Salet, the Damask Jacques Cartier.
One of the first roses he showed me was Rosa gallica var officinalis, the Apothecary’s Rose, also known as the Red Rose of Lancaster. I will never forget the silky delicacy of its red petals nestled against the pale ivory of his palm. Gallicas are ancient roses. Greeks and Romans cultivated it and later mediaeval gardeners planted it their physic gardens for medicinal use. Ira, who loved history, loved them less as flowers than as symbols of a time when the world had been a better place. As for me, the scent of Gallicas was the olphatory equivalent of Proust’s madeleines. It brought back the sun baked rose gardens of my Brazilian childhood, the cool, quiet courtyard and rose encircled fountain of a boarding school up in the verdant hills of that had once belonged to my Kariri ancestors.
I mentioned earlier that most of the roses of my childhood were French. How many of them carried parts of the genetic code of Gallicas is something I may never know. European immigrants often changed their own names when they reached the New World. They also changed the names of the plants they brought with them. My Brazilians ancestors retained the names of the Alba Amelia and the Hybrid Tea La France, . They changed Cecile Brunner to Rosa Menina and Black Prince to Principe Negro. I have yet to find out the true name of they renamed Sangue de Cristo. What they could not alter was the unforgettable fragrance of the Old Gardens Roses they brought from Europe. That I would rediscover it in the garden of an old grist mill in West Virginia is only one of the gifts that came my way through Ira.
In the years I lived near his house I knew Ira as painter, as a biographer, as a cook who baked bread and made a delicious moussaka, and as a gardener. Years after his death, when I had planted and lost more roses than he had at the mill house, I learnt that Ira had written a great number of articles on horticulture and that he had served as at chairman of the American Pomological Society. I regret enormously that I did not take the opportunity to learn more from him. In part, I wanted desperately to avoid giving the impression that I hoped to benefit from his wealth. As it was, he and Nancy gave a number of undeserved presents and in villages such as mine it takes great intestinal fortitude to compete for the affection of wealthy folks. I think that is a pity.
I think it eqyually sad that the garden and orchard Ira planted in West Virginia may be irretrievably lost. This year, I planted several of his roses in my own garden. This is my second or third attempt to grow them on a piece of land that was once a grazing meadow for the cattle belonging to the original owner of the grist mill Ira so lovingly restored. Unlike those I planted nearly a quarter of a century ago, these roses are cloned, not grafted. In West Virginia’s hot and humid climate, blackspot is practically a given. My organic garden, the cooling breezes wafting from the nearby Potomac river seem to be charged with fungi. Aphids and Japanese beetles thrive in this environment and all but the tougher roses languish. Through the years, most of my original planting, died down, leaving behind Dr. Huey rootstock, an unhandsome plant that produces an unhandsome, unscented red blossom. But gardeners know that the way to bliss is not through a feather bed. Planting roses is my bliss and my way of remebering Ira.