Saturday, June 12, 2010

Roses & Tulips

Bruce, our mower man - he once was rose gardener in the Botanic Gardens - pruned our roses yesterday and sprayed them with winter oil. Anne had bought a new vase the day before. It now has several roses from the pruning, especially Leander buds. It will be interesting to see if they open. That climbing rose is an original, here when we arrived.

So was Jude the Obscure, a bush rose with a superb scent but useless as a picker, the petals fall straight away. We brought Remember Me with us – it was given to Anne by her family after the death of her 18 year-old son. It is now just a few scrawny sticks. Last summer it was superb, deep russet buds opening to coppery apricot with red and yellow tones. It also had its own distinctive fragrance. We’ve also added two climbers, Compassion and Dublin Bay. The latter is a deep red rose – my favourite colour.

It continues to amaze me that from a clay base with an overlay of topsoil and compost and sheep manure, each rose plant with its own chemistry creates its particular delectable perfume. The potted rose, Old China Monthly, that Bill gave us flowers about nine months each year, an older hybrid which has its own delicate scent.

When I was teaching English I used Burns’ lines ‘O My Luve’s like a red, red rose’ to teach the difference between simile and metaphor. Roses carry such a huge amount of symbolism - beauty, scent, sweetness, smoothness, short-lived perfection, versatility, while the red ones stress the colour of passion (and blood), and revolution. Much of it may seem hackneyed, but it’s real for me. Ruth Dallas has a line “Where are the words to convey what a rose is?” True! My grandfather who voted Labour all his life went out wearing either a red carnation or a red rose in his buttonhole when they were in season.

Shakespeare’s plays contain over sixty references to roses. But their symbolic importance is not just to the English. The French, Persians, and Chinese all sing and write about them. You just don’t grow roses, they take on a life of their own, as Katherine Mansfield knew.
'As  for the roses, you could not help feeling that they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden parties; the only flowers that anybody is certain of knowing. Hundred, yes, literally hundreds had come out in a single night, the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.'

Still in the literary garden, the tulip bulbs Anne planted last autumn have not yet appeared. Until they do and bloom we’ll have to make do with abutilon while the swelling camellia and daphne buds promise riches to come.

At the end of the seventeenth century when tulip bulbs became as precious as gold in Europe, Joseph Addison had a bit of fun about the mania.
'I accidentally praised a tulip as one of the finest I had seen: upon which they told me it was a common Fool’s Coat. Upon that I praised a second which seems was but another kind of Fool’s Coat … The gentleman smiled at my ignorance. He seemed a very plain, honest man and a person of good sense, had not his head been touched with that distemper which Hippocrates calls Tulippomania, insomuch that he would talk very rationally on any subject of the world but a tulip.'

He told me ‘that he valued the bed of flowers that lay before us, and was not above twenty yards in length and two in breadth, more than he would the best hundred acres in England’, and added, ‘that it would have been been worth twice the money it is, if a foolish cook-maid of his had not almost ruined him last winter, by mistaking a handful of tulip roots for a heap of onions, and by that means’, says he, ‘made me a dish of potage that cost me above a thousand pounds sterling’.

I wonder what the potage tasted like? Baboons eat bulbs, so I presume humans can too. I don’t think I’ll try. Humanity seems to have made the clear decision that tulips are for the eye and not the palate.

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