That roses are all about opulence, indulgence, hedonism, I never found out until my thirties. My early experiences of the stiff, inelegant, synthetic modern roses found them wanting. It was not until I saw Peter Beales’ stand at Chelsea one year that I discovered their romance: the colours, the perfume, their sheer joie-de-vivre.
During the late Victorian era thousands of roses were bred, introduced, and vanished again. Occasionally the odd survivor lives on unrecognised in an old garden, its name long forgotten. That some are still available in rose nurseries often owes much to their tenacity and their willingness to put up with less than ideal conditions. Or perhaps to their exotic French name, and their exceptional scent.
When Vita Sackville West planted roses at Sissinghurst, she was inspired by the legend of the Sleeping Beauty and the old tudor Tower. She loved the story of the gallant prince who cut swathes of roses to climb the tower and waken the princess with a kiss. But the stiff hybrid teas and floribundas of the early ‘30s did not seem to fit the bill.
So she searched in small old nurseries for those unfashionable roses that had all but disappeared by the turn of the 20th century and discovered one or two languishing in a corner, unnamed and unloved. She identified them and commissioned more from the nurserymen.
Word of her quest spread and quite soon she was filling her new Rose Garden with more of the glorious ‘old’ roses. She loved their names, their perfume, and, controversially, their single-flowering. She would say that no-one expected, or wanted, their daffodils to flower out of season. So it should be with roses.
One of her favourites, among many, was Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’. She climbs, vigorously, at least to the eaves, even on a north-facing wall. Her flowers are loose and palest flesh pink, with an exquisite true-rose perfume. The foliage is apple-green, and scented of apples too, and the flowering starts in June and continues until the autumn. La Madame seems to combine all the very best attributes of any rose of any age. She really is a grand ‘old’ trooper.