I live in the land of sociable roses.
In my birth country, the roses hide behind low fences, hug the gravelly walls of postwar stucco homes, or huddle in back gardens away from prying eyes. The wild roses, once held so dear, are overlooked or even cut away. The city planners plant hardy shrubby roses on verges and boulevards, but the bushes are nearly inaccessible, placed as they are between freeways and parking lots. I would challenge anyone in Edmonton, the city of my youth, to name from memory the variety or even the colour of those public roses*.
In my adopted country the roses crawl over stone walls, reach out to passers-by on country paths, demand attention. They beam. Public rose gardens invite people in. The growers choose showy displays over shy secrets and offer cuttings to curious neighbours.
The popular roses are English Roses, perhaps tea roses, floribunda, grandiflora, climbing roses, David Austin Roses in particular. I would say every type is cherished and chosen except for the Rosa rugosa that I favour.
I have some history with roses, or more honestly my family does. My mother planted a yellow rose for my father. The name of that rose variety is buried deep in the tangles of my brain and can’t be easily retrieved. Maybe you know it? I think I’d rather not know because the naming of a thing sometimes strips away the magic.
It was heavily scented, pure liquid sunshine upon which you might wish a blush of pink or a flash of white just to provide a relief from the intensity. Instead, the petals were the yellowest of all yellows. Numerous petals, full blooms.
The shrub was planted on bare chalky landfill dirt next to the picnic table where my dad sat to tend the barbecue. It was meant to be his company on those long summer days whilst he chain-smoked blue packs of Players Filter cigarettes and drank too many bottles of Labatt’s Blue beer.
That bush didn’t ever taste fertiliser and was hardly ever watered yet it grew vigorously. No aphids or diseases made inroads.
My Baba also grew roses — Hansa roses. The hardy shrub seemed absolutely gigantic to the eyes of a child. It grew next to the little-used front steps and often invaded the margins of the walk, so aggressively did it bush and branch. I loved to smell the sweet clovelike fragrance but the bush forbade my fancy with its summerlong hum from the cloud of thirsty bees. She also did little to maintain it, though I recall discussions about the maddening aphids.
By luck or design, my own roses are a sad affair that cannot compare. I don’t seem to understand roses in the same way as my family did and does.
My mother’s yellow rose gradually stopped blooming year-on-year; I can’t remember why it withered. Perhaps it was the cold winters or dry springs or whatever it is that quiets them as they age. It was grafted onto hardy rootstock in order to survive the city’s icy winters. Seizing an opportunity to dominate, the roots sprang branches and leaves that overtook the yellow rose. At first the wild white flowers crept singly and quietly — just the odd surprise peeping out here and there around the grafted plant. Finally the defeated yellow rose faded away and the simple white ones prevailed.
My mother marvelled and celebrated that the wild white rose flourished after the showy shrub died back. It was a survivor. Maybe, to her, it was the downtrodden underdog who finally had its day, its way, its say.
Along a fence near my house there are brambles, hawthorn, and small native trees. Amongst them all is, of course, a rose. The worker who does maintenance roughly hacks the lot with a chainsaw every summer. Bereft of lower branches, the flowers must stretch high above the fence to attract the bees. It doesn’t look like a bush; it looks like a tree. Just a single trunk survives the indiscriminate chopping. And what a tall trunk it is! Ten feet tall, or maybe fifteen feet tall? Really tall for a rose.
I photographed my husband standing next to it to show the scale but the beauties couldn’t fit in the photo. When I see the photo in ten years I’ll never remember why I took it.
I can’t reach those roses. My husband barely managed to bend a branch to smell them and he reported that they are nice. I don’t know if he is telling the truth. He hasn’t spent a lifetime with his nose buried in roses. He doesn’t often brave the thorns and aphids and bees to get the deepest breath of sweet essence — that volatile aroma that calls from every rose on a path. Sometimes I wonder how many times my nose has incidentally pollinated the roses that I enjoy so obsessively. It could be said that their perfume is my nectar and it has enlivened me on my darkest days.
To me, those flowers look as if they are lightly scented, and perhaps reminiscent of a ripe apple. In my imagination that is how they will live.
They aren’t white, like you may try to guess. They would be white if I was crafting these musings with dramatic features, just-so and parallel. And of course they should be wild, with single blooms like the roses that once captivated my mother. In truth they are scantly pink and semi-double. Ornamental but not showy. They are quiet and discreet. Would you notice anyway, even if they bent at your passing and begged for your attention?
*they are Rosa rugosa in dazzling magenta.