While the Roses Still Bloom by Malcolm D. Welshman
Roses have always been associated with romance. Certainly, for me, they are a symbol of love. So, when Valentine's Day comes round, I’m there, roses in hand, ready to present them to my wife, Maxeen. A token of my enduring love for her these past 43 years. It’s not a bouquet of traditional red blooms, but an array of pink buds similar to the ones that surrounded us when we kissed in my Gran's garden many moons ago.
Maxeen and I had met in London just after I'd qualified as a vet and we'd gone down to Bournemouth for a weekend to visit my parents and to see Gran in her thatched cottage, nestling on the edge of the New Forest.
It had been mid-June, a hot, blazing day, and Gran’s garden was a mass of roses in full bloom, shimmering in the heat haze. The air filled with their heady scent. A perfect setting for a romantic kiss. And I obliged despite the fact I was aware of Gran peering down on us from the upstairs bedroom of her cottage, agog as to what was going on.
Gran was a keen gardener and throughout the year there was always something in her cottage garden to be admired; from the tiny heads of purple and white crocuses that emerged in the early spring to the towering, flamboyant pink trusses of Japanese anemones in the autumn. But roses were the true love of her life as evidenced by the cascades of blooms in June: the creamy-white heads of Moonlight: the heavy fragrance of Old Pink Moss: and the rich clove scent of Blush Noisette with its delicate clusters of small lilac-pink flowers. I could remember as a lad in my early teens, lying on the sun-scorched lawn of her garden on a hot mid-summer’s day, eyes closed to the bleached-blue sky, ears filled with the hum of bees, and breath deep of the heady scents that surrounded me. Even today, fifty years on, I only have to bury my nose in a fragrant rose and breathe deep of its perfume to be sent spinning back to my memories of Gran’s garden and those abundant blooms.
Perfume apart, there’s something about roses that I hold dear to my heart. In my more fanciful moods, I often wonder if it’s linked to my babyhood. Part of my upbringing. My mother was a great believer in the benefits of rose hip syrup. It seems I was plied with daily spoonfuls of it, my mother declaring it an excellent and natural way to boost my vitamin C levels and ensure I bounced with health. Looking at grainy colour photos from back then, I do seem to have been a bonny baby if the full, rosy cheeks are anything to go by. So, maybe Mother was right, and all that rose hip syrup made me positively bloom.
My affinity with roses was further enhanced by Gran’s potpourri. She was a dab hand at making it. Rose petals would be carefully collected and then blended with lavender before being packed to small cream muslin bags tied with blue ribbon. These would be liberally deposited in every cupboard, wardrobe and chest of drawers possible. In her house and ours. One bag of crushed petals found their way into the crutch of Grandpa's long Johns – only discovered when he’d put them on and winced when he sat down.
I’m not sure whether Gran had the apothecary’s rose – Rosa gallica var. officinalis – growing amongst the many varieties that flourished in her garden. Nevertheless, she did have a tried and tested recipe for making rosewater which she’d make in abundance. In late June, her kitchen would suddenly become a steamy scent-filled den with several black cauldrons simmering on her range. I’d be commandeered to help and would find myself perched on a stool, leaning over the range to stir each stew of petals with a long wooden ladle. Occasionally, the contents of a pot would spill over with a hiss and a spit, a bubble of perfume bursting into the air. Gran would dart between the range and a bleached wooden table cluttered with bottles, rustling to and fro in a floor-length pinafore dress, pouring out amber liquids, sieving them through muslin, adding a pinch of this, a dash of that, whispering words I could never quite catch. She only needed a broomstick propped up in one corner and a black cat on the windowsill to complete the bewitching picture she conjured up.
And her garden was certainly magic. Since those days, I’ve tried to emulate that garden and attempted, on many occasions, to cultivate roses of my own. But sadly, I seem to be devoid of Gran’s magic touch. Green fingers have not been my forte.
Many a rain sodden June, I've stared glumly at my dripping rose gazebo, the wrought–iron pillars covered in a thin layer of leaves; the leaves covered in a thick layer of Blackspot. The buds of my soaked Malmaison roses have failed to open and look like sodden cream tennis balls rotting on their stems.
I realise that’s not quite what Napoleon’s wife, the later Empress Josephine, had envisaged when her rose garden was created in 1799 at the Palace of Malmaison in Paris.
They say ‘roses grow on you’ but not on me they don’t. Over the years, I’ve ramblers that fail to ramble; climbers that fail to climb despite being shown the way – carefully trained to trellis-work yet failing to grasp it. My floribundas too have flopped. And my China roses always look as if they’re on a slow boat back to where they came from.
I bet Gertrude Jekyll didn’t have such a problem. She recognised the full potential of roses and combined them with other plants while giving them architectural roles on buildings and garden statuary.
I’ve tried her approach. We’ve a grey, concrete aggregate statue of a well-endowed lady holding a bunch of grapes above her left ear. She was a reduced item at the Garden Centre as her breasts were chipped. I named her Gloria. In Jekyll mode, my intention was to smother Gloria with a mass of Golden Showers, picturing the sprays of canary yellow blooms cascading over her shoulders to cover her nicked nipples. Alas, no. My Golden Showers turned into a drizzle of blooms that hung limply round her feet.
Not to be outdone, I decided that if I couldn’t grow roses, I could at least try painting them. So, one autumn, I joined an evening class in water-colouring for beginners. I felt I was following in the footsteps of some very illustrious painters of roses. Joseph Redoute for instance. He created some beautiful compositions in the 18th century with water-colour on vellum. His artistry was matched by the exquisite illustrations painted by Alfred Parsons for the 1914 book Genus Rosa by Mrs Ellen Willmott. I doubted whether attendance at evening classes would ever draw such mastery from me; but in my quest to become a budding artist – rose buds in particular – I persisted. The result was one paltry painting of the variety Iceberg frozen in time on a sheet of A4 paper and which now hangs behind the loo in the downstairs cloakroom.
However, even if I'm unsuccessful in growing my own roses, there’s always the memory of Gran’s garden to fall back on. It was there, on a tranquil summer’s evening, the sun just having set in a molten halo of orange, fingers of warm air sifting through the roses, their fragrance heavy in the air, that I went down on bended knee and asked Maxeen to be my wife.
That’s why roses are so symbolic to me. A bouquet – given to Maxeen each year on St Valentine's Day - expresses the love that blossomed that day in my Gran’s arbour of blooms.
Okay. Maybe I'm making it seem more romantic than it actually was. But what's the harm in seeing those far-off halcyon days of my youth through glasses that just happen to be 'rose tinted'?