For the love of roses

2017-11-21 09:55
The Midlands Heritage Rose Garden at Garlington Estate in Hilton showcases 110 varieties of Heritage roses.

The Midlands Heritage Rose Garden at Garlington Estate in Hilton showcases 110 varieties of Heritage roses. ( Ian Carbutt)

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Did you know that most species of garden roses originated in China? Not England, as I, clearly very ignorant on the subject of roses, thought. Roses have been present on Earth for millions of years, but were only discovered by European botanists from the 16th century, with fossil forms discovered in North America, North Africa, across Asia, Europe, Japan and Korea. No fossils of roses have ever been found in the southern hemisphere and roses were only introduced to South Africa when Jan van Riebeeck and his settlers arrived here, leaving a trail of roses behind them as they trekked inland. Van Riebeeck noted in his diary on November 1, 1659: “Picked the first Dutch rose at the Cape from rose trees brought here in the past year.”

The French empress Josephine did much to advance the fortunes of roses and she established the now famous garden at her residence, the Chateau de Malmaison outside Paris. Her husband, Napoleon Bonaparte, instructed his fleet, engaged in colonising the new world, to bring her specimens of animals and plants from their travels around the world, especially roses, her great love. Josephine discovered that the roses brought to her from China flowered more than once a year, unlike most roses of the time which only flowered once a year, so she interbred and crossed different roses to get the multiflowering and hybradised varieties more common today.

By the time Josephine died in 1824, she’d collected 250 different species of roses, giving them the French names that they still bear today. A large number of Josephine’s roses can still be seen flowering in the famous rose garden the Roseraie de l’Hay, just outside Paris.

This history lesson on the rose was enthusiastically imparted to me by two passionate lovers of roses, Gail Birss, president of the Federation of Rose Societies of South Africa (Rosa), and Gill Wilson, the chairperson of the Midlands Rose Society. According to the two women, the Midlands Rose Society is the largest society in the country and the only one in KwaZulu-Natal, comprising 180 members

It was established in 1987 by Norman and Val Yeats who owned a rose farm called Spurwing in New Hanover. All the rose societies in South Africa fall under Rosa, and rose societies worldwide are governed by the World Federation of Rose Societies.

“The Midlands Rose Society is the strongest and most active society in the country,” said Birss. “We always take part in The WitnessGarden Show. This year we won gold, the CEO’s award and came second in the People’s Choice Award.” For the past three years, the society has held a rose show, with this year’s show held at the Cascades Shopping Centre.

“This was a great success, and will now be an annual event.” Wilson added that the society is “trying to build on that and encourage people to enter their roses”. When I asked what the purpose of the Midlands Rose Society is, both Birss and Wilson unhesitatingly said: “For the love of roses”.

Heritage roses are those that were originally bred before 1900. “However, these dates are revisited at the World Federation of Rose Societies conventions held every three years. This year the date was moved to include the Peace Rose which was bred in 1945 to mark the end of World War 2,” said Wilson. The reason, she said, is because that particular rose has historical significance. Heritage roses are hard to find and are available at only a few nurseries, even though Wilson said: “Heritage roses don’t have a patent, so anyone can breed them, while modern roses have breeders’ rights, so can’t be bred or propagated by anyone other than the breeder.”

Wilson feels that perhaps the reason for the rarity of Heritage roses is because many of them only flower once a year, so the nurseries prefer to breed and stock roses that flower throughout the season as they will appeal more to the general public.

Due to their rarity and in order to preserve and promote these roses, the Midlands Rose Society, spearheaded by Birss and Wilson, has planted the Heritage Rose Garden in Garlington Estate in Hilton.

“About two years ago, we wondered why KwaZulu-Natal didn’t have a Heritage rose garden. There’s one in Bedford, Eastern Cape, which was planted in 2012, and there are some rose gardens containing Heritage roses on old Cape farms,” Birss said.

Wilson added: “Many people don’t know about these beautiful old Heritage roses as the nurseries they go to only stock the modern varieties. We want to preserve Heritage roses for the future and get people to love them and grow them as well.”

“We approached Rosa for the funds and we got a little bit of money, as well as some from a few individuals. We also received some generous sponsorships, in the form of fertiliser from Atlantic Fertiliser and some garden structures, such as the obelisks from The Gardener magazine,” Birss said. “Unfortunately, we could not plant the garden in a public space due to maintenance, the availability of water and the threat of vandalism, so it had to go on a secure private property.” Garlington Estate was happy to provide the land, while the society provides the funds and maintains the garden. The roses themselves were donated by Ludwig Roses, Tarr Roses and the Underberg Heritage Nursery, with some donated by a few individual people.

“In all we have at least 110 roses in the garden, with the hope of more arriving,” Wilson said.

While the Heritage garden is not open to the general public, people who are interested in visiting it can contact the Midlands Rose Society, which will then give them access to the garden by appointment, and of course the residents of Garlington Estate can access the garden freely. Birss and Wilson hope that the garden will become a venue for reflection, a cup of tea, parties or even a place for wedding photographs to be taken.

The garden, designed by Jackie Kalley, Birss and Wilson, is planted around an oval of lawn which the women hope will soon boast a gazebo. “We had such fun because none of us is mathematical,” Birss said, “so we used string and a two-metre stick to measure out the pathways and the beds.”

While plantings of other pretty flowering bedding shrubs add to the garden’s charm, it is the 110 Heritage roses, dating back to 1590, that take pride of place. Benches, strategically placed, provide vantage points from which to admire these ancient rose varieties, while scrambling roses are already covering arches and pergolas with fragrant colour and prickly branches.

Birss’s and Wilson’s love for these roses was clearly evident as they eagerly tripped around the garden in the drizzle and mist, exclaiming over new blousy blooms, referring to the roses as “she” and “her”.

Still in its infancy, but already showing signs of the showpiece it will become, this lovingly created garden, once matured, will provide an exquisite refuge for all those for whom a beautiful garden is the ultimate haven.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  garden

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