Roses: A Digression

By Shirley Barker, Special to the Planet
Tuesday October 02, 2007

For many years I resisted the growing of roses. My mother, a passionate rose grower, employed a gardener whose name, extraordinary to recall, was Budd. Mr. Budd was my introduction to the professional horticulturist. I do not remember seeing him busy with spade or hoe. As with my father’s relationship with Peter-who-cleaned-the-car, work seemed to consist of employer and employed standing side by side, gazing at potential problems, in my mother’s case perhaps a grandiflora (of which she later grew an impenetrable 10- foot hedge, not as difficult as it looks) that needed to be shifted, or for my father, an engine requiring carburetor adjustment, my mother’s loquacity occasionally interrupted by a gruff Hampshire “argh” or “um,” my father’s silence only broken by the cough of partial combustion.  

It was I, another of her employees, or willing slaves, who from an early age was bidden to run down to the village shop for what was lacking in her batterie de cuisine, for my mother was a formidable cook in the country style, on friendly terms with the local poacher, so that roast pheasant and jugged hare appeared on the dining table from time to time, and since we lived on the coast, fish, the freshest I have ever tasted, was bought wriggling off local boats. 

We lived in a village called Warblington, which consisted of the above shop, a bus stop called Green Pond because there was a green pond there, and among a sprinkling of houses Budd’s home, a long Elizabethan cottage with age-blackened beams. (I’m not making this up you know. England is quaint. Or was. Today I suppose Budd’s cottage has been snapped up by a chartered accountant or wine broker and turned into a bijou residence.) 

The shop was all of a quarter of a mile from our house, a world away, a journey fraught with the terror that only a very large dog, even one behind a fence, can instill in the heart of a small biped, and made hazardous with ditches between road and sidewalk. Once one had reached Budd’s cottage, one was safe, because even though the sidewalk had petered out, the shop was right there next to it. 

Taking a different lane home to avoid the dog, one encountered flanking the gate of a pretentious mansion two lions couchants that had to be propitiated with tufts of grass stuffed into their maws, a ritual that miraculously turned them to stone. 

My mother would send me off (no money was carried, all households had accounts) with the words, “Now when you get there, say ‘Mummy would like half a pound of currants please.’” This, I realized later, when such instructions went on far beyond the years of necessity, would have been excellent training for someone set on a career on the stage. There was no need to say who mummy was. Everyone in the village knew everyone else. 

Looking back, I see that it was always summertime then. When I moved to Berkeley, I was delighted to find it is always summer here too, even in February, with warm sun and blue sky. People in climates where winters are long and gray are vulnerable to depression. Here, all we have to do to alleviate depressing symptoms, say the experts, is to gaze for thirty seconds or so twice a day, with no intervening glass of window or spectacles, on our own blue heaven. 

There are other remedies of course, one of which is a book on my kitchen shelf. When I’m feeling low, which is rarely, and the sky is overcast, I open this book randomly, and invariably my mood rises. The book, Farmhouse Fare, is of recipes compiled, or so I thought, by members of the Women’s Institute, a daunting body of married ladies which my mother declined to join because its members disapproved of divorce. This reason surprised me since my father showed no inclination to stray from her epicurian standards. Perhaps that is how she kept him in line. 

In fact, my memory has betrayed me. Rather, the recipes are culled from those sent by country wives to a magazine called The Farmer’s Weekly. It makes no difference. Take Savoury Ducks, made from liver and bacon. Or Turnip Brose, where turnips are cooked with oatmeal “until the brose forms little knots.” My favorite is Hatted Kit, in parentheses “A very old Highland dish,” for which milk is rushed to the side of the cow, which apparently puts a hat on it. 

Very soon I’m rolling about with mirth, all gloom forgotten. Still, scoff though one might, at the same time the recipes are a healthy reminder that life lived entirely off the land is hardscrabble rather than romantic, and that women in rural areas band together to compensate for an aloneness that is a function of geographic distance. Home grown is the common denominator. All the recipes, however humble or rich the ingredients (so much cream!), are distinguished by a buoyancy of presentation in itself inspiriting. 

My mother’s cooking, equally rustic in its origins, led me eventually to lift my self-imposed ban on growing roses. After all, she grew what became my own passion, vegetables, just as robustly. Besides, I had fond memories of trips enlivened by my mother’s screeching the car to a halt in order to scoop up horse manure conveniently deposited by the road (a bucket and shovel were permanently kept in the boot, or trunk). 

And contrary to common opinion, roses are not difficult to grow well. As a wonderful gardener from Berkeley Horticultural Nursery once wrote, roses clamor for attention because they love showing off. Attention means regular watering and plenty of it, a constantly replenished nourishing mulch , and lavish amounts of horse manure from our race track or other local stables that do not use toxic sprays. If one wants roses like those in the small garden of a friend, where dozens are crammed far too close and all blooming like mad pictures of health, do as she does and never prune. Cut off dead and crossing branches. Cut plenty of blossoms for the house, just above a five-leaf stem. New growth will emerge from the axil and the shrub will keep its shape. Be sure to dead-head in the same way until fall, when scarlet hips appear. Rich in vitamin C, these are worth collecting where citrus is scarce.  

As in many families, there is one neurotic member of Rosaceae (which includes a diversity of edible fruits, such as apples, plums, and berries), the hybrid tea. Unless its numerous demands are met it is unlikely to perform reliably and even if it does it is sure to come down with black spot, rust, and powdery mildew. Many rosarians rise to the challenge. Others avoid it altogether. 

There is scarcely a lack of alternatives. Give the floribundas, the climbers, the numerous varieties of old roses enough love, and they will adore giving back. Just like mothers and daughters.