Roses have a lot of old associations for me. When I was a child, my father had a gorgeous rose garden along the southern wall of our house, in a narrow strip of dirt between the driveway and the house. I can remember him walking up and down the driveway for hours every day, tending to his roses, pruning and watering, smoking cigars and swatting flies. He always kept a pair of pruners on the windowsill outside the house, to be grabbed at a moment's notice.
He owned several books about roses, and I liked to look at the pictures. The roses had exotic names, and he knew the names of all of his roses. There was Tropicana, a bright orange rose that was my favorite because of its delicious sweet smell. Peace was my dad's favorite, with its delicate cream coloring with pink and peach undertones. There was the newfangled Double Delight, an ostentatious bicolor rose with petals that were white in the middle and hot pink on the edges. American Beauty was the classic deep red rose. When I was ten or so I bought him a white rose bush named Honor for his birthday, or for Father's Day.
For me, ever since, roses are not about bouquets. If I had to choose my favorite cut flowers, roses would be pretty far down the list. Cut roses are kind of tame, a little boring. Roses, real roses, are fragrant, extravagant, showy, slightly wild, but always stately plants. They are garden royalty, tended with care and supremely confident that they deserve every minute of the attention. Flowers are cut from these plants only for very special people.
We moved away from that house in 1983, and my father has not grown roses since. In Connecticut, where we moved, he was discouraged by tales of evil Japanese Beetle infestations, and California, where he now lives, is too hot. He sees other people's exhausted roses and scorns them: if they cannot be beautiful, he does not want them.
But when I told my dad I have roses, he immediately thought of what I need to do. In particular, he said, I should look out for fungus, because in a place like Seattle, which gets so much rain, fungus is probably a serious problem. 25 years since he last touched a rose, and he put his finger on the problem: many of my roses are covered in black spot, a nasty fungal infection which is common up here because of the rain. So common, in fact, that the nursery told me I should plant only disease-resistant roses, and if I have some plants that are very far gone, I should probably just dig them up and get rid of them altogether.
Some of the plants are pretty far gone.
I've never been a gardener, since I've never had a yard. When I was a kid I had a tiny flower patch in the back corner of our yard, but I took care of it in a very haphazard manner, so the flowers quickly died. I also do not have a terrific record with houseplants. In my last job my boss actually arranged to have the plants in my office watered, because I would never remember until the poor things drooped pathetically. From this I've concluded that I do not have the knack or the patience for it.
To my surprise, though, I find myself caring very much about these roses. I want them to survive. I don't want to dig them up. I want to kneel down and weed the beds and water deeply and apply the right treatments to help the survive. We are not living in the house right now, but I find I keep wanting to go over and check on them, pull a few more weeds, spray a few more leaves for aphids, deadhead a few more flowers. My sweetie complains that he has to work at keeping the lawn alive, and weeding everywhere else, while I do nothing but obsess about the roses.
But...the roses are my childhood. My father and I have a complicated relationship. He infuriates me a lot, and I know I am not as patient or kind with him as I should be. As they say, he pushes my buttons extremely well because, after all, he installed them. But when I look at these roses, I'm a kid again, and I want to make them grow well and make my dad proud of me. He asked me if I knew what roses are there, in a sort of wistful way, no doubt remembering the days when he pored over the rose books and sought out the award-winning roses each year. I don't know all of them, by any means, but there is an Honor in our garden, and a Peace. I can't wait to show him.