By: Rayford Reddell
Although most gardeners cherish roses of all ages, until recently, rosarians have been sharply divided into two camps – those who favor Heirloom roses and others who prefer their modern hybrids. Attempting to please everyone, rose hybridizers around the globe have been madly scrambling pollen in hopes of creating varieties suitable for both groups – roses whose blooms have the fragrance and whimsical charm of Heirlooms, but unlike most of their predecessors, blossom throughout summer.
For nearly two decades, David Austin of Albrighton, England, has dominated the scene of these something-for-everyone rose varieties. His “English Roses,” as they’re commonly known, have become almost as popular in the United States as they are in Britain. It was only a matter of time, of course, before a new hybridizer would emerge to give Austin a run for his money. As it happened, Austin’s fiercest European rival was busily at work just across the English Channel.
Jacques Mouchotte of the illustrious French House of Meilland in Le Luc En Provence was no upstart. He had already hybridized several great roses – the All-America Rose ‘Carefree Delight,’ a Landscape rose of exceptional beauty, and ‘Summer’s Kiss’ a soft apricot Hybrid Tea that smells distinctly of anise. Then, Mouchotte hybridized ‘Polka,’ a climber that took the Western United States, particularly California, by storm. Not only were its fragrant, soft-apricot, frilly blossoms appealing, so was the vigorous, disease resistant plant on which they flowered.
Such successes surely pleased Mouchotte, but he was haunted by a rose that he introduced in 1984 named ‘Yves Piaget.’ Although he recognized that it was beyond routine classification, in order to get it into commerce and test its marketability, Mouchotte classed ‘Yves Piaget’ as a Hybrid Tea. It caused an immediate sensation among French gardeners. Mouchotte couldn’t drive the image of what he had created out of his mind and believed that Monsieur Piaget might be the first of a new “line” of roses for the mighty Meilland empire to promote (the House of Meilland produces over 12 million rosebushes a year and exports through a 42-country network).
Small wonder the image of ‘Yves Piaget’ consumed him – this rose knows no shame where showiness is concerned. Not only are blossoms sassy shades of hot-to-mid, mauve-pink, they’re ruffled and fragrant as all get-out. They’re also huge – easily equaling oversized saucers. Those are merits enough for a successful new rose, but ‘Yves Piaget’ was yet more. Its plants were exceptionally hardy, robust, notably disease resistant, and smothered in handsome foliage.
Mouchotte declared ‘Yves Piaget’ the first of a new breed of roses to be called “Romantica” and set about hybridizing similar new varieties in an array of colors. Adhering adamantly to his insistence that new crosses be both well perfumed and hardy, progress was slow going and he managed to create only seven new varieties in the next decade, two of them climbers.
One of the reasons new hybrids came slowly was that Mouchotte didn’t simply want his new hybrids to be fragrant, he also wanted their perfumes analyzed – information the House of Meilland intended to pass on to the public. Working with perfume experts in Grasse, a major center for the extraction of scents, the Meilland team asked fragrance pros to identify the predominating scent in each of the entries into the Romantica series.
Having experimented with identifying fragrances myself, I’ve come to understand just how personal an issue it is. Not only is one man’s posy another’s stinkweed, it’s very difficult to get people who acknowledge that a given flower smells nice to agree what it smells like. So, while I generally concur with the scents the Meillands attribute to their Romanticas, I still have my reservations. For instance, I agree that the shell pink blossoms of ‘Guy de Maupassant’ actually do smell of apples, but I’m not willing to concur that they smell specifically like Granny Smith apples. Still, it’s nice to give bareroot rose shoppers a clue as to what they might look forward to sniffing.
Through Star Roses, a company formed jointly by Meilland Roses and Conard-Pyle (the American firm with whom the French have enjoyed a long association), ‘Yves Piaget’ and his seven siblings have been gradually introduced to the United States during the past few years, but only in limited commerce. Not only will they be widely available in 2000, four new varieties will make their American debut. The current line of Romanticas include:
- ‘Abbaye de Cluny,’ whose globular blossoms resemble cabbage roses, with 30 apricot-shaded petals (30 is an ideal number for San Francisco) comprising each buxom blossom. Most rose catalogs suggest that plants grow 3-4 feet. In the Bay Area, especially where it’s warm, bushes are more likely to aspire to 5 feet. According to the Meillands, flowers smell of spicy oranges.
- ‘Auguste Renoir’ is heavily petaled (to 120 per bloom) and the plants on which it showers such decadent blossoms (said to smell of sweet Tea) can reach six foot heights. Deep pink mature blooms intricately quarter their petalage and last well as cut flowers.
- ‘Colette’ is one of the two climbing Romanticas and it’s a doozy. Although its heavenly pink blossoms have only 25 or so petals, they’re cunningly formed and manage to resemble Damask roses when they’re fully open. They’re fragrant, to boot. Like the lady for whom she’s named, this rose is pure charm and it’s vigor doesn’t hurt one bit.
- ‘Eden’ is the second of the climbers, also the second Romantica hybridized by Mouchotte (1987). It was with this rose, he claims, that he was first convinced that a new “line” was about to develop. More heavily petaled than ‘Colette’ (up to 60 petals per blossom), cupped blooms are quintessentially old-fashioned and deliciously fragrant. Flower color ranges from pastel pink to cream-verging-on yellow. Plants are robust and well clothed in dark green foliage.
- ‘Frederic Mistral’ is perhaps the most vigorous of the series, with plants that easily reach six foot heights. In marked contrast to their tough bushes, blossoms are delicate – light pink and sweetly scented of tea. With 40-45 petals per bloom, flowers mature slowly. ‘Jean Giono’ produces oversized, dahlia-shaped, golden-yellow to apricot blossoms veined in tangerine and red and redolent of spicy clove. Since there are as many as 100 petals per bloom, flowers are slow to mature, but do so happily in a vase, where they’re knockouts because of their long cutting stems. Bushes reach five foot heights. ‘Guy de Maupassant’ closely resembles a modern Floribunda rose, but its shell pink blossoms with as many as 100 petals each are decidedly old-fashioned. Plants hover between four and five feet and blossom throughout summer. Meilland’s fragrance pros claim that blooms smell specifically like Granny Smith apples.
- ‘Johann Strauss,’ reputed to smell of lemon verbena, was entered in the All-America Rose Selections trial as a Floribunda, which indeed it resembles because of its proclivity for producing 3-7 blossoms per stem. Large blossoms are pearl-pink and lovingly formed on bushes that reach approximately four feet. Since I’ve grown Herr Strauss for more than five years, I can attest to its performance as a cut -flower.
- ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ is a difficult rose to classify. In France, it behaves like a customary bush, but after it made its trans-Atlantic voyage, it decided to take on rambling habits. Particularly in California, after the first flush of blossoms, plants begin to trail sideways, eventually becoming as wide as they are tall (to three feet). This seeming disadvantage can bput to advantage, however, if the variety is grown as a borderrose. However plants are cultivated, medium pink, lightly scented flowers shower their bushes all summer long.
- ‘Toulouse-Lautrec’ is the yellow member of the Romantica clan, and what a yellow it is. Still, it’s not their clear, lemon-yellow colors that make these splendid blossoms so irresistible, it’s their whimsical form – enough to make you chuckle in appreciation. Although buds begin life traditionally shaped, they conceal a bloom that eventually resembles an oversized pincushion. In keeping with their sensuous yellow coloring, flowers are scented of lemon.
- ‘Traviata,’ the most recently introduced Romantica, is clear but vibrant red. Fully double flowers quarter and swirl their petals, eventually maturing into huge specimens. Mouchotte and the Meillands not only claim that blossoms smell distinctly of apple, they consider the rose to be among their most disease-resistant varieties. The four to five foot plants are handsomely clothed in iron-clad foliage.
- ‘Yves Piaget,’ the first of the Romanticas, remains my pick of the litter. Besides producing such outrageously decadent flowers, it’s a happy rose and generous with its bounty of mauve-pink blossoms, which mature into buxom blooms that never lose their strong lemon scent. Plants reach only moderate heights (to just under four feet), but foliage is abundant and semi-glossy. All things considered, it’s thoroughly understandable that this hybrid inspired an entire series.
Bound For Fame
The main reason I believe the Romanticas are headed for success similar to that of David Austin’s English Roses is not simply their fragrance (several of Austin’s are among the most strongly perfumed roses, ever), their hardiness to winter (of no consequence to many, certainly not to anyone in the Bay Area), or their resistance to disease (we’ve come to expect it). Rather, it’s their vigor – an enviable attribute of any new line of roses.
Austin’s early introductions had astounding vigor – ‘Graham Thomas,’ ‘Charles Austin,’ ‘Leander,’ ‘Heritage,’ and ‘Cressida’ are all robust growers. Then, as he continued to incestuously cross and recross the same members of his rose family, the strain weakened. ‘Pat Austin,’ for instance, which was introduced only two years ago, has such weak stems that its lovely deep apricot blossoms aren’t held erect – a fault in roses known as “weak necks” that gardeners come to despise.
Conversely, the Romanticas to date are the forerunners of their clan – robust, vigorous, and smothered in foliage that looks as impervious to disease as it actually is. Only time will tell if Mouchotte’s breeding line eventually suffers the same consequences Austin’s have. For the moment, there’s no cause for concern.
Since I’m a judge of one of the 22 official All-America Rose Test Gardens in the United States, I’ve grown several of the Romanticas for four years and admired what I’ve seen. None has won the coveted All-America Rose crown yet, but that may be because these roses seem ahead of their time.
As for how well the Romantica roses perform in the San Francisco Bay Area versus Provence, well it’s not even close. Because of our more moderate climate, not only do plants grow larger here than they do in France, their blossoms are considerably more refined because intense heat doesn’t force them to mature too quickly. I don’t suggest we tell the French that, of course – rosarians of no nation I know appreciate being told that roses native to their soils grow better in a foreign land. I once confessed to David Austin that I thought his English roses believed they’d died and gone to heaven when they sunk their roots in California soil, and I don’t believe he’s forgiven me to this day.
Bareroot rose catalogs will begin arriving soon and they’ll all list the Romanticas. I suggest that you order tout de suite.
Article and photos, by permission, from the original Garden Valley Roses website
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