Saturday, 16 February 2013

Rose-diving - Beyond Here Lies Nothing

Let's elbow our way through the folds and try to get to the heart of the matter.  Try not to get lost or trapped.  Get in, as they seem to say nowadays, in tones of marvelling enthusiasm.

Georgia O'Keefe - Abstraction White Rose

Didn't someone say that in heaven we'll be eating caviar to the sound of trumpets?  Not me, my own celestial choice today would be poached eggs on toast whilst listening to Beyond Here Lies Nothing from the album Together Through Life.  At the same time, and, more to the point, I'd riffle through the pages of a really good rose catalogue, selecting future delights.

Peter Beales' catalogue is the one I turn to, helplessly seduced within about five minutes.  I practise the art of choosing perfection: it's an exercise in painful pleasure, for decisions must be made.  

Poppies, peonies and camellias can all drown us in their circling, centred, infinite depths. But the most powerful is the rose.  Who could be immune? You'd have to be made of dust.

Today I'm thinking more about the perfect rose flower rather than the perfect rose plant, which is a taller order that I've considered elsewhere.  Beyond this enfolding swirling flower lies nothing.  Dive into the madness.  Reason flees where roses reign.  The brain collapses before those slippery, coloured coils.

Here's a picture of the loss of reason.  I think it's David Austin's stand at one of those shows, Hampton Court, a few years ago.  Point made surely.

But I'm not supposed to be dissing anything about the rose today. We're going to enjoy our transports, settle deeply in, fingering the alabastrine folds and just......wallow......

Here are a few of the roses I have loved, grown and sunk myself in.  Here's Blue Moon, whose rapturous silvery mauve divides rose-lovers, but from whom I drink the rain, longing to be part of the rose, or for it to be part of me.  It tastes of nothing, but the perfume and I become one for a moment.  When full blown it opens wide and shows its heart.


Blossomtime, a pink climber. There are many. Have I had enough of pink? Even voluptuous pink?
This rose is gentle, but heavy with scent and petals.  Try stumbling around in there.  You have no chance.  It's a slightly quartered flower, like an unruly head of hair it tries to spring from more than one vestigial centre.

And here's Leverkusen.  Fewer petals, even a couple of stamens showing, pretty though muddled.  But curvy, lemony, waxy.  Another climbing plant or large shrub, flowering in early summer, sweetly and lightly scented. 

And here's Clementina Carbonari, a shrub, with a little China blood perhaps - the thin stems suggest that.  

And finally Gruss an Aachen, what they call a tidy shrub, no great gangling  shoots, just a rounded shape and these puffballs, more quartering.

Now I'm getting to the point.  Those roses are only a few of those that I have grown.  And the only ones I'll be growing again from this selection are Leverkusen and possibly Blue Moon.  As so often, Dylan has already explained it all so let's turn to the song.

Which begins contentedly enough, with a bit of a cha-cha-cha and a declaration of love and possession of the whole world.  That's how it feels as you dive into the rose - everything else recedes, that's the mystery and the attraction.  The first verse ends ominously enough with "nothing we can call our own".  

And so it continues, only four verses but in each one the love reveals itself to be emptier. In the second verse the protagonist notes that the moon and stars lie in the beyond where nothing is supposed to be and tetchily refers to  "this love that we call ours".  And that's after a bit of midnight rambling.  The nothing changes position, no longer in the beyond but drawing closer.

This second verse echoes the point at which the besotted rosarian tracks the curves and swerves of the petals of an old-fashioned or English rose - and notes there's nowhere to go.  It's an Escher, not a proper flower. 

Third verse.  Here we've got every window made of glass.  As if some windows could be made of something else, as if what seems solid reveals itself to be nothing but material about to be shattered.  All we have left now is the mountains of the past.  Nothing will come of this, it's all gone.

And how does the song leave the protagonist?  Ready to leave too, on a ship.  "Beyond here lies nothing, nothing done and nothing said".  So everything is negative, nothing has even happened between them.  The only positive thing left seems to be that ship with its sails spread.   

And it's true of the rose too.  If you were an insect, searching for the heart, the coronet of stamens, the golden pollen, you wouldn't stay here.  There's nothing.  Beyond the soft and scented colour there's nothing.  And that's what I've been getting at, another little homily about the wildlife.

You see, it's all very well being unable to see or think sensibly, trapped by the mysterious satin pleats of a quartered rose, ancient or modern, but such gorgeousness is sterile, leading nowhere.  The rose contains no possibility of a future, it's living outside the loop.  And I'm not saying that everything has to reproduce, but it's not filling its niche, that rose is a parasite on the earth.

Now, see, I'm getting worked up.  Partly because I find these roses so seductive myself, but also because, strangely enough, their old-fashioned looks, their aristocratic frenchified names,  their high-powered PR - all these things combine to suggest that somehow they're more real, more ancient, more properly rosy than any other of their tribe.  And the full-petalled David Austins seem to be sweeping the board, wherever roses are grown.

Not all David Austin roses lack exposed stamens. Indeed many have them.  But the USP has been the ones with dense muddled centres, repeat blooming and gorgeous colours.  The on-line catalogue sometimes proclaims the number of petals, in many cases well over 100.   Think of it as so much coloured compost. 

I've grown and loved some of the old French ones - Charles de Mills, Fantin Latour,  President de Seze, quite a few others.  I'm giving them up.

So how do they breed these roses, when they're basically great lolling self-centred vegetables, with no sexual characteristics?  Well, the organs are in there somewhere. Sometimes a couple of stamened inadequates will appear amongst the blowsiness.  But the reproductive parts have to be sought and isolated, all the petally debris must be cut away.   If they want to reproduce they depend on human intervention.

But that really isn't the problem for me.  Lots of things have reached that point of dependence.  And wild roses are still everywhere producing away.  No, it's purely the barrenness of this sort of rose as a food source for pollinators.  Heavens, how annoyingly dull a point this reveals itself to be. And some people might want to suggest that roses don't provide much pollen or nectar for bees and other insects anyway.  And that birds seem not to like big rose hips, though deer and squirrels will sometimes eat them.

It's all about access and the proportions of stamens to petals.  Peter Beales' catalogue points out which roses will attract pollinators, offering three levels.  A cursory investigation suggests the ones with beautiful great bosses of golden or dark stamens reveal themselves to be the best for this: it's logical, let's be logical.


Here's a picture of two roses lolling over a wall in Italy. The one on the left is clearly useless, the one on the right seems to have small etiolated stamens, despite its wide-open legs. But you've got to keep alert and use your brain, it's jolly hard to get good information about these things, most is way too general. If the plant produces hips, it must have accessible pollen so that's a good rule of thumb. Then eyes, unbutton those buttoned eyes.

I don't want to pick on David Austin, I'm all for exports, taking on the Dutch at their own game, filling peoples gardens with flowers, excitement about the beauty of flowers. But the thought of all those vast solid pouffes of flower covering acres of garden everywhere is uncomfortable. They'll be taking space where plants that offer sustenance: warp and weft in the greater projects of nature could and should be.

Let me be clear, David Austen offers roses with exposed centres, even amongst his so-called English collection, and Peter Beales sells lots that are buttoned and quartered, in the lovable parlance of the rosarian.  But again, it's all about proportion, and in this case, sales and reach.  And sadly too, direction.  I see Kordes is going that way, Peter Beales' new ones are getting ever fuller-petalled.  It's a fashion that has gripped the gardening world for years now.

Back on my heavenly cloud, these are the roses I'm ordering for the Italian garden, which will be in shades of purple, lilac, lavender, yellow and white.  Look at their lovely showy centres.  Bury your head in those - you'll get covered in pollen.  Admittedly fertilisation doesn't help with the longevity of the flowers, but I long for happy insect life, for my garden to be part of something bigger than itself.
rosa alba semi-plena


Lilac Charm

rosa dupontii

Faithful Friend

And you don't have to forgo the swirling folding petals.  Some roses, semi-doubles, or those with something around 20 petals, (which can include some gorgeous hybrid teas and many floribundas), hybrid musks, Portlands, many climbers and ramblers, others too probably, manage to combine extraordinary petallage with good stamens when they are full blown.  Josephine Bruce is one, Blue Moon is a candidate, Leverkusen and other early beautiful yellows. 

 There are masses more, explore a little, following the rules

 1. Do you love it?  (colour, perfume, charm)
 2.  Will it work?  (Size and shape of plant, disease resistance, amount and timing of flower)
 3.  Is it a solipsistic mop, going nowhere, offering nothing? (Away with it, put it behind thee.)

So let's tie it all up back with the song.  What I love about that is how the nothingness shifts around.  Its location is unstable, starting everywhere outside the couple on their throne, moving inside the protagonist, circling round the whole thing about love, ending up somewhere back very close to the "pretty baby", who must be left.  There they are, those roses, so many pretty babies, sentimental, empty, pointless, just so many nothings.  Quite clearly exactly what Dylan wished to tell us about.  Boulevards of broken cars - pshaw! Or should it be, cha-cha-cha?