In 1995 I read - and with real pleasure - The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book. It's a comfortable book. By that I mean, reading it is like relaxing after dinner with elbows on the table, listening to some welcome guest speaking of roses and rosarians he knew in a charming and intimate way.
Yes, I was charmed by the book, I was charmed by his descriptions of roses and of the breeders of roses, but I was particularly charmed by the description and photos of 'Constance Spry,' described by Thomas as a climber. I ordered it immediately from Wayside Gardens in South Carolina, but not expecting much of any climbing rose in this harsh climate, I placed this one beside the walk that led to the west side of the house, deciding to treat it as a tall shrub.
Well, a year following the planting, it already needed a trellis, and the third year it gave us a truly spectacular bloom all the way up the trellis side and part way over the top (shown below during that first big bloom).
David Austin describes 'Constance Spry' as a cross between the pink Gallica Rose, 'Belle Isis,' and the Floribunda, 'Dainty Maid.' He introduced it in 1961, and described it not as a climber, but as a tall shrub. He does mention that under the right conditions it can grow as high as seven feet, but this was in the gentle climate of England.
Nevertheless, it thrives here in in this high mountain valley not far from the Idaho border. This morning, I would guess the canes are topping eleven feet. Such are the surprises that plants can deal us all.
The magnificent blossoms of this climber are cupped, almost peony-shaped, jammed with petals of a lovely soft pink, and they reach four inches wide when full blown. Moreover, they have an intense fragrance which Graham Stuart Thomas, describes as myrrh - a rare perfume among roses. Austin explains in his book, Old Roses and English Roses , that his friend Graham Thomas went to the trouble of actually obtaining some myrrh to make the match and assured Austin that his assessment was correct. Austin goes on to write, "In Graham Thomas's opinion, the myrrh fragrance originates in the Ayrshire 'Splendens,' and it would appear 'Belle Isis' must have had this latter rose somewhere in its ancestry." At this, an immediate longing overcomes me for a plant of the Ayrshire 'Splendens.' If I could only find a nursery offering it.
Old Roses and English Roses , last revised in 1990, is now out of stock, but David Austin's new book, Shrub Roses and Climbing Roses is a glorious read, full of rose photographs and descriptions.
Constance Spry, flower arranger and collector of rare roses
Constance Spry, the woman for whom David Austin named this rose, was a flower arranger of consummate artistry, and almost alone in mid-twentieth-century England as a preserver and collector of old and unusual roses. In The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book , Constance Spry's rose garden as well as descriptions of her arrangements are mentioned with great warmth by Mr. Thomas. Her book Favorite Flowers , published in 1959, is out of print, though I noticed another one of hers is available, published in 1993, called Flower Decoration.
It's hard for me to say what my favorite rose could be - I love them all - but 'Constance Spry' has got to be one of the standouts among them. I've since bought two more of these cultivars. I planted them six feet apart at the extreme north end of the property - a true test of their hardiness - and now await developments. Will I need an arbor by next year, or not?
Explorer Series of Hardy Roses
Although we have planted hundreds of trees and shrubs on this property, which ameliorates climatic conditions here enormously, we still contend with wind, heat, and alkaline soil. We still have hot, arid summers, and winter temperatures often go down to minus 35. Our irrigation water itself is alkaline, so acid-loving plants are a luxury confined to smallish specimens close to the house in order to be coddled with Miracid and Ironite. Luckily, roses are happy enough in alkaline soil, some cultivars are even drought resistant, and there's enough protection from trees and shrubs on our acres by now that most hardy roses can do fairly well, though we cannot get away from the cold winters.
A year after planting 'Constance Spry,' while paging through rose catalogs, I noticed some cultivars offered in the Canadian Explorer series of roses developed at the Department of Agriculture's research station at Ottawa. These are a group of plants bred for double blooms, resistance to black spot and powdery mildew, and hardiness to Zone 3. Robert Osborne in his book Hardy Roses describes these plants as long-shooted vigorous pillar roses, well suited for use as climbers - as indeed they are. Derived from plants hybridized by Wilhelm Kordes of Germany and further developed by Felicitas Svejda of Canada, the plants are blessed with glossy, deep green leaves and impressively long blooming periods.
John Cabot and William Baffin - a red and a pink
Named for explorers who had carved out routes through Canada and into the Arctic from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the first cultivar in the Explorer series, released in 1968, was named 'Martin Frobisher,' a tall rugosa-type shrub with pale pink flowers. In 1996 I bought two of the later introductions, 'John Cabot' - a deep red double rose, a blossom of which is pictured above, and 'William Baffin' a fresh, bright pink. I planted them across from each other with a 15-foot-wide expanse of lawn intervening, the 'John Cabot' protected from the west wind by a loose grove of lilacs, Lombardy poplars, and young Douglas Firs. 'William Baffin', though still benefitting slightly from this buffer, was more exposed.
After only one year of growth, both plants developed long, arching canes, their more than one-month-long profusion of blooms showing beautifully against dark glossy leaves. Both are terrifically robust, trouble-free, and generous with their sweetly informal, loosely double flowers. The 'John Cabot,' pictured above was plucked from a bush laden with blossoms, shown left, in mid-June of this year."
The phenomenal 'Henry Kelsey' of Minneapolis
'Henry Kelsey' is another rose in this series, one of the more recent introductions. The plant has vivid red, loosely double blooms, with a golden yellow boss of stamens when fully opened. It's not so stiffly upright as the two others described above. It needs to be tied to its support to stay upright or it'll go low, arching, and pendulous on you. It doesn't grow as vigorously here in Cache Valley as 'William Baffin' or 'John Cabot' - perhaps partly because of the grazing done by our resident deer: it seems to be right in their path to our crab apples. But it grows gloriously in Minneapolis, as shown in the photo at left in the garden of Ethy and Steven Cannon. What's more, the Cannons tell me, the plant keeps blooming from early summer until the first frost - a traffic stopper in their neighborhood.
Minneapolis winters are legendary, as are the winters here in Cache Valley, and so the fact that 'Henry Kelsey' is resistant to winter damage is another benefit of owning this wonderful climber. Osborne's estimate of 'Henry Kelsey' is that it's not only superior to existing red climbers but the best red climbing rose available for cold areas.
These four plants were the beginning of my climbing-rose-ordering spree. By now we have at least a dozen others, recently planted and being watched by us all with both excitement and trepidation. A report on their progress will be forthcoming after we see what the coming summers will bring.
Best wishes to all of you,
Joan Katherine Shaw
March 20, 2000
Photos of Constance
and John Cabot by Joan Shaw
Photo of Henry Kelsey by Steven Cannon
Graphic artist: Melanie Shaw
Online sources for roses discussed:
High Country Roses (Utah)
Royall River Roses
Books available or for order that are mentioned in this essay:
Flower Decoration by Constance Spry
The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book
Old Roses and English Roses by David Austin (currently out of stock)
Shrub Roses and Climbing Roses by David Austin
Hardy Roses by Robert Osborne and Beth Powning
Link to browse for books on roses:
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