rain and old roses

blanc double coubert

I’ve always loved the old roses, the noisettes, the mosses, the varieties named and anonymous, the ones you see smothering trellises in abandoned gardens. When I was a teenager in Royal Oak, then a rural neighbourhood of Victoria, with many of the pioneer families still living in their original homes, I’d ride my horse along quiet roads on early summer morning and stop now and then to pick a rose growing over its fence or into a field. I remember this one, Rosa rugosa ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’, a pure white beauty with an intense old-rose scent. In fall, its hips were deep scarlet against the dark green leaves. I found a plant of it at the farm and garden centre in Gibsons in late winter and for now I have it by the front door. For now, because I want to see how it will do with limited sunlight. For years a ‘New Dawn’ thrived there, grown from a cutting given me by a neighbour of my parents, a woman who knew so much about Royal Oak. Her son rented a house across the road, a house she told me was the oldest house in Saanich. I don’t know if that’s true. I tried asking an archivist years ago and he was dismissive. That road didn’t exist before the 50s, he insisted. But an earlier road existed there, called (I think) Colquitz Avenue. The man across the road, Bill Mahon, was the son of an orchard-growing family. The oldest house was behind his house, also old. In those years there were a number of orchards on Wilkinson Road and I believe descendents of the Quick family still owned the house built by William Quick in 1911 and the fields filled with daffodils in spring, where cattle grazed, and sometimes sheep.

The ‘New Dawn” is less enthusiastic about its location these days but another one, grown from a cutting from Edith Iglauer’s ‘New Dawn’, has established itself happily along a trellis and beam above our patio. It shares the beam with wisteria. Edith had cuttings of our wisteria, I remember, and she’d phone when it bloomed. Edith was Angelica’s first visitor when we brought her home from the hospital; she came for tea, with the gift of a harlequin bear who played Brahms’ lullaby, and the package was tied with ribbon and a single bud of ‘New Dawn’ which was exactly the colour of our new daughter’s shoulders. See what a complicated thing is memory? It holds roads, names, colours, what it felt like at night to walk back to my house from the oldest house in Saanich after babysitting for the family who lived there, where roses grew on Beaver Lake Road and on the corner of Glanford and Vanalman where the Ferrie sisters still raised chickens and where they’d gone out to dances at the Royal Oak Community Hall, built by local men, including William Quick, in their gum boots, carrying their dancing shoes to change into for the evening. They were old when I knew them. The trail that they took to the hall wound up the hill and through the orchards. They gave my mum cuttings of several old roses but somehow the plants were forgotten when my parents moved to an apartment towards the end of their lives. But I remember them, vivid pink, with a heady fragrance. They might have been ‘Reine de Violette’ — their petals were densely clustered and they were heavy-headed in rain.

A complicated thing. When I close my eyes, I can feel the sunlight on my back as I ride down Beaver Lake Road, my horse’s feet light on the pavement. My hand on his damp neck, the reins soft with dubbin. I don’t yet if the ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’ will stay in the Chinese tub by the front door but every time I pass it this season, I will stop for a moment, remembering. I am walking home late from the oldest house, legs wet from the tall grass, the apple trees in bloom, and the Ferrie sisters laughing as they return from the dance.

old house on mahon property

4 thoughts on “rain and old roses”

    1. I remember the nursery very well, Richard! And the Layritz house — is it still there, I wonder? The advantage of exploring that area on a horse was that I had time to notice everything at a time when I was young enough to be imprinted with those old ghosts, that history. Bert Footner, the man who designed many of the houses at Walhachin, lived on our street and I suspect he built two other houses that are still there. But I never knew how to investigate further. My one brief correspondence with a former Saanich archivist didn’t go well.

  1. Coming from England, I am genetically disposed to like roses, especially the wild ones. l also find these ones are much more likely to survive winters here than a lot of the ones sold in garden centres.

    1. I have a couple of dog roses. One was rootstock for something else, which died, and I’ve let the wild one clamber up the side of the house. It blooms once (right now in fact) but is greenly beautiful for the rest of the growing season, and it has the most gorgeous hips that last until the New Year. And I saw some dog rose shoots growing up where we hike, either seeded by birds or dumped by someone who didn’t want to pay the landfill fee. I dug up a couple and let them go in wild places. Flowers so delicate and sweet-scented, canes so thorny!

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