O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet…
–from Romeo and Juliet
This morning I was working on this new essay, “Ballast”, and was in the process of wondering, not aloud exactly but certainly on the page, about a rose I have growing over a railing on the west-facing deck, our garden “room” if we have one: it’s the deck where our table is in summer, where we eat our dinners, sit with guests at night with glasses of single-malt, listening for loons down on Sakinaw Lake:
The rose came from one of the spring plant sales that happened every year at the Community Hall when we first lived here; you brought your box with you and you got there early because everyone wanted the tomatoes or irises or Muriel Cameron’s dahlia tubers or bits of Vi Tyner’s roses. I’m not sure this one came from Vi Tyner (who did give me moss roses, a soft pink one and a deep pink). But it grows everywhere — old homesteads, seaside gardens, along fences in semi-industrial areas as if remembering a former house, ancient care. It grows across from the Post Office in Madeira Park, for example, and I don’t know if it ever gets pruned or watered. And there’s a place on the highway, near Middlepoint, where one grew for years and years, until it was absorbed by the forest taking over the site of a cabin which I believed burned to the ground before we ever arrived in 1981.
Anyway, I’d thought a little about trying to identify it but somehow never did. And somehow today was the day so I took my rose encyclopedia and a cup of coffee out to the table (you can see both there, if you look hard. It’s not a good photograph but today is so hot that I wasn’t going to stand around fussing with the camera…) and went through, page by page. Until I came to “American Pillar”. Bred by Dr. Van Fleet in 1902. A very prolific and wide-spread rose and yes, it will survive any kind of neglect, it seems.
I’m interested in how plants travel, how they are carried to new places, how they are botanical palimpsests, in a way. And how they hold stories. Some of the stories are plain and true and some are cryptic. In Placentia, Newfoundland, two autumns ago, we stayed in a beautiful old Second Empire bed and breakfast inn. There was a lovely garden in front, overlooking the gut or channel connecting two arms of water. And a little photo-essay in the entrance hall detailed the restoration work done on the house, adding that the old roses in the garden had come in soil serving as ships’ ballast, the ship having come from Ireland.
I have roses from gardens no longer extant. Vi Tyner’s for example, which provided the moss roses as well as white violets, yellow flag irises, and a root of Viburnum opulus which promptly died once planted and which I was always too timid to tell her. A “Tuscany Superb” which came from a cutting given me at a birthday party held perhaps 30 years ago in a house which has long been torn down. My “New Dawns” (a repeat-blooming sport of “Dr. Van Fleet”) came from an elderly neighbour of my parents in Saanich who told me how her mother rooted cuttings (old wood and new wood, in specific proportions, which I’ve forgotten now, but she helped me cut them and three of them did root and thrive still, more than 30 years later). That’s another rose, like “American Pillar’, to be found in almost every old garden, it seems. Ours are in full and rampant bloom right now and they are almost exactly the colour of my granddaughter’s shoulders. They have such a sweet and delicate scent, almost apple-y, and what’s in a name? Such beauty and such hope.