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

“It was a tale I entered…”

In the darkest days of winter, we eat our supper on chairs in front of the woodstove, plates balanced on our knees. Looking into fire is preferable to looking out to darkness through the large uncurtained window in our little dining area. But last night the sky was more like a February sky, a deepening blue after the sun set, with the pinky-gold of its setting still glowing beyond the horizon; so we cleared off the long pine table and sat there, candles lit, and the first stars appearing.

The day before yesterday I pruned two unruly roses and heard tree frogs somewhere in the garden. It’s too soon, I called to them, and was surprised at how quickly they went silent! But the garlic is growing well, crowns of columbine are emerging from the clutter of their dead stems, and a few broadbeans (which must have self-sown) are showing every sign of continuing to flourish.

Inside today (because of rain), I’ve been working on finishing up some essays. I think I have a book’s worth. A few still need a fair bit of revising but there’s a body of work there, always a surprise to see even though it’s what I am — was– working towards. Here’s a little passage from a piece about the ballast, known and unknown, carried by those who came before us — my own grandparents, neighbours, the early residents of the neighbourhood where I spent my teenaged years.

In small communities or the old neighbourhoods of larger ones – towns, cities, even the places where rural areas have been absorbed by suburban sprawl — it’s not uncommon to find sturdy plantings which have survived many decades. Lilacs in cold climates often bloom exuberantly without any care at all. Delphiniums send up their tall spires, blue as the sky, though in well-tended gardens they are routinely eaten by slugs. And roses – well, you can tell where homestead gardens were located by the profuse canes of old species ramblers and rugosas – Dr. Van Fleet, Blanc Double de Coubert. Unpruned, unwatered, they cascade over whatever supports might be nearby: a wire fence, a tree (sometimes even a lilac), the remains of a staircase leading nowhere.

I’ve taken my share of cuttings. My 3 New Dawn roses come from the garden of my parents’ neighbour. When she was in her 80s, she told me how her mother had started the roses from a slip given her by the Ferry sisters, a duo who lived nearby in one of the oldest houses in Saanich. The New Dawns, the palest pink (the colour of my baby daughter’s shoulders when Daisy Harknett gave me cuttings), tangled themselves in the limbs of an equally ancient pear. When the property was subdivided and the back part sold, with an old stable, the pear tree with its cargo of roses, and other perennials I never thought to ask for, a man pulled out the rose with a backhoe. I don’t know where he took it.

Some old wood, some new wood, said Daisy Harknett. So I cut pieces with both. I dipped the lower part of the wood in rooting hormone (though I could have used a tea of willow bark) and stuck them into little pots of soil. And now my New Dawns tumble over (respectively) a beam, a pergola, the front door of my house.

In the woods between Elk Lake and Beaver Lake, there was an abandoned house (sometimes I think I dreamed this because no one else I’ve spoken to remembers it) completed knitted into place by honeysuckle and roses. Knitted into memory by roses of a kind I’ve never seen since, apple-scented, white, and humming with bees. On my black horse, I approached with the sense that here was an ancient fairy tale hidden in the woods. Which were not wild exactly but remnant – a few forgotten apple trees, pruned by deer, beaked hazelnut, even laburnum. It was a tale I entered, as a girl will, with a sense of wonder and expectation. I tied my horse to a tree and tried to peer in the windows laced every which way with canes. And though there might have been a prince sleeping within, he didn’t wake.

blanc double de coubert