Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Monday, July 27, 2009

Heirloom Gardening

Male Hooded Warbler (Photo to the left)

As the summer grows hotter and more humid here in North Carolina, I'm working to keep my roses alive and relatively healthy, despite my aversion to spraying and chemicals. And I'm amazed at the serendipity of life in general. You see, I didn't always grow roses, much less heirloom, or Old Garden Roses, as I do now and it is strange to see how a little thing like a rose has played such a large role in my life.

Way back when (well, 15 years ago) I was single and living in a condo. I figured I'd never get married or realize my dream of living in the country. I was resigned. But much to my surprise, I met a wonderful man through my hobby of bird watching and he lived…in the country. The photo of the male Hooded Warbler shows you why I love bird watching to this day, and it's not just because I met my husband through this hobby. :-)

(And in another bizarre bit of serendipity, I went to college to become a biologist, but in the end switched majors. But my husband is a biologist, which means I can pretty much understand what he's talking about and I don't get grossed out by the peculiar contents of the bottles I find in the refrigerator.)

So with a great deal of delight, I sold my condo and moved to thirty acres that back up to a swamp. The mosquitoes and snakes are generally less delightful, but that's another story for another time.

Anyway, we purchased a house that had been built by a woman who grew roses. There weren't many roses left, but a huge Tea rose called 'Marie van Houtte' (shown below) managed to survive the neglect while the house was for sale and "between owners". At the time, I didn't know what it was, but I loved its loose, soft cream and pink blooms. And the previous owners generously sent me three more roses as a house-warming gift. (Folks in the country really are very, very nice.) And I wanted a few more. I bought the standard Hybrid Teas and every blessed one died on me. I figured I had a black thumb. Plus, I really hated spraying because we also wanted to turn 3 acres into a wildlife sanctuary (not to mention that my dogs kept eating the rose hips). I almost gave up.

But while I was getting used to gardening, I started searching rose catalogs and reading up on roses. I found Old Garden Roses, that is, roses that were hybridized before 1900 and generally only bloom once a year but are rich with fragrance. They don't need to be sprayed—yippee! And after a few seasons, I joined a local rose gardening club. I won awards at a few rose shows, and even managed to identify my beloved 'Marie van Houtte'. And I discovered Tea roses and Noisettes that seem perfectly adapted to this area and actually rebloom throughout the summer. In fact, Noisettes were originally hybridized by Mr. Champneys in Charleston, SC, so the southeast is a good home for them.

And while the Hybrid Teas burned up too quickly from the heat, humidity and disease, Tea and Noisettes flourished. In fact, I (perhaps unwisely) purchased two Noisettes, 'Reve d'Ohr', (show to the left) to plant over a metal arbor leading to my vegetable garden. Then I had to add two more metal arbors to hold up the huge climbers. When 'Reve d'Ohr' literally crushed all three metal arbors, I cut them back and my husband built a massive wooden arbor. Within a season, they had clambered over that and covered it completely, providing excellent nesting habitat for a series of wrens, sparrows, and the occasional mockingbird.

Completely absorbed by my new-found friends, I dug deeper into the literature and collected every possible book on roses and historical roses I could. And I ran across myriad stories of the Empress Josephine and her rose garden at Malmaison. She may be credited with really started the systematic collecting, hybridization and cataloging of roses. She even had an arrangement with the French and British fleets in the middle of the Napoleonic wars to allow her to acquire roses and seeds from Britain and to allow a visa for Mr. Kennedy—a famous British plantsman—to come to France and help design her garden. Eventually, her gardens were so extensive and well-known, she had to hire guards to patrol it because people were stealing her roses at night!

At about the time I was reading about Malmaison and Josephine, I resurrected another dream of mine: to be a writer. And between my love of roses and the fascinating historical detail of robbers stealing roses out of the gardens at Malmaison, my historical romance, Smuggled Rose was born! After all, those stolen roses had to go somewhere and we know there was a great deal of smuggling going on, so it's only natural to assume some of those roses made it back to British soil.

That's how, serendipitously, I realized three dreams I once thought I had to abandon: I married a wonderful man; I moved to the country; and I became a writer.

And I grow luscious, beautiful roses and never spray them, at all.

Something Fun—Easy Rose Water

Because it is hot and I do grow roses, here is a wonderfully refreshing face tonic. I use it to rinse my face in the summer. This makes a very small batch. You can easily double it, e.g. 1 cup rose petals and 2 cups of boiling water, but I prefer to make small batches so I can be sure to use it up while it is fresh. This can even be used for some Near Eastern recipes that call for rose water.

½ c. rose petals (pack them in) from bushes that have not been sprayed

1 c. boiling water

Place the rose petals in a Pyrex glass bowl or large measuring cup. Pour the boiling water over the petals. Let steep until it cools.

Pour into a very clean bottle and keep in the refrigerator.


—Amy Corwin

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