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All gardeners can name the time each year when their garden reaches its peak, the moment that they wait all year to witness. It may come with a display of spring bulbs, or the hues and textures of a brilliant autumn. For me it comes in early July when the big rambling roses in my garden are awash with their annual deluge of flowers.
In an era when so many roses have been bred for compact growth, large blooms and prolonged flowering, I still look to these sprawling, old-fashioned beauties for my greatest satisfaction. In full bloom, they have an impact that few other plants can command – not just in their visual presence, but also in the intensity of perfume that so many of them cast on the air, especially in the warmth of a summer evening.
For the best show as well as the best scent, choose a white-flowered variety, brilliant against a blue sky and glowing softly through the long twilight of midsummer. If you have the space, look for Rosa mulliganii, famous as the centrepiece of Vita Sackville-West’s Garden at Sissinghurst in England. Its huge size makes it just the right adornment for the average back fence, easily stretching along a 12-metre length but taking up considerably less room in width than the average cedar hedge. It is hardy, healthy, requires no pruning and very little care once established. As a bonus, its fierce thorns will discourage any vandal who contemplates hopping over into your backyard.
Conversely, if the location you have in mind is close to a path or over a deck where thorns would be a drawback, you might prefer a thornless variety like ‘Lykkefund.’ This Danish discovery, whose name means “lucky find,” will spread gracefully over some 4.5 to six metres. Its small, healthy leaves set off the highly scented flower clusters that look cream from a distance but on close inspection reveal tints of pink and pale gold. And it is exceptionally hardy, too.
‘Kiftsgate’ is probably the best known of all the giant ramblers and can be spectacular, although I find it more temperamental and not quite as generous in flower as Rosa mulliganii. ‘Bobbie James,’ ‘Wedding Day’ and the orange-blossom-scented ‘City of York’ are less vigorous and a little easier to train. ‘Seagull,’ with more petals to each little flower, makes a magnificent wave of foaming white.
If you prefer a little more colour, ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ has blush-pink, frilly blooms as romantic as a valentine, while ‘Félicité Perpétue’ has lipstick-pink buds that open into little white rosettes. The latter, along with its sister rose, ‘Adélaïde d’Orléans,’ a lovely mixture of pink buds and cream flowers with a scent like primroses, will remain evergreen in a mild winter, although neither sets fruit.
Best of all, both for generosity of flowers and haunting fragrance, is ‘Francis E. Lester,’ whose showers of pink and white are succeeded by bright-red berries, giving you another season of drama to look forward to when its summer splendour has faded. ‘Kew Rambler’ has similar flowers, as well as attractive blue-grey foliage that compensates for less scent and fewer winter berries.
All of the above achieve their impact with huge sprays of tiny flowers. For larger blooms and a wider choice of colours, the ramblers introduced by French nurseryman Albéric Barbier in the early years of the 20th century offer the kind of ruffled pastel flowers that appear in still lifes by the Old Masters. The rose he named for himself is a case in point, with its soft butter-yellow buds opening to cream flowers. Thorny ‘Albertine’ and smooth-stemmed ‘François Juranville’ are both a delicate salmon-pink, while ‘Léontine Gervais’ is peach-coloured.
This last group of ramblers gives a grand show at the end of June and, when mature, will often follow up with a scattering of autumn blooms. Unless carefully trained, they tend to get bare around the lower limbs, so choose a position where they can spread sideways rather than up. On the other hand, if you want to use one as a vertical accent, you can always add one of the shorter clematis to clothe the base, or plant a screen of shrubs or tall perennials in front. Just be sure to give the surface roots of the rose enough space to spread, at least 30 centimetres all around. Clematis in particular have a fairly competitive root system and should be planted even further away and trained towards the rose as their vines extend.
My preference is generally for a soft-coloured background, the better to highlight bold perennials at the front of a border, but there are occasions where a jolt of stronger colour is needed to complete the picture. ‘Bleu Magenta,’ with its clusters of lush, dark-crimson flowers, is an excellent rambler to fulfill such a need. Not much scent, sadly, but a wonderful feature for a white wall or to weave among blue spruces. For the smaller garden, ‘Chevy Chase’ combines blooms of a brighter cherry-red with a more restrained habit of growth. ‘Veilchenblau,’ as its name suggests, produces violet flowers, flecked with white. It has an attractive green-apple fragrance and is another thornless variety.
All of these roses are easy to grow provided that you give them a good start. Ordinary garden soil is fine, although you can mix in a handful of bone meal if you like. Make sure that you dig a hole large enough to spread the roots out comfortably. If necessary, prune them shorter rather than curl them around. Plant the crown about five centimetres below ground level, and water the rose in well. As long as you keep it well watered in its first year, that’s all the care it will require. By all means, train one up a tree if you like that effect, but choose a very sturdy host and accept that you will get fewer flowers than if the canes were encouraged to grow horizontally.
In an age when many gardeners are searching for trouble-free, low-maintenance plants, it is surely time for these undemanding beauties to have a renaissance. Their flowering season may be brief, a matter of weeks rather than months, but to see one come into bloom is like eating a whole box of chocolates in one go. Pure indulgence!
The differences between ramblers and climbing roses are vague enough that the categories often overlap. In general, climbers are those roses that have a stiff, vertical growth habit, producing large flowers over a long season. They are usually pinned against a support, and require annual pruning and training to look their best. Ramblers have long, flexible canes that can be threaded through and around a support or allowed to trail gracefully over a horizontal structure. They require little, if any, pruning, but new canes need to be guided in the right direction as they extend.
I’ve only just touched on a few favourites from the wide array of ramblers available to gardeners. Because they have fallen out of favour, they are not always easy to find in local garden centres, but you should be able to obtain them either through a local retailer or a mail-order supplier. Consider also a membership in the Vancouver Rose Society, which sources hard-to-find roses for its members across the province.
Old Rose Nursery, 1020 Central Road, Hornby Island V0R 1Z0, tel. 250-335-2603, mail-order available at www.oldrosenursery.com
Brentwood Bay Nursery, 1395 Benvenuto, Ave., Brentwood Bay V8M 1J5, tel. 250-652-1507. www.brentwoodbaynurseries.com
Select Roses, 22771 38th Ave., Langley V2Z 2G9, tel. 604-530-5786 Killara Farm, Langley (by appointment only), tel. 604-532-9831. www.geocities.com/killarafarm
Vancouver Rose Society, 6633 MacDonald St., Vancouver V6N 4G6, tel. 604-261-6417. $15 annual membership can be mailed to address above. www.vancouverrosesociety.org
Author and gardener Christine Allen is a past president of the Vancouver Rose Society and teaches courses in rose care and cultivation at VanDusen Botanical Garden.