©Yuet-Sim Darrell Chiang, 2015

I write about roses because they dislike telephones. They refuse to carry a cell phone. They won’t even answer one, let alone a landline telephone. Let it ring, zing, do its little trivial dance, but roses ignore it. Something noble about that.

If a rose wants some information or if it has a story to tell, it relies on itself or an innocuous rosarian. (I am a rosarian, one who invariable forgets his cell phone on the kitchen counter.) For example, lately I’ve been hearing music in a certain garden I sometimes visit to refresh my soul. Women seem to be singing there, even when I’m the only visitor. At one point today when it sounded as if someone were singing “The Grass is Blue,” a favorite song of my boyfriend in 1999, I stopped beside a flowerbed. There in front of me stood Dolly Parton—the rose, I mean, not the woman. Had the rose really been singing? Had I gone over the deep end? Was there a cell phone speaker hidden in the shrubbery? I shrugged and observed the rose.

It’s a garish orange-red hybrid tea, its size and in-your-face color larger than life, just like the real thing. A bit over the top, if you know what I mean. The flowers sprout 26 to 40 petals, mostly solitary on stems, and the plant grows to five feet, fairly faithful to the country singer’s size. ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Fragrant Cloud’ run in its blood, so of course it has a great scent. Depending on water and soil conditions, it can deep-fry in too much sun, but I’ve heard it’s done fine in 100 degree Phoenix weather.

Dolly, the real person, was born poor in 1946, in Appalachia of Tennessee, one of twelve children, just like my own mama. Only mama never learned to sing. Parton’s career took off in 1967 when she was only 21. By 1971 she had a numero uno country hit, than another in 1973 called “Jolene”—just like our American Rose Society president—and in 1974 “I will Always Love You,” which became one of her signature songs.

In 1966, Dolly had married Carl Dean, and they’re married still. Shows you can love one man but still empathize with heartache, as most of those country singers do. And they don’t need a phone to do it—just a voice.

In 1977 she won a Grammy Award, and by 1980 she was acting in movies. The comedy 9 to 5 was something else—coulda watched it a half dozen times if I had the time. Well, she went on to star in another four movies. In the meantime she opened Dollywood, her own theme park, and later started Dolly Parton Enterprises, bought a couple of radio stations (which she sold in 2000), and so on.

Now this is a shrewd woman, glamorous as that in-your-face neon rose, who, I was informed, is “a master at packaging.” Dolly, I mean, not the rose. So much so, that the last time I was in Nashville, two streets of taverns all had music blaring through their open windows and doors, each one with its own Dolly Parton wannabee, twanging away and strutting her stuff. Pathetic. There is only one Dolly Parton.

You will have noticed there was no telephone in that information. Only a denial of one. And there’s none in the following story of another singer in that garden. And it’s not a hybrid tea but a floribunda, a shrub bred in 1952. This is ‘Kathleen Ferrier’, a salmon pink rose, usually widely rimmed in red-orange with a large center of golden, gleaming stamens in a white basin. The sweetly scented blooms grow in small clusters, and the plant itself grows to about four feet tall and as wide. It produces a prolific springtime bloom, less so in summer. Not only is it drought tolerant, but it also has a strong, healthy constitution.

The same was not true for the singer. Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) was an English contralto with a lovely, unpretentious voice, who sang much Handel, Gluck, and Mahler.

She had married at 17 but had the marriage annulled—yet it was her husband who had dared her to sing, which she did and thereby found her musical voice. She became a Gustav Mahler specialist, often accompanied by the great conductor Bruno Walter, who once said, as if foreshadowing something, that her voice carried “a grave loveliness.” Other world-renowned conductors who partnered with her were Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Malcolm Sargent, and Herbert von Karajan. Not just her voice, but her unassuming grace and warmth too and her friendly and welcoming face endeared her to audiences and musicians alike. I doubt that she spent much time on the phone. Unfortunately, she died of cancer at age 41.

Then there’s the story of ‘Lady Hillingdon’. What a rose! Her mother was the rose ‘Papa Gontier’ and her father was ‘Madame Hoste’. The babe was born in 1910, ‘Lady Hillingdon’ is a deep but soft yellow with inner apricot shading. The color is not a loud or garish yellow; one famous rose authority pronounced it fortunately lacking “the vulgar blatancy that obstains today.” In hot, dry climates, it is a lighter yellow. Depending on the climate, the vigorous bush grows from three and a half to six feet—the warmer, the taller. This is the form most commonly grown in Australia and New Zealand.

A climbing version was found and introduced in the UK in 1917, “another example of survival by natural cunning,” as Peter Beales put it. It is the ‘Climbing Lady Hillingdon’ that is more popular in England and the United States, where it enjoys an “illustrious life” from 18 to 30 feet in height. She is a luxurious, continuous bloomer, said to be “particularly elegant in autumn.” But she does seem to prefer the protection of a wall.

Daughter of Baron Suffield, Lady Alice Hillingdon (1857-1940) was a British baroness who married Charles Mills, Second Baron Hillingdon, in 1886. She was 29. Though owner of two country manor houses (Overstand Hall and Edwinstowe Hall), she preferred London society and lived mostly in the city at Hillingdon Court in Uxbridge.

A number of arch and forthright statements—not made over a telephone of any kind—have been attributed to her. Two are especially famous. “I once had a rose named after me,” she reputedly declared, “and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: ‘Not good in a bed, but fine up against a wall.’” A variation of this anecdote attributes the remark to one of two parsons strolling in a rose garden when they came upon a splendid bush of ‘Lady Hillingdon’. The host informed the other parson that in this cooler part of the country, the Lady was “no good in bed but great against a wall.” Either version seems to attest to its need for a protective shield from wind and cold. It does NOT need a telephone.

Another quotation attributed to Lady Hillingdon is said to be from her 1912 diary, though no such entry has ever surfaced. Her husband the Baron was the Viceroy of India, not always at home. Accordingly she supposedly wrote, “When I hear his steps outside my door, I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, open my legs, and think of England.” Apparently that statement became a bit of Victorian mothers’ advice to worried young virgins before their wedding: “Just lie back and think of England.” I’d rather think of roses. Or tend my 200 and something rose plants. And forget the telephone—which I usually do, much to the frustration of my friends.

©Darrell G. H. Schramm, 2015

Darrell g.h. Schramm is a retired USF professor, now a gardener and writer. He is also the editor of ROSE LETTER, a quarterly of the Heritage Roses Group as well as editor of THE VINTAGE ROSE, a newsletter of The Friends of Vintage Roses. He sits on the board of both organizations while writing furiously.

One Response to “A Rose is Not a Telephone by Darrell G.H. Schramm”

  1. jane juska Says:

    Absolutely delightful.

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