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Women in my Rose Garden

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“I am not an armchair gardener. For the last forty years of my life I have broken my back, my fingernails and sometimes my heart in the practical pursuit of my favourite occupation.”

Vita Sackville West 1958

Who are these women who grace many of our gardens with their evocative names like Mme de Sombreuil, Ghislaine de Féligonde, Mme Hardy and Grace Darling? Why do they have roses named after them?

Some are the wives or daughters of nurserymen or are women who purchased the rights to create their own namesake. Some are heroines or aristocrats, with a rich history of their own, were daring or provocative in their own right and did not need their husbands or fathers to make their own mark in history.

This book, which gives a glimpse into those lives, was a seed sown by a friend sometime ago during the celebration of the centenary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. It has taken a long time to blossom.

From the age of the ancient classics, through French, German and English history to newcomers in our own times, there are more than 125 old and more modern roses named for women in our own garden. Of the many hundreds of roses named after women, the roses in this book represent ones which not only grace our garden, but are also worthy of a place in any garden and the women concerned have interesting stories to tell.

From the age of the ancient classics, there have been moments of laughter and despair, of confrontation with the differing views of different people, and dealing with the tyranny of the web with all its frustrations while appreciating the rich knowledge caught within it. Essentially this book hopes to create an interest in the history of old roses that is not stirred by the evolution of breeding or by botanical intellect but by the historical romance that is integral to old roses. Their legacy is more than old breeders or botanical evolution. Their survival is wrapped in the arms of the women who carry their names into history in more ways than cold, historical, intellectual arrogance.

Why did rose breeders chose these women to recognise with a rose?  In some cases it is easy to understand the connection. In others there seems to be no relationship and we may just assume that rose breeders are romantics at heart, and that some women and the stories of their lives, struck a note which the breeders’ hearts responded to.

Brent Dickerson says in his book The Old Rose Adventurer:

“The Dutch and the Flemings, who grew the first roses, sent them to us with names which were emphatic and often ridiculous. Soon flower growers called to their aid mythology, history both ancient and modern; sovereigns, ministers, magistrates, men of war, illustrious men of all nations, celebrated women – all gave their names to many varieties of roses. Now that the number of varieties increases each year by hundreds, nurserymen and fanciers go to the route of dedicating their newcomers to kin and friends.”  Brent’s book often gave me my first clue.

My thanks to my family, Lloyd, Laurence and Nicole, for their supportive bullying and help with research, to Jocelyn Janon for his translations from his native French and assistance in solving the many mysteries (to the English speaker) of the French written word. Thanks also to Marguerite Tait Jamieson for her idea. Joanne Knight as past president of the Heritage Rose New Zealand has been invaluable in her assistance, freely passing on her knowledge and wisdom. The librarians in the Kapiti libraries have excelled themselves in coping with my sometimes obscure demands. Lastly but not least to Libby, who continued working in the garden while I was writing this.

It is a different kind of history which comes alive in our gardens, somewhat removed from the drudgery of classrooms and this book is for all of you with thanks

My references have been wide and varied. I have sourced information from history, biography and rose books. For reasons of space not all of my over 700 references have made it to the bibliography. I acknowledge all my sources and my apologies if your contribution has not been acknowledged.