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  • Writer's pictureBrandi Bird

A Tale of Two Roses

To the left, a Knockout rose, in the middle and on the right, heirloom cultivars.

I bought a house without going inside of it and that is a true story, friends. When I trespassed on the abandoned corner lot property like the criminal that I am, I found a spindly thorn-encrusted stick near the west facing fence. I was skeptical that anything would bloom, but left it all the same the first spring I moved in. She produced just one bloom, as large as a teacup and beautifully fragrant even from a distance. When my greedy fingers reached out to explore this surprising treasure, her velvet petals fluttered to the ground in a swirl of deep crimson.

I left her alone another year to see if it was a fluke and again, she produced one magnificent bloom and lived the other 11 months and 3 weeks of the year in obscurity as her mild-mannered alter ego, Spindly Thorn-Encrusted Stick. The same year, I planted a Knock Out rose. These southern staples are impossible to miss, they bloom their pretty little heads off for months at a time, they are disease resistant, and they are easy to grow. I'm sure the fussy flavored rosarians got their clippers in a twist when amateur grower William Radler cooked up the Knock Out rose in his Wisconsin basement by Frankenstein-ing two tea roses together. In the first year, 250,000 knock out roses were sold and now almost 25 years later, you probably don't drive through a Bumper's or Jack's without spotting one in the low maintenance landscaping favored by banks, fast food joints, and nursing homes. Mr. Radler essentially transformed the rose from the uptight and needy Sandra Dee into the flashier, good timing Sandy, if you can follow a Grease metaphor.

Now don't get me wrong, roses have been changing for thousands of years due to both nature and human interactions. Roses are 35 million years old and have their own history that is as intriguing and class-influenced as Gosford Park. The roses that inspired Shakespeare's sonnets were considered legal tender in some royal courts. Under Elizabeth I, roses were grown as large scale agricultural crops and had branched out from the original pink of the first rose into shades of fragrant multi-blooming whites and reds. If Will wandered into a Walmart today to buy his patroness a reasonably priced and pesticide laced bouquet, he wouldn't recognize the leggy stems and vivid colors of the modern rose which stays in perpetual unscented adolescence, never reaching the full lush bloom of roses in his era.

I like my Knock Out rose; she is a fuss free and reliable presence in my garden and in probably every other garden in my neighborhood, too. Like a well-behaved chorus girl, she looks pretty without standing out too much. I also have the diminutive Knock Out Petite rose bush that stays evergreen and agreeable most of the year. In truth, many rose cultivars are as fussy as debutants and prone to the sickliness of a wan Victorian child. In short, they are too fussy for this gardener and the sometimes jungle/sometimes swamp/sometimes desert conditions in my little corner of the world. My personal gardening manifesto dictates, "Embrace your conditions," subtitled, "girl, ain't no lilac gonna grow here, so buy you another camellia and chill out."

It is the 3rd year of my garden-ish, and this past winter I gave haircuts to Spindly Thorn Encrusted Stick and her dubious neighbor. I took down part of the 6 foot wooden privacy fence that she was parked against and cleared out a pushy shrubbery. In a show of approval for my landscaping adjustments, she gave me 3 beautiful blooms, each as big as my hand. They grew as sisters, each trailing the development of the previous, over a period of 10 days. Her petals burst in final crescendo and the spring winds carried the spent petals to distant corners of the yard where they winked and smiled. I can truly say I enjoyed every day of her short visit. Quelle surprise! Dubious Neighbor offered a single white blossom of her own, also fragrant and richly petaled. Such a gift.


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