A rose by any other name
WHAT’S in a name? Well, rather a lot, if you ask the marketing boys. Sir Charles Jessel asked me recently why one of his favourite roses, called Vera Dalton, had disappeared from commerce, whereas Queen Elizabeth, its not-so-good forebear, had flourished. Sir Charles is a delightful veteran gardener whose innovative garden in Kent is open for the NGS. He remembers the flood of roses that were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Royal National Rose Society (RNRS) had more members than the RHS. His belief was that choosing a good name for a rose had something to do with its success—the implication being that naming a rose after The Queen was a better bet than many more obscure choices.
But there’s no doubt that a good name helps a plant on its way. Some years ago, I asked the then director-general of the RNRS, Lt Col Ken Grapes (now, there’s a name for you), which was the most popular rose in Britain. This was at a time when David Austin’s wonderful ‘English’ roses Mary Rose and Graham Thomas were top of the pops among readers of COUNTRY LIFE. He replied that it was a pink Floribunda that I probably had never heard of, called Queen Mother. Lt Col Grapes was right and his disclosure taught me much about the rose-loving public.
Michael Marriott, the everyouthful rose expert who works for David Austin, maintains that ‘a rose named for royalty is going to be a variety that the breeder thinks is a very good one’, adding that ‘although the royal name may offer cachet, it does not guarantee a bestseller. Gardeners mostly buy on the merits and looks of the rose’.
Mr Marriott is right. The royal rose with one of the longest names was introduced by Antoine Levet of Lyon in 1880, as Souvenir des Fiançailles de la Princesse Stéphanie des Belges et de l’archiduc Rodolphe d’autriche. The rose was not a commercial success and had disappeared by the time the marriage it celebrated ended, at Mayerling nine years later.
Some truly great roses survive through the ages, despite their names. Then, years after they were first introduced, curious historians seek to research the lives of the people they commemorate. ‘Who were Zéphirine Drouhin and Président de Sèze?’ they ask. No one seems to know. And what about Madame Isaac Péreire? Then, they discover that she was a Parisian banker’s daughter who married her own uncle. I met her great-great-granddaughter once at a dinner party in Paris.
Of course, not all royal names are a guarantee of success. There’s a splendid orange patio rose that was introduced by Dickson Nurseries of Newtownards in Co Down and named Duchess of York. It’s a cheerful variety and sold very well when it first came out, in 1992. Then, within months of its launch, the popular press began to publish photographs that suggested that HRH was not devoting herself exclusively to royal duties—and sales plummeted. Dicksons promptly dropped the name and relaunched the rose as Sunseeker. It never looked back.
‘Nobody remembers the Vera Dalton after whom it was named
Some names remain inscrutable. When Jack Harkness introduced his Margaret Merrill rose in 1977—surely one of the most elegant and sweetly scented of all flowers—he received no fewer than three letters from ladies he had never met, each of whom thanked him for naming it after her.
And what about Vera Dalton? It was bred by an amateur called Albert Norman, who also gave us the postwar classics Frensham and Ena Harkness, both of which were introduced by the Harkness family. For some reason, the Harknesses did not introduce Vera Dalton and she struggled to compete against the flood of other introductions from the great rose breeders of the day, firms such as Dickson and Mcgredy. Nobody remembers the Vera Dalton after whom it was named.
No doubt, 100 years hence, horticultural historians will have discovered the answer to that one, too; let us just hope that she didn’t marry her uncle.
Charles Quest-ritson wrote the RHS Encyclopedia of Roses
Green-fingered First Ladies
The pink rose Vera Dalton was bred by amateur grower Albert Norman, who also introduced Frensham and Ena Harkness