A rose by any other name

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

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

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