Hue and cry
After a rash decision, made while mourning the sad demise of ‘Madame Caroline Testout’, Frank learns to his cost that a pink by any other name does not necessarily smell or look as sweet
Frank Ronan loves the blowsiness of pink flowers, particularly roses, but is at pains to get just the right shade
Pink is rose in other languages, as it was once in ours. The etymology of pink is cloudy. There is an old German word for striking or pecking which, drawing blood, may have drawn a description of the colour along with it. A more elaborate route between the same ends is more likely. The German pinken led to scalloped leather and pinking shears and perhaps the Middle English noticed that certain small carnations looked as though they had been treated in that way, so that pinks became pinks, as they still are to us (the more carnal carnation came later). In the seventeenth century painters began to apply the word to pale lake pigments. At the time dianthus flourished in paintings, so the connection is sound.
It was a necessary innovation. Neither pale red nor rosy hue can justify this colour that is at once the most appeasing and the most shocking on the spectrum. While diluting red will get you something that might be called a pink, the great and interesting pinks were made by adding a little blue or purple or yellow or even brown. Painters worked that one out long before we gardeners could.
Now that May is here and the roses have begun their blowsy procession we are confronted by pink in all its delight and difficulty. The delights are obvious in a colour that evokes opiate clouds and cherubs and health and perfection. The difficulties, though more obscure, are there nonetheless. Not everyone wants to be suffocated in such a bosomy colour all the time. I have a neighbour who won’t abide any pink flowers in her garden at all (she also despises shoes and good wine, so may not be a great example).
Even for those of us who love pink unashamedly there must come a time when we differentiate between one pink and another and have our tolerance tested. In a border it won’t matter so much because you can take an absolute sow’s ear like Incarvillea delavayi and put the correct shade of orange next to it and have, perhaps not a silk purse but, something startling in an interesting way. On the most prominent corner of the house there is no remedy.
This year it is my dearest wish that Rosa ‘Aloha’ will croak her last salmon-infected breath. Other people, hearing me say this, as they often have over the years, tell me that they quite like ‘Aloha’. I bought ‘Aloha’ from a nurserywoman I trusted on the basis of such an assertion. I would have kept it in a pot until I had seen for myself, but a tragedy intervened. ‘Madame Caroline Testout’ whom I knew to be the most exquisite pink in existence was bought in the same batch and planted on the same corner. She was bare rooted and it was late in the season and I knew the risk, but that did nothing to mitigate the grief at her expiration, nor the stupidity of my reaction in immediately replacing her with the untested ‘Aloha’.
Of course ‘Aloha’ flourished for a while, as any unwanted plant will, but the years of absenteeism have seen a satisfying decline. That bed, in the dry shadow of the house, needed watering and didn’t get it. More happily still, a middle-ranking clematis, just far enough away not to have to worry about replant disease, has definitely shuffled off, making the perfect spot to reinvite Mme Testout. If ‘Aloha’ shows any inclination to linger, push may come to shove.
There are pinks proper in a frill at what will be her feet. They fritter out from the crack below the bottom of a stone tank, relishing the leaching lime. She will be preceded by Clematis ‘Elizabeth’, which is an unimpeachable pink, escorted by the subtlety of pink on the leaves of Actinidia tetramera var. maloides and superseded by the sparse delicacy of the flowers on the same plant. Her last hurrah will chime with Bergenia ‘Wintermärchen’. ‘Aloha’ was just out of that league.
THIS YEAR IT IS MY DEAREST WISH THAT ROSA ‘ALOHA’ WILL CROAK HER LAST SALMON-INFECTED BREATH
Frank Ronan is a novelist who lives and gardens in Worcestershire.