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

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS FRANK RO­NAN IL­LUS­TRA­TION RACHEL VIC­TO­RIA HILLIS

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.


Frank Ro­nan is a novelist who lives and gar­dens in Worces­ter­shire.

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