Could She Keep These Aussies From Going Down Under?

I'm amazed that a rosebush as tough as an old boot can yield blooms as delicate as a Dresden teacup. But such is the Queen Elizabeth. I have three in my garden here in Sydney.

For years I passed two vintage Queen Elizabeth rosebushes at the end of my block on my way to the mailbox. And every time I'd look at those spindly old darlings with their 6-foot-tall branches and diabolical thorns I'd mumble to myself, "One day I'm going to get in there and prune those things. I'll bet no one's lifted a finger in this garden for 10 years."

Of course I never did; it was private property. But oh, was I ever tempted! The tenacity of those roses simply amazed me. Spotted by the salty sea air; buffeted by brutal nor'easters; nearly strangled by weeds. And still blooming. But just.

Then one day my neighbor Jim stopped at our front gate for a bit of a yarn. He's the chairman of our Neighborhood Watch, so not much gets past his eagle eye. "The old place at the corner will be coming down any day now," he announced, pointing his cane toward the 100-year-old house with its overgrown garden. "They plan to build some luxury town houses. I reckon turning the old place into a rental property was its ruination."

Jim resumed his daily stroll through the neighborhood, then I took a look at the old house myself. What once was a grand old mansion high atop a hill with views of Sydney Harbor had surely seen its better day. Cracked steps, broken windows, a "Beware Emus Crossing" sign hanging from a bathroom door. The tenants had all moved out.

Jim was right, the bright yellow "Development Approval" sign hung at the front gate confirming demolition.

"What's to become of the rosebushes?" I asked my husband that night at dinner. But I already knew. The bulldozer would run right over them without missing a beat.

A FEW weeks later, I woke to the sound of a 12-ton Cat plowing through the side of a building. The demolition derby had arrived. "Help," I screamed to my husband, throwing back the blankets. "I've got to get over there and save my roses."

The excavator operator was within two feet of the Queen Elizabeths when I reached the house. Then suddenly he switched the motor off on his rig and jumped down for his morning break. I let out a sigh of relief.

But the man I needed to see was the foreman. I found him at the back of the property standing on a mountain of rubble, reading some plans. He looked like a pleasant enough chap, so I flailed my arms to get his attention and yelled, "Hello there."

Pressing my face against the chain-link fence that kept pests like me off demolition sites, I made an impassioned plea. "May I please have those two old rosebushes in the front garden before your man runs them down? I would really like to save them."

"Don't worry, lady," he said, swatting a few flies on this hot summer morning. "I'll have a chat with Huey." Huey was the excavator operator, I presumed. "What part of America are you from?" he queried, a smile crossing his deeply lined face. Sometimes being an American down here really helps. When I told him I was from New York, he was impressed. But he said he heard there was a lot of crime there, so he'd rather visit Las Vegas.

The next thing I knew, Huey was back in his Cat, had thrown the behemoth into gear, and was moving toward the bushes. The arm on his rig rose like a phoenix then plummeted earthward. The bucket with the big teeth went down with a mighty thud, biting into the dry, brittle soil. Then up it came, cradling the two old bushes in its giant maw.

Huey looked elated. "What color are they, lady?" he called out to me in his thick Irish brogue. They looked like a bundle of old gnarled sticks. "They're pink," I answered, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. He tipped the plants carefully out of the bucket and onto a patch of grass. Then he was off in a cloud of black smoke.

It's amazing the roses survived the transplant. Huey had managed to separate them almost completely from their roots, and one of them had actually been sliced in two. So now I had three bushes. Or possibly none. I dragged them home in the scorching heat and prayed that they'd hang in there till I got them into some cool, wet soil.

Today, as I gaze out the window onto my garden, there's no doubt that the Queen Elizabeth roses - I see three blooming on one bush - are my favorite. Why? Because they're survivors - or as they call them down here, "little Aussie battlers." And that makes them pretty special indeed.

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