The Rose Whisperer: Cheers for Bourbon roses

Photos courtesy of Lynn Hunt.
Depending on the climate and location, Cl. Souvenir de la Malmaison can reach 12 feet in height.
Photos courtesy of Lynn Hunt.
Thornless Zephirine Drouhin was introduced in 1868.

In my most recent post, I featured the new rose garden being created at Kew Gardens in London. I visited there while living in England in the early '90s, but at that time, the roses were nothing to write home about.

Instead, it was my trip to Mottisfont Abbey Gardens in Hampshire that really got my rose juices flowing. A former medieval priory, Mottisfont has beautiful grounds and what is thought to be the largest great plane tree in the kingdom.

But it is the rose garden, designed in 1972 by Graham Stuart Thomas for the National Trust collection, that draws rose fanciers from far and wide.

The garden features more than 300 varieties from all over the world including some so ancient they are prehistoric.

I had only read about most of these roses, so it was an enlightening experience to see (and smell) them in person. Although I could wax lyrical about dozens of beauties I saw, I was particularly taken by two Bourbon roses, Zephirine Drouhin (see the photo on the right) and Climbing Souvenir de la Malmaison (top photo).

Bourbon roses are named for the Ile Bourbon (now called Réunion) in the Indian Ocean, where legend holds that they originated as the happy result of a natural cross between two native rosebushes used as hedges. The influence of the Damask parent gave the blooms an almost intoxicating fragrance, while the China ancestor contributed the tendency to rebloom.

Breeding programs using seeds and cuttings of the original cross produced appealing bushes that were wildly popular around 1850 when it was fashionable to train them as pillars. More than 150 years later, they still have the ability to charm rose lovers.

Paul Zimmerman of Ashdown Roses is a fan who says Bourbons are among the most fragrant and versatile bushes in all rosedom.  He says that varieties such as Louise Odier with large arching canes are excellent choices for climbers and low fences. Many Bourbons are also ideal for pillars or pegging.

Paul has put together two informational videos to teach gardeners how to peg a rose or create a pillar.

For those with room to spare, pegging can create a stunning specimen plant. In my garden, Zephirine cascades over an umbrella trellis, while Souvenir is covered with blooms that soar from terra firma to the second story.

A chilly, wet rain often ruins many of Souvenir’s double-quartered blooms and Zephirine can fall prey to a bit of blackspot. But I don’t let these drawbacks get me down because I can’t imagine spring without either of them.

Which is why I still say cheers to the Bourbons!

Pssst: I’ve often heard that some of the Bourbon roses, such as Zephirine Drouhin, will tolerate partial shade and, in fact, can be trained to grow up a tree. Paul Zimmerman says no. So I’ll start asking around to see which roses can thrive without full sun.

Editor's note:  If you like to take photos of roses (or other flowers), do consider entering our monthly garden photo contest at Flickr: Gardening With the Monitor. It's also a good place just to admire pictures of plants and gardens.

Read more by the Rose Whisperer here and here.

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