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Plain and Simple : 'Iceberg,' a White Rose, Isn't at All Flashy, But Its Presence in the Garden Says Sophistication

February 23, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

As winter wanes and the sale of bare-root roses slows, one rose will continue to sell right through summer--at least in some parts of town. Nurseries on the Eastside report that 'Iceberg' is their most popular rose, in any season. So what do Pasadena and San Marino gardeners know that the rest of us don't? Perhaps the value of a simple white flower.

It may seem saucy to single out one rose from so many, but 'Iceberg' is exceptional. A floribunda, it has decidedly small flowers by today's standards, though it has many of them. It is not a fancy rose--the blossoms are not richly petaled but are simple affairs, without the discipline of form to be show roses. There is nothing flashy about 'Iceberg,' and it won't set any fires in the rose garden. It's not even new, having been developed in 1958. However, members of the American Rose Society have given it an 8.9 rating, on a 0 to 10 system; you will find precious few 9s in their compendium, and no 10s at all.

Why such popularity? One reason is because, though none of the 'Iceberg' rose's parts is stupendous, the sum is just right: This is a very pretty and well-proportioned plant, with flowers that are a particularly clean and snowy white. And white is a very useful color in the garden.

White flowers have a reputation as peacemakers among plants, settling disputes among other warring colors, cooling things off when color schemes get too hot. Though there are other white flowers that might be up to this job, it can be argued that none blooms as often or for as long as 'Iceberg.'

It seems always in flower, not only because it is quick to re-bloom but also because the flowers are incredibly long-lasting. Well after the yellow stigmas at the center have turned black with age, the petals hang on, and they remain a crisp white to the end. That these pure white flowers are powerfully and delightfully fragrant is frosting on the cake.

The foliage is equally neutral, a slightly glossy medium green with just a hint of red at the base of each leaf stem. Disease is practically unheard-of on this plant, and there are few thorns, which makes it less of a threat when mixed in among other plants.

This, reports the nurseries on the Eastside, is perhaps its best attribute--that it can be used anywhere in the garden, not just in the rose bed. It blends beautifully with other garden plants; it is, more than most roses, a landscape plant.

Situated next to flowers of red, pink, blue or lavender, 'Iceberg' is superb. But then white flowers of any sort bring a sophistication to planting design. It is this rose's color itself, the white of a summer tuxedo or a wedding gown, that implies sophistication. And, using white flowers in the garden is no more difficult than putting on that tux or gown--just plant them, almost anywhere.

Pictured, opposite, is a particularly playful positioning. Along a path in designer Chris Rosmini's garden is a solitary 'Iceberg' that seems to leap from the shadows of other shrubs. This nicely illustrates the arresting value of white flowers. Note, however, that 'Iceberg' becomes a large, bushy rose if left unpruned. It is possible to keep it at about 4 feet tall by 3 feet wide by lightly pruning it in winter (never cut it back hard as shown in most rose literature). It is also one of the few roses that can get by on almost no pruning; just remove old, woody stems occasionally. It isn't even necessary to cut off the fading flowers, so should it be planted in the back of a bed among other shrubs, you needn't wade in to tidy up.

Another effective and surprisingly simple scheme is to sprinkle white-flowered plants like salt through flower beds and borders, with a few extra shakes at the far end of the garden, since white flowers tend to recede from sight and stretch distance.

Or use just a few clustered together to anchor any part of the garden. The logic behind this idea is that at any time of year (except, perhaps, in the depths of winter when gardens ought to look seasonably drab), there will be a strong white point that the rest of the garden can revolve around.

If 'Iceberg' has any weakness, it is one that most roses are prone to. It is something one might call knobby knees--the bottom branches are usually bare of foliage. But this is easily hidden. Agapanthus does this job in my garden, and at the base of the agapanthus is the delightful herb summer savory, which makes a colony of erect stems clothed with whorls of deep green, fragrant leaves studded with tiny white flowers. Next to this are pink zephyr lilies and pink-flowered thyme.

And there you go. With white as a beginning, you can add flower after flower to your composition. Wherever color conflicts might arise, simply put in more white flowers. It is only too bad that there are so few white flowers as fine as 'Iceberg.'

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