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GARDENING : Care for Roses? No Thorny Issue

March 30, 1991|JAN HOFMANN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Roses can't read.

They'll never be able to blush at the many fond references to them in poetry and song, never know the history they represent, never ponder the question of whether they might smell as sweet by any other name.

But they also can't peruse any of the many instruction books on how they should be cultivated, says rose expert Clair G. Martin III, so they don't really care whether those instructions are followed.

Instead, in keeping with the sentimental traditions with which they have long been associated, roses tend to be more concerned with the quality of the relationship they have with the gardeners who grow them than with impersonal details such as fertilizing schedules.

Water them twice a week or twice a month, straight from the garden hose or with dirty dishwater. Prune them lightly or severely, plant them in any type of soil. As long as the attention they receive is consistent and caring, they can adapt, he says.

"Most people make a bigger deal about growing roses than they need to," says Martin, a former Orange County nurseryman who is now curator of the rose garden at the Huntington Library in San Marino, home to 1,800 cultivars and 4,000 plants. "People tend to be afraid of the rules. But they just have to remember that the roses don't read the books."

A former president of the Orange County Rose Society, Martin will return to the county April 6 to speak on the subject of roses at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda.

In his presentation, "All the Teas in China," Martin will trace China's influence on the development and history of old and modern roses. The talk is part of the library's "Spring at the White House: Flowers and Folk Art" exhibit, showing through April 14.

Library spokesman Kevin Cartwright says the Chinese connection will highlight the former President's success in opening the doors of China to the rest of the world when he traveled there in 1972. And the focus on roses, and gardens in general, pays tribute to former First Lady Pat Nixon, who established the tradition of opening the White House gardens to the public each spring. The Pat Nixon rose, an example of which is planted in the library's First Lady's Garden, is expected to bloom in mid-April.

Naming roses after people is just one of the well-established traditions associated with the flower, Martin says (Barbara Bush has just had one named for her).

The naming practice has long been common in England and other parts of Europe, he says. But if the names of specific hybrids are too long or unpronounceable, they are often changed into something simpler when they are introduced here.

For true rose aficionadoes, the traditions associated with the flower are as much a part of its appeal as its fragrance or color.

Roses, in one form or another, grow indigenously all over the Northern Hemisphere. But rose propagation did not really become art until about the year 1800, when tea roses from China, so named because they traveled on British tea ships, were crossed with European roses. The new hybrids could bloom repeatedly and became the parents of modern roses.

At the Huntington, Martin and his staff maintain rose varieties from far and near. Some were propagated from cuttings taken in abandoned cemeteries in the California gold country, others from Bermuda and Europe.

Sometimes even the experts are not sure exactly what kind of rose they are. "We get some roses," Martin says, "and we have no idea what their name could be. So we just grow them until we can identify them."

Old varieties of roses, known as heritage roses, are becoming increasingly popular in back-yard gardens, Martin says, particularly with gardeners who want to avoid the carbon-copy look of modern roses. Some of Martin's favorite cultivars hardly look like roses at all--from tiny, white five-leaf blooms to the huge red velvet-leaved climbers that adorn the doorway of the Huntington tearoom.

Whether you are interested in heritage or modern roses, Martin says, the first step is to go either to a nursery or a garden where plants are clearly labeled, to see which flowers seem suitable for your home garden.

The only rule in choosing is to follow your personal taste, he says. Start by looking in the spring--roses tend to have their first blooms about April 15--then again in midsummer and fall to see how they go through seasonal changes. How do they hold up against such stresses as bugs and dry summer heat?

Heritage roses are not generally available in nurseries, but the Huntington and other such repositories sometimes sell cuttings from their plants.

After you have chosen a rose, plant it and feed it regularly with any commercially available supplement. You can follow any schedule you would like, but once established, stick to it. The same holds true for watering.

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