Have a rosy summer!

Rose, thou flower of flowers, thou fragrant wonder,

Who shall describe thee in thy ruddy prime,

Thy perfect fullness in the summertime…?

~ Christina Rossetti, “The Rose,” 1904

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) is one of the most recognized female poets of the Romantic, Pre-Raphaelite period. She often incorporated aspects of the natural world into her

poetry, using fruits, flowers and gardens as symbols to depict life the way she experienced it as a religious English woman during the Victorian era. During her lifetime, Rossetti published five volumes of her collected poetry, as well as several fiction and non-fiction pieces for adults and children.

In her poetry, Rossetti often uses fruit to create an image of seduction, danger and quick decay. Flowers frequently convey the fragility of life. She also includes images of gardens to symbolize the human spirit, or else the Garden of Eden in the Bible as she contemplates her eternal home in Paradise.

Despite such docile images in her poetry, feminist literary critics in the 1980s and ’90s took notice of Rossetti’s focus on gender issues and on her life  as a female poet during the Victorian era when many women were reluctant to publish their work under their own name (although she used the pen name “Ellen Alleyne” for her first published work when she was 18). Rossetti has also served as an inspiration for women with breast cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1892 and underwent a mastectomy that was performed in her home. Rossetti continued to fight canceer until she died in 1894.

In “The Rose,” Rosetti praises the rose as the “flower of all flowers…to gladden earth and cheer all hearts below.” However, she also recognizes the important interrelationship between the rose as the adored and people as the adorers. Rosetti writes, “And yet in happier spheres they cannot need thee/So much as we do with our weight of woe/Perhaps they would not tend, perhaps not heed thee/And thou wouldst lonely and neglected grow…”

It’s true that the cultivated roses in my garden are dependent on the care I provide them in equal measure to the enjoyment they provide me. My rose bed is the most high-maintenance ornamental garden on my property. Besides planting them in a place where they have access to plenty of sunshine and making sure they have fertile, moist soil throughout the summer (see column on June 4, 2017), I also take time to deadhead faded flowers so my rose bushes will focus their energy on setting new buds for repeat blooming. A good rule of thumb for deadheading spent blooms is to make a slanted cut through the stem about 1/8-inch above the second five-leaflet set. This will allow enough new wood to form from the cut to provide sturdy support for a new flower.

However, there are exceptions to this deadheading rule. For example,  several of my roses bloom in clusters, so for those I snip spent flowers off where the short stem meets the central stem. The health of the leaves on the stem also determines where I’ll make my cuts. If I see black spot, rust, or other foliage damage, I’ll cut past the second five-leaflet to the next healthy set.

Another way I care for my roses during the summer is by watching for pests that are common to roses – aphids and black spot. I practice Integrated Pest Management in my gardening, which means that when dealing with insects and diseases that harm my plants, I first consider cultural, physical and biological controls, and use chemical controls as a last measure.

Pest problems usually occur when plants are in a stressed, weakened condition; therefore cultural controls are preventative measures that include 1) choosing disease-resistant rose varieties whenever possible, 2) planting roses in sites that provide the most favorable conditions possible in terms of sun and wind exposure and moist, nutrient-rich soil; 3) Keeping space within and around the rose bushes for air to circulate; and 4) Cleaning up debris from the ground and pruning away dead and diseased foliage. Because I can’t always provide ideal conditions, it’s important that I also set realistic expectations and see my rose garden as beautiful even when it’s not perfect.

Aphids are more of a problem on my roses in springtime when the sweet new foliage beckons these juice-sucking pests. Aphids emit a honeydew that draws ants and other insects; they also spread diseases. I use a magnifying glass to examine the stems and the undersides of leaves. If I see aphids, I’ll prune them out, spray them off with water, pick them off and crush them by hand (my favorite method!), or use a Shop-Vac. All of these are physical controls.

The next step in managing aphids and other pesky insects is using biological controls, which for aphids includes introducing beneficial insects such as ladybugs. (In my experience, this works for a short while and then the ladybugs fly away, so a new batch must be introduced for the next generation of aphids.) Although bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a natural bacterium that is poisonous to some insects (but not beneficial insects), aphids are not listed among the insect pests for which it is recommended.

For more serious aphid infestations, I’ll use chemical controls such as  insecticidal soap, pyrethrin (made from a type of chyrsanthemum) or Neem oil, which is particularly effective in smothering insect eggs and soft-bodied insects such as aphids.

Black spot on my roses is also more of a problem during spring when the weather is warm and rainy. Some of my roses (Albas, for instance) are more susceptible to this fungal disease than others. I’ve seen a big improvement in the amount of black spot I see by planting disease-resistant varieties in the best garden location as possible, using drip irrigation instead of overhead spraying, and pruning out diseased leaves when I see them. Chemical controls for black spot include fungicides and fungicides/insecticides that can be sprayed on plants every one or two weeks during the growing season. I use chemicals as a last resort only when black spot is severe because fungicides tend to burn the foliage during our hot summers – use only in the evening or on cloudy days.

Christina Rossetti uses roses as symbols in various ways in her Victorian-era poetry. In “Under the Rose,” she writes daringly (for that time period) of illegitimacy  as:

The iniquity of the fathers upon the children.

Oh the rose of keenest thorn!
One hidden summer morn
Under the rose I was born.

I do not guess his name
Who wrought my Mother’s shame,
And gave me life forlorn,
But my Mother, Mother, Mother,
I know her from all other.
My Mother pale and mild,
Fair as ever was seen,
She was but scarce sixteen,
Little more than a child,
When I was born
To work her scorn.
With secret bitter throes,
In a passion of secret woes,
She bore me under the rose.

Oh the rose of keenest thorn!
One hidden summer morn
Under the rose I was born.

In Soeur Louise De La Misericorde, Rossetti explores female desire, vanity and aging through the historic narrative of 17th century French Duchess Louise de la  Vallière.According to one analyst of this poem, “her description of a rose withering slowly, to become a stem with sharp points only, signals the change from something beautiful into something that serves no purpose except for accidental pain”:

Longing and love, pangs of a perished pleasure,

Longing and love, a disenkindled fire,

And memory a bottomless gulf of mire,

And love a fount of tears outrunning measure;

Oh vanity of vanities, desire!

Now from my heart, love’s deathbed, trickles, trickles,

Drop by drop slowly, drop by drop of fire,

The dross of life, of love, of spent desire;

Alas, my rose of life gone all to prickles,–

Oh vanity of vanities, desire!

Finally, Rossetti mentions roses several times in her 1893 book of nursery rhymes, “Sing-Song.” She writes in one verse: Roses blushing red and white/For delight…” And in other rhyme, she writes:

Hope is like a harebell trembling from its birth,
Love is like a rose the joy of all the earth;
Faith is like a lily lifted high and white,
Love is like a lovely rose the world’s delight;
Harebells and sweet lilies show a thornless growth,
But the rose with all its thorns excels them both.

Yet, Rossetti is ambivalent about the rose’s thorns. In one verse, she writes the “lady of all beauty/Is a rose upon a thorn,” but in another, she is more critical: “A rose has thorns as well as honey, I’ll not have her for love or money.” 

If you prefer your roses without thorns, check out this list of heirloom roses that have few or no thorns. If your roses must be planted in a site with partial shade, here are some recommendations from the American Rose Society. (By the way, did you know that the rose is America’s national flower?) For a listing of roses that meet a wide variety of specifications (color, fragrance, repeat blooming, height, etc) and are grown locally, use the advanced search option on the Rogue Valley Roses website. And to find out about events and meetings of the Rogue Valley Rose Society, visit the organization’s Facebook page.

I hope you have a rosy summer!

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  • About the Author

    Rhonda Nowak

    Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, writer and teacher. With more than 25 years of gardening experience and a Ph.D. in literature and language arts education, she combines a love for plants, poetry, and prose in her Literary Gardener blog. ... Full Profile
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