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First, Lost and Careless Love: a Rose Memoir

Everyone remembers some "firsts" in their lives: first day of school (I'm sure I've repressed that), first kiss (that I do remember), and I would think for any number of readers, their first rose. This could be first seen, first rose bought and grown, first exhibited, first cutting to survive and for a few, first hybridized.

When I was in grammar school in the mid 1950's, my father did a complete redo of the garden bed that bordered the front lawn of our home in Bakersfield. That bed was replanted with a kaleidoscopic palette of roses and I think that was where I imprinted on this particular flower. Many rose aficionados remember well back to their childhood when their love of one rose or another started them on a life-long passion. It was certainly like that for me with one particular rose.

I don't know how the roses were selected for the beds but expect my father asked the gardener to do something attractive. Like any gardener of fifty years later, I imagine that he might well have gone down to the local nursery and bought a variety of the heady new creations of mid-century hybridizers.

All I know is that there was one rose I've talked about ever since and remember as if it was yesterday. It's the only rose in the garden I recall and it was utterly unique. It smelled heavenly and had medium pink blossoms that were speckled as if with white paint. Not striped, and not one blossom identical to any other. I was smitten.

I grew up and moved away. The house was sold and sold again. A number of years ago I went back to the homestead. The bed was still in roses but there was nothing resembling the dappled pink of my youth.

A few years ago I got serious about roses—but not all at once. I bought an older home in Shell Beach on the Central Coast. This house was a termite meal away from being a tear-down. It had one bedraggled rose neglected by renters but from which my partner, Pamela, took a cutting. The rose bush was unceremoniously dug out as was poorly poured concrete and a particularly unattractive member of the iceplant family.

I wanted a turn-key yard, considering myself as much the non-gardener as my father had been. I hired a local landscaper. We selected local plants that grew well in the neighborhood and seemed low maintenance and put in an automatic sprinkler and drip system. He even threw in a year of yard service.

The year ended. I took over the upkeep and a hedge plant got… well, sickly is as good a term a neogardener like me could come up with. The plant sulked and so did I. On the basis of absolutely no experience, I assumed this poor specimen of failing flora would be difficult to dig up and replace. I held off as long as I could. Finally I took shovel in hand, drove it to the hilt with surprisingly little effort and five minutes later the shrub was out. I was stunned by the ease of the effort. I had expected something dense and daunting. I was in luck with the soft sandy soil near the ocean.

Now, what to go in the hole? I would like to tell you it was the rose from my childhood or any other rose but it was another hedge plant restoring and maintaining the symmetry of my near-Stepford yard.

But as I spent more time at the house and went through a spring in a neighborhood with a fair number of roses, that generous ground seduced me. Let's just say I now have a hodge-podge of rose bushes so disorganized I can only thank whoever coined the phrase "cottage garden" as an excuse for poor planning and floral chaos.

This messy menagerie didn't get into the ground all at once. I started with a fixation with oranges and yellows, sought out stripes, tried to follow advice on what to grow near the ocean and knew I would eventually refind that special stippled rose.

Then old roses became the preoccupation after seeing the spectacular fragrant once bloomers in several garden collections. My growing obsession was taking on a life of its own. Fortunately, there were enough similarly afflicted souls to keep a number of small nurseries specializing in old and unusual roses in business.

I remember my first trip to Vintage Gardens in Sebastopol where co-owner Gregg Lowery spent well over an hour walking me through the stock and helping me find older multicolored roses I'd never heard of. Few if any catalogues had pictures of them, though Gregg and Phillip Robinson's catalogue enthusiastically described hundreds of old dowager beauties, though without any photos. I don't remember if I asked Gregg specifically about a dappled pink rose from Bakersfield, but I did inquire about polychromes and stripes.

That day I took seventeen roses home in a single cardboard box in "bands", those little containers cuttings are started in. I would have to wait a year or two to see these roses in bloom but I had become more patient. Those roses would grow, though, like all those already planted and I realized I was running out of room. I had to do something! I had already put in two sets of flagstones so I would have somewhere to put all the pots I was accumulating.

I gave roses away, donated them to garden and rose club and park fundraisers, and put them on the curb with the "Free To Good Home" sign. Friends, family and near-strangers received roses for the sketchiest of occasions. A number of roses including a half dozen hybrid teas from the 1930's through 1970's from Vintage went to my friend Lori Moffit, who has Ana's Roses in Nipomo. With her interest in older roses and nearly five acres, I thought I had found a safety valve. I'll always be grateful that she identified that first Shell Beach rose as 'Color Magic' when it came into first bloom last year. As difficult as it was to find space, it has gone back to the original garden bed we found it in.

That was a year ago and since then Lori has decided to move to Georgia. Her lovely homestead on the mesa near the Pacific Ocean, including an acre of roses, is for sale. I told her I'd be happy to take as many roses as she wanted off her hands. I had the Descanso Gardens twice a year plant sales and the annual "Open Garden" fundraiser for the spectacular Old City Cemetery in Sacramento particularly in mind for her donations.

"Fine," she said, as I roamed through rows of potted roses for sale Mothers' Day weekend. "Let's start with some of the roses you gave me last spring." 'Belle Blonde', 'Mr. Chips', 'Saturnia', 'Aztec', and several others that I had never seen in bloom were still in the gallon pots I had moved them to from cuttings. None had been in bloom last spring.

And there was one with a single medium pink blossom on one with white paint splats.

I turned the pot around. I had written 'Careless Love' on it when I had moved its Vintage cutting up from a band the previous spring. It went into the car with the other Vintage roses and some others that Lori set aside.

I had scoured too many nurseries, gardens, parks, homestead fences, old cemeteries, and dozens of bookstores' rose books through the years to not hold my breath.

I took 'Careless Love' home and looked at it. It still had the Vintage Gardens nametag stuck in the soil with "HT" for Hybrid Tea and "1955" following the name. It had filled the car with a lovely fragrance on the way home and had fully opened. Well, it smelled good, the year of introduction was perfect for the Bakersfield garden revision, and nothing I'd seen I fifty years had even remotely looked like this.

It was time to go to the less-frequented rose books and sources I had since I hadn't found it in the ones I had usually gone to for research. I would have remembered….

I started with Roses, by Gerd Krussmann, an interesting book with rose information often found in no other book. A terse but adequate description seemed promising:

'Careless Love', Conklin, 1955, Sport of 'Red Radiance'. Red, streaked and splashed white.

Close enough.

Now with a name I could get much the same description in a number of books but no photos, even in the encyclopedic Botanica's Roses.

I finished, finally, with the lovely and compendious new 2006 edition of Vintage Gardens Book of Roses by Gregg Lowery and Phillip Robinson. (This might be the best fifteen dollars you ever would spend for descriptions of 3073 varieties of roses.) And to quote:

"Crimson striped and halved with soft salmon-pink. An extraordinary striped rose, unlike any other I know; sport of 'Mrs. Charles Bell,' itself a sport of 'Red Radiance.' Adding fragrance to stripes has rarely been achieved in modern rose breeding."

Above this blurb was the symbol "ffff" which means it's really, really, really fragrant. And, though they don't have photos of many of their roses, 'Careless Love' graces the page "Hybrid Teas (Classics)". It looks just as lovely and unique as I remember it as a child and as beautiful and fragrant as the one now back home.

Could I be wrong? Maybe. But I've seen a lot of roses and rose photos the last few years and I'm quietly confident that this is the rose. A few mouse clicks through that wonderful resource Help Me Find shows despite some variety in color-mentioned in several sources, a consistent impression of the plant.

Conklin? Can't find any other rose he's associated with. Maybe he was just lucky enough to realize his 'Red Radiance' ('Mrs. Charles Bell' is cited as the parent only in Lowery and Phillips) had sported a completely different interesting rose. I'm just glad someone at Armstrong Nursery recognized its virtues and propagated it.

Now what? Well, I'm glad to have a fifty year old mystery solved, particularly with my now growing this rose. I'm vastly amused at the irony of having given 'Careless Love' away only to have it returned and realize what it is. How much longer was I going to have wait to find this rose, anyway?

Earlier I complained about having no more room for this passion. For this rose I think we can make an exception. Now I'll just wait and see if some neighborhood kid decides it's the most interesting rose in my garden. But I worry: such a child needs to be warned about what he's up against.

Reprinted from the September, 2007 issue of “Rose Ecstasy,” bulletin of the Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society, Kitty Belendez, Editor.

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