The Search for Lost Roses
The Times Horticultural correspondent & Country Life columnist
It was Sir Thomas Browne, 400-years-old this year, who wrote so hauntingly of raising up ‘the ghost of a rose’. Next week that is just what will be happening at an Oxfordshire inn. The event may turn out to be little better than a séance. But, if gardeners are keen of eye and swift of secateur, it may be the raising of a legion of rosy revenants and the reopening of a glorious chapter in our horticultural history.
Longworth is one of a chain of villages that lies on a ridge of fertile, fast-draining loam that runs north as far as Oxford itself. In the late 18th century, this terrain gave farmers a strong advantage: their crops were more bountiful than those of their less favoured neighbours; they ripened sooner, and they needed no dry storage post-harvest. As they beat everyone to market and came home with a premium, so the Longworth farmers began to trade up. Farmhouses became small but significant manors. Land was acquired for purposes other than growing cereals - hunting, forestry and, of course, gardening.
Gentrification came early to the Oxfordshire Golden Ridge and the gentry proper responded by joining in the fun, sometimes in flamboyant form. Fyfield Manor, Longworth Manor, Buckland House, Barcote, Faringdon House and Buscot Park are all part of a patchwork of big houses that resulted. For sheer concentration of affluent building, the area must have been more akin to the plutocratic peripheries of present-day Wilmington, Delaware than the usual English rural order.
But they needed something to grow and show, these squires. So, in the 19th century, the rose arrived, courtesy of five families of nurserymen who found ideal soil conditions in Oxfordshire, and a captive market. Over 175 years, their names - Prince, Mattock, Drew, Tucker and Hill - became synonyms for the best of British rose growing. Long after the area’s initial agrarian prosperity had declined and the big houses had passed into genteel distress, these dynasties continued to be major producers and employers. Having settled there to set a garnish on farming fortunes, they became the region’s raison d’être.
The archives of the Longworth Historical Society are replete with vivid memories of a community that was bound together by the rose - of blushing rose queens crowned at village fetes, of celebrations on the receipt of royal warrants, of new varieties concocted with all the furtiveness of a secret weapon, of rosarian rivalries that amounted to feuds, and of a long painful end as horticultural fashion combined with a yearning to escape the broken-backed life of the professional rose budder to kill off this most fragrant of local industries.
There is one survivor, however - Robert Mattock Roses, which continues to produce ravishing container grown roses near Abingdon. For the scion of an Oxfordshire rose-growing dynasty that spans seven generations, its proprietor, Robert Mattock fils is a remarkably prickle-free chap to have a drink with. But some months ago I found him in reflective mood. ‘Some of those roses that the Princes and others produced were unbeatable,’ he told me. ‘I can just remember some of them, but if you talk to the old boys or read the nursery catalogues going back to the 1880s, you realize how much more treasure has been lost down the years’.
The old varieties
There followed a threnody for such vanished glories as ‘Longworth Rambler’, a beautiful and vigorous red climber from 1880, ‘Longworth Beauty’ a pink and apricot Tea rose from 1902, the virginal and intensely perfumed ‘Elizabeth Arden’ (1929), and the celebrated ‘Isis’, a Garbo of a rose - sensuously scented but glacial-looking - that Robert’s family produced as recently as 1973.
Not only have the nurseries gone, so too have the best of their creations. In the world of plant breeding, quality is not necessarily an assurance of market longevity; but how could we have been so fickle or feckless? That melancholy episode was, as I say, a while ago. It was swiftly transformed into action. Descriptive lists were compiled of the missing rose varieties; appeals went out for gardeners and landowners in Oxfordshire’s rose belt to scour borders, small holdings and hedgerows for living relics.
The Antique Rose Show
On June 11th, Mattock and a crack troop of rosarians will repair to The Blue Boar in Longworth to stage the Antique Rose Show. They hope that their panel will be swamped with mystery blooms some of which may prove to be Oxford’s finest. From them, they hope to restore not just one generation but over a century’s worth of cultivars that would otherwise be garlands for oblivion. Whether you are Oxford-based or not, if you have an old rose that is puzzling you, do take it along to tax them.
The Antique Rose Show starts at 11.00am on Sunday June 11 at The Blue Boar, Longworth, Oxfordshire. A panel of experts will be on hand to identify any mystery roses brought in by the public. The ‘identification parade’ will be followed by Robert Mattock giving a lecture at 2.30 pm on the results of ‘Our Search for Lost Roses’ as part of the Longworth Garden Open Day (2.00 - 6.00pm) organised by the local charity HALF. Flowering-size plants will also be on sale.
A trawl through the old catalogues reveal the following varieties bred in Oxfordshire: I am looking for any of those marked with an asterisk.
*1880 Longworth Rambler (Liabaud/G. Paul) Cli. Hybrid Tea
-Very vigorous, beautiful red climber
*1889 Souvenir de S. A. Prince (Prince) Cli. Tea Rose (Sport of Souvenir d’un Annil)
-Very vigorous, pure white
*1894 Clara Watson (Prince) Hybrid Tea
-Silvery flesh pink with deep pink centre, beautiful buds on graceful stems good for cutting
*1896 Ellen Drew (Drew) Hybrid Perpetual
*1901 Correlly (Prince) Hybrid Perpetual
-Deep salmon, medium size, full, tall
*1901 Belle Fleur (Prince) Tea Rose
-Flame Red, prominent yellow anthers
*1902 Longworth Beauty (Prince) Tea Rose
-Apricot edged pink
*1902 Longworth Fairy (Prince) Tea Rose
*1908 Mrs. Longworth (Prince) Hybrid Tea. Seedling of Mme. Caroline Testout (HT)
-White washed with flesh pink and red
*1915 Josephine Nicholson (Prince) Hybrid Tea
-Old Rose Pink
*1929 Elizabeth Arden (Prince) Hybrid Tea
-Pure white, intense fragrance
*1930 Oxford (Prince) Hybrid Tea
-Deep warm peach, tipped orange gold, well shaped, large, moderate fragrance
*1955 Cli. Fashion (Mattock) Climbing Floribunda
1961 Hunter (Mattock) Hybrid rugosa
-Medium red. Strong fragrance
*1961 Lady Sonia (Mattock) Shrub
*1961 Marita (Mattock) Floribunda
*1967 Shepherdess (Mattock) Floribunda
-Yellow flushed pink, orange and red. Mild fragrance
*1970 Moon Maiden (Mattock) Floribunda
-Light yellow. Strong fragrance
1971 Summerfields (Mattock) Modern Shrub
-Deep pink vermillion. Strong fragrance
1973 Dreaming Spires (Mattock) Large Flowered Climber
-Deep golden yellow. Strong fragrance
*1973 Isis (Mattock) Floribunda
-White. Strong fragrance
*1974 Gold Pin (Mattock) Miniature
-Deep yellow. Mild fragrance
*1975 Centurion (Mattock) Floribunda
1976 Ann Aberconway (Mattock) Floribunda
-Apricot. Strong fragrance
1980 Northamptonshire (Mattock) Ground Covering Shrub
-White and pink. Fragrant
1982 Chelsea Pensioner (Mattock) Miniature
-Bright red. Semi Double. Mildly fragrant
1983 Pink Wave (Mattock) Floribunda
-Medium pink, light centre, fragrant
1983 Snowman (Mattock) Hybrid Tea
-White, cream flush. Fragrant
1979 Tynwald (Mattock) Hybrid Tea
-Creamy yellow. Strong fragrance. Named for the millennium of the Manx Parliament
1987 Heather Grierson (Mattock) Large Flowered Climber
-Light pink, strong fragrance
1991 Arctic Sunrise (Barrett - Hills Nurseries) Miniature