Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Friday, June 08, 2007

"Otherwise Normal People" -- An Interview with Aurelia C. Scott

I just finished reading an entertaining book titled “Otherwise Normal People” by Aurelia C. Scott. The subtitle is even more to the point – “Inside the Obsessive and Thorny World of Competitive Rose Gardening.”

Aurelia describes a surgeon who convinces roses to open by warming them with his wife’s hair dryer and a lawyer who “chastises underperforming floribundas with a sharp shovel.” She guides us through this alternate universe where truckers and chemists and race car drivers and butchers and anesthesiologists plant and prune and primp and pamper their prickly darlings in pursuit of awards and trophies and a place in the court of honor at the National Rose Show. It’s a book about love and passion and the never-ending allure of the Queen of Flowers.

I caught up by phone with the first-time author from Maine during her West Coast book tour. (photo by Robin Krug)

So what is it about the rose that makes people beserk?
The rose can be so many things – a tiny mini or a great puff with 100 petals. It’s the only flower you can fill an entire garden with – and it won’t be boring. Some of the scents are quite head-spinning. All this on a plant that can make us bleed. Roses are the perfect combination of danger and beauty.

Of all the roseaholics you’ve met, who’s your favorite character?
I fell in love with each person as I met and wrote about them. But I remain head-over-heels in love with Clarence Rhodes – who is famous in Portland, Maine, where I live, for his car-stopping roses – because of his infectious joy and the way he laughs with such obvious pleasure when he talks about them. When I asked if I could come by and see his roses, he said, ‘Sure.’ And that started me on my way with this book.

What’s the wackiest thing you’ve seen someone do to a rose?
It has to be the rosarian in the Carolinas who protects tender canes from impending frost by slipping PVC pipes over each and every stem. Every rose, and he has a lot of them, looks like it’s sprouting multiple pipes.

The book is dedicated to your husband and “to the memory of the women who gave me roses” – your mother and grandmother. Tell me a little about them.
My grandmother wore rose-scented perfume. She lived in apartments but she always had bouquets of roses. My mother had a rose garden in Massachusetts where I grew up. She made potpourri from the petals. Roses were a symbol of romance and sophistication to her. She died while I was writing the book.

People who grow exhibition roses seem to be an ingenious lot. Who wins the Rube Goldberg Award for the wildest invention?
Clarence Rhodes for his rose-bloom protector made from empty two-liter plastic juice bottles. Clarence also created an extra-long wand that squirts upward and he’s training sparrows to eat Japanese beetles off his roses.
(Here’s how Aurelia describes the bloom protector in her book:
“He cuts off the bottom of a bottle and wires it into position like a hat over the uncapped top; then he glues a clamp to the bottle’s base. To use the bloom protector, you drive a pole into the soil near a flower . . . clamp the bloom protector to the pole and slide it into place . . . The hatlike top keeps moisture and ultraviolet light off the bloom, and the open bottom ensures air circulation.)

How did the title come to you?
My editor and I were experimenting with titles. We wanted to use the words “rose” and “obsession.” One day she was telling someone what the book was about and she said, “the thing is, in the rest of their lives these are otherwise normal people.” We had our title.

In the book, you admit that you only grow two rose plants. Is the heat on you to grow more?
Well, I have seven now. I was thumbing through a rose catalog the other day and by the time I got to the last page I realized I’d checked off 26 that I really wanted. But I’m not yet someone who’s gone from one plant to 600.

What’s your favorite rose these days?
Gemini, it’s a hybrid tea bred by Keith Zary of Jackson & Perkins. One of the people in the book describes it as a real show rose as well as a good garden rose. And I love Louise Odier, an Old Garden Rose. She’s a big lovely soft pink shrub and she’s incredibly scented. I keep trying to pin her to the fence but she doesn’t like it. I should pay more attention to what the plant is telling me instead of trying to be in charge.

Do you squish Japanese beetles by hand?
When I first heard about that I thought, I could never, it’s too gross. But one day I went out and saw a Japanese beetle on my roses. I was undone with fury and grabbed it and squashed it hard between my fingers. It crunches when you do that. It’s oddly satisfying, you know.

There’s a chapter where you talk about the fungicides and insecticides exhibitors use in their pursuit of the perfect rose. How do you really feel about the chemicals?
I’m an organic gardener. And when it comes to my roses I don’t mind what one grower calls “a pretty good scattering of yellow leaves.” In my heart I was prepared to disapprove of the chemicals they use. But I must say that most of the exhibitors I met use chemicals wisely and with knowledge and care – and as sparingly as possible.

Your book is filled with stories of love and passion. Do you have a favorite love story?
The story of Dr. Satish Prabhu and his wife Vijaya. Because he captured her heart with roses and because he was so desperate for roses after not having a place to grow them when he came to America that when he and his wife finally bought a house, he ordered the entire Jackson & Perkins catalog. Literally. On the flip side of that, there are stories of people who lost love because of roses. But usually they found it again with someone who shared their obsession. A woman on Long Island, Louise Coleman, even wrote articles with titles like “How to Grow Roses Together and Stay Married.” Her husband died but she believes he’s still with her in the rose garden, guiding her. It’s her way of honoring his memory.

Will you ever look at Q-tips the same again?
Never. Q-tips are used to gentle tight rose petals apart. Actually, I love watching people groom roses – they use shoe mitts to buff foliage, nail clippers to cut off thorns, crinkly scissors to shear off the dry edges of leaves, artist’s brushes to arrange petals in a perfect spiral. Amazing.

What do you grow in your garden besides roses?
I live in downtown Portland, Maine, on about an eighth of acre with a view of Casco Bay so we get a stiff east wind. I love scented plants – I grow lavender and sweet clethra. I have tall grasses; I like variegated ones as long as they don’t spread. I grow shrub and standard hydrangeas. We got rid of the last patch of lawn last year and replaced it with creeping thyme you can walk on and spreading Dianthus Zing Rose, which is dark scarlet and low-growing. And I have four raised vegetable beds where I grow tomatoes, Japanese eggplants, arugula and ball-shaped lemon-flavored cucumbers – things that are hard to find in stores.

So is there a national rose show in your future?
Well, I’m speaking at the Spring Nationals in St. Paul, Minnesota later this month. But I think it will be awhile before I exhibit any roses there. Maybe one day I’ll try a local show. The people I wrote about don’t understand why I’m trying to resist.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's those grand passions that make life worth living -- and this one is beautiful!


6/14/2007 5:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bought this book for my dad for Father's Day. He's a rose-a-holic. He loved it. Thanks for the tip.

6/23/2007 7:15 PM  

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