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.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


        It's only February and 2009 has already been a rosy year for Stephen Scanniello. He’s been named a Great Rosarian of the World – which, unless roses grow on Venus or Neptune, is the highest honor possible in his field – and his newest book blossomed just in time for that annual rose love-in we call Valentine’s Day.

        I caught up with Stephen by phone the other day after a whirlwind of parties celebrating his latest achievements. First came a reception at the Huntington Botanical Garden in San Marino, California, where he and his fellow great rosarian honoree Marilyn Wellan, the past president of the American Rose Society, were feted. He'll have to wait till June for the East Coast celebration sponsored by the Manhattan Rose Society. And then came the bouquets for the book – everything from a spread in Martha Stewart Living to a party at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for Stephen and co-author Douglas Brenner.

        Their book – “A Rose by Any Name,” aptly subtitled “The Little-Known Lore and Deep-Rooted History of Rose Names” – deserves all the attention. I love seeing garden books that venture beyond the pale of how to pot petunias and make you laugh as well as learn.


      For instance, a section called “Bloopers” contains such little-known rose names as ‘Happy Butt’ and ‘Flush o’ Dawn.’ I might grow apricot- pink ‘Happy Butt’ just for the joy of pointing it out to garden visitors. Its name is derived from a dopey joke about a little girl called Gladys who couldn’t quite handle the second syllable of her name. And ‘Flush o’ Dawn’ is really rather poetic – the pink-to-white rose is reminiscent of the sky in early morning. But as the authors point out, those among us who might turn up their noses at bathroom humor “prefer the slightly-tweaked variant ‘Blush o’ Dawn.’”

        The empress Josephine – no shrinking violet when it came to naming roses – called a white beauty ‘Cuisse de Nymphe Emue,’ which translates into “thigh of an aroused nymph.” Incidentally, Napoleon also got into the rose act – he allowed rose plants to be shipped across enemy lines for Josphine’s garden at Malmasion.  

        The book includes chapters on historically-significant roses such as the pure white ‘Cherokee Rose’ descended from the wild flowers that marked the infamous 1,000-mile trek called the “Trail of Tears,” when 17,000 Cherokee Indians were rounded up and forced to march from Georgia to Oklahoma. About 4,000 Cherokee died of hunger and disease along the way. According to legend roses sprung up where teardrops fell, and clumps of the wild white roses still mark the trail.

       And there are sidebars on roses named for sports figures like Babe Ruth and Chris Evert, and writers from Agatha Christie and Raymond Carver to Colette and Charles Dickens. There’s even an orange floribunda named ‘Rainer Maria Rilke’ after the German poet, whose fatal illness is thought to have been caused by an infected wound from a rose thorn. And it’s no surprise to learn that Sappho, the ancient Greek poet who declared, “The rose the queen of flowers must be,” has had three roses named after her.

        I knew there was a rose named for Barbra Streisand – a large lavender sweet-scented diva – but I didn’t know about ‘Elvis,’ an orange-pink showstopper, or that ‘Jerry Garcia’ is rumored to be on its way. 

        There are roses named for presidents and first ladies. From ‘President Herbert Hoover’ – a fragrant bloom in shades of orange, pink and yellow that crashed in popularity along with the president when the stock market took a dive – to a rose named for his successor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who brought the country back from the brink. Of course, it worries me that ‘Happy Days,’ an orange-red rose inspired by FDR’s campaign song “Happy Days Are Here Again,” is now extinct.

        I was surprised to learn there’s actually a First Ladies’ Rose Garden on the White House grounds, although none of the roses named for first ladies – like ‘Mrs. Cleveland,’ ‘Pat Nixon’ or ‘Dolly Madison’ – grow there. And the red hybrid tea ‘Ronald Reagan’ is the only rose named for a president that actually grows in the White House Rose Garden. But ‘Mister Lincoln’ – introduced in 1965 to commemorate the centennial of his assassination – stands heads above the rest in any garden. As Stephen and Doug point out, it’s still one of the best red hybrid teas of all time.        

        The book also contains information on related topics from making rosewater to having a rose named for yourself – a vanity that could cost as much as $15,000. The book’s wealth of detail is a tribute to both Stephen and Doug, who met years ago when Doug was the editor of Garden Design and Stephen was the rosarian at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. They divvied up the research and writing, then Doug the editor, put everything into a unified voice. It took three years to complete and includes photographs from Stephen's own collection and wonderful old lithographs and botanical illustrations. 

       Here are two of them, courtesy of Algonquin Books: 'Baltimore Belle,' a pale pink climber thought to be named for the young daughter of an ex-alcoholic hatter who became famous in the 1840s for his "silver-tongued" speeches in praise of temperance.

And 'Fantin-Latour,' a fragrant hybrid Bourbon named for the French floral still life painter who reportedly died during a walk among his beloved rosebushes. 

        I met Stephen years ago when I was a budding garden columnist and he was the hot-shot rosarian who had transformed the BBG’s Cranford Rose Garden into one of the world’s most heralded havens for rose lovers. Our rose-rustling trip to a New Jersey cemetery remains one of my best memories from those days. Stephen drove a handful of fellow rose-geeks in his own van and we even made a stop at his mother’s home. I had a ball sneaking around the cemetery, taking cuttings from the old roses that bloomed along lichen-spotted stones walls and moss-covered statuary. Although I have to admit that the roses I rustled that day and carried home in plastic bags didn’t quite make it in my own garden.

        Even back then, the idea for “A Rose By Any Name” was germinating in the garden of Stephen’s mind. It started when he overheard a boy and his father talking in the Cranford Rose Garden. The boy was reading plant labels. “Look, Daddy, this one says ‘Dolly Parton’!  .  .  . Wow! ‘Babe Ruth’ and ‘Santa Claus’! How come their names are on these signs?” Stephen decided that one day he’d tell the stories behind the names of his favorite flower.

        “You know, when it comes to roses,” he told me over the phone, “it wasn’t the horticulture – which to tell you the truth, I don’t really love – that got me. It was the stories. It’s always been about the stories.” 

        In fact, roses weren’t even his thing when he took over the Cranford Rose Garden back in 1984. He was a gardener with a background in biology who had taught inner city kids and worked in the education department at BBG.  “I knew how to prune plants but I was clueless about how to prune roses. I was a total rose virgin. I hadn’t even touched a rose before then.”

        At least not in a professional sense. But he treasures childhood memories of playing amid the ‘Golden Showers’ in his grandfather’s New Jersey garden and watching his aunt prune a red climber called ‘Blaze’ that was once all the rage. “She covered the cuts with her Love That Red lipstick.”

        “There were only 3,000 plants in the Cranford garden back then,” he said. ‘I made some mistakes, but I learned to prune a rose. And what caught my eye were the names. I wanted to know more. That’s what started me on my way to being a rose geek.”

        By the time Stephen left the garden 15 seasons later, the garden more than 5,000 roses. He was a full-fledged rose geek – and a master pruner. “I love pruning. I love what pruning does – how the bush responds, how you can shape things.”

        Now Stephen creates and tends gardens up and down the East Coast, including his own in Barnegat, N.J. where he lives in an historic house on what he calls “an intensely gardened suburban-size lot.” He’s into growing roses organically instead of drowning them with chemicals. He uses chicken manure and experiments with alfalfa meal and mixes in other flowers so his garden isn’t just a rose garden.

       And it’s no surprise that the man who’s president of The Heritage Rose Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of old roses, nurtures mostly heirlooms like ‘Crenshaw Musk,’ a double white-flowered rose that was rediscovered in a cemetery in Virginia. And a few favorite modern varieties too – like Aloha and the very first 'Knock Out' created by last year’s Great Rosarian of the World, Bill Radler.

        Oh, and he’s already been out there pruning his 250 or so bushes. I’ll start pruning mine any day now. And I’ll check out the stories behind their names in “A Rose by Any Name.”

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, beautiful photos and interesting article! I really enjoyed it and always look forward to reading your blog!

2/22/2009 1:05 PM  

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