stocktaking the cemetery

SouvenirdelaMalmaison

Souvenir de la Malmaison

This week has been devoted to the biennial Dunedin Northern Cemetery stocktake.  I’ve been wandering around the cemetery with a clipboard, counting roses and plots and ticking items off my list.  It’s a sight that has perplexed those walking through the cemetery.  I’m not worried: perplexed is fine.  It’s the ones that have been startled, or possibly traumatised, by us appearing with spades saying “there’s room for one more over here” that concern me.  We showed them the bare-root roses we were about to plant, but they still weren’t convinced we weren’t disposing of bodies.  Too much NCIS, no doubt.

The stocktake is a big job, given we have over 1,001 roses planted in the twenty-odd acres of the cemetery, but we do it to keep our mapped roses lists accurate.  In the past we have organised groups of rosarians to assist in this task – and each time the the event has been rained out.  We’re not talking a sprinkle of rain – which any gardener worth their salt ignores, if not welcomes – but deluges of rain, even though the day had been dry up to an hour before the event.  All those stocktakes accomplished was a pulped pile of checklists.

StocktakeCemetery

Perle d’Or, one of the ‘Sweetheart Roses’

This week has been hot, and while humid, it never precipitated down.  Instead of rain, it was the scent of the roses that nearly overwhelmed me, and not just from the many blooms that are presently dotting the bushes.  The Sweet Briar rose, known also as Rosa eglanteria or rubiginosa, is not get its name for its cure little pink flowers.  The Sweet references the fragrance that comes from the roses foliage.  On a humid day the scent travels throughout the cemetery, and is vaguely reminiscent of apples.  Delicious!  There are a small number of roses that were bred from the Sweet Briar that also share this trait.  In the cemetery we have modern Apple Jack (1973), the ancient Manning’s Blush (1797), and Meg Merrilies (1894), one of the Penzance hybrids.  The last two make huge bushes in excess of 2m tall and just as wide.  The cemetery is the perfect place to enjoy them.

writing roses in historical fiction

Rosa_'Tuscany'_J1

Tuscany Superb – known and grown since 1837

Roses are beautiful: they’re soft, they’re scented, and they’re seductive.  They universally symbolise love.  They deserve a central place in every piece of fiction: there isn’t an heroine out there who won’t appreciate a gift of roses.  But please, I’m begging you: do not write *yellow* roses into pre-twentieth century fiction.  They’re as out of place there as the Model-T Ford.  Yellow roses as we know them are a recent invention: the first being the 1900 Soleil d’Or, the result of man-made crosses in the nursery of Joseph Pernet-Ducher, the ‘Wizard of Lyon.’

If your story is set in or before the nineteenth century, have your hero bestow pink roses on your heroine, or red roses.  If it’s early summer, the rose bushes (rose trees for those of you writing pre-nineteenth century) will be dripping with flowers, and their perfume will be intoxicating.  Have your heroine collect their petals and go into the stillroom (which BTW is more akin to a science lab than you may have thought) and have her distil rose water.  It’s not difficult – you can check it out here.  Don’t have her whip up a batch of rose beads in an afternoon: they take a tonne of petals and an absolute age to make.

Your pre-1800 heroine will be plumb out of luck if she’s hoping for roses in the spring or autumn – they called them June roses for a reason.  After 1800, the Monthly roses arrived from China, and these flowered from spring through to autumn, mainly in shades of pink.  The great thing, from a novellist’s point of view, is that our historical heroines weren’t too bothered about rose names: kudos to you if you name roses accurately, but if you refer simply to a pink Monthly rose, or to a scented French rose, you’re doing just fine.

And one last point, while my pendanticism is in full flight: your Georgian heroine will not be strolling about a rose garden.  She’ll be in the flower garden or the shrubbery, in which rose bushes will have been planted.  The formal roses-only garden was an invention of rose-exhibiting Victorians.

I’m sorry if I burst your bubble.  I’m sorry to have added one more item to your long list of things to check out as you write historical fiction.  But if you are already Googling the entymology of terms and words to check they are historically accurate, you’ll appreciate the heads up about this minefield.  Keep writing about roses, if for no other reason than rose growers and gardeners are avid readers, and love reading about their favourite flowers, but make your roses pink, not yellow.

CharlesdesMills

Rosa Charles de Mills photo by Amanda Slate