Small Talk : Miniature Roses, Little Tokens of the Past, Tell Big Stories

<i> Los Angeles writer Teddy Colbert has an affinity for old roses and has studied their histories extensively</i>

There is a swing on my porch where I sit and marvel at the story my garden tells. Sprays of flowers remind me of old love letters: Their gentle colors and familiar perfumes evoke past excitement and hold sweet secrets. The very small roses on my left are ancestors of the modern miniatures on my right. Their development parallels the history of roses, leading from century to century, continent to continent.

A collection of the oldest roses was given to me in 1979 by John MacGregor IV, Southern California’s esteemed rosarian, who was then in charge of the rose garden at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino. These are my garden treasures. My notes from his rose-history classes hardly do them justice, and I, with other rose fanciers, eagerly await his book on the subject.

In my garden, the little ‘Pompon de Bourgogne,’ or burgundy rose, exudes the most mystery. The botanical name is Rosa centifolia parvifolia , but the origins are hazy. Its leaves with elongated tips and its small foliage resemble R. gallica officinalis , the earliest-known European garden rose species; the extremely doubled flowers show the influence of Rosa centifolia. There is also a heady fragrance reminiscent of attar of roses, an ancient aromatic oil made from centifolias. Although ‘Pompon de Bourgogne’ is believed to have no known date of introduction, some rosarians think that it may be the little rose illustrated in Gerard’s Herbal published in 1597.

The centifolias (which means “100 leaves”), like the gallicas, bloom once a year but are not as rampant. Their flowers, true to their name, sometimes consist of many petals in tightly swirled whirlpools of fragrance. Rosarians believe that these diminutives occurred as sports--a genetically different spontaneous mutation of part of the plant--or seedlings, most probably found in some ancient garden.


‘Petite de Hollande’ (which has no known date of introduction) can grow to five or six feet, according to Clair G. Martin III, currently in charge of the rose garden at the Huntington. Mine grows four feet high and spreads to a width of five feet. In my bouquets, the deep-pink, 2 1/2-inch pompon flowers of ‘Petite de Hollande’ last the longest. The once-very popular ‘Rose de Meaux,’ dated in 1789, is smaller than ‘Petite de Hollande,’ and mine is the pink variety.

Because I believe that I was born to be a gardener, another centifolia, introduced 45 years later, captures my biased affection. ‘Spong’ was named after a gardener in England whose astute eye, I like to think, spotted the good behavior of its non-rampant growth in his landscape. ‘Spong’ complements the work of another honored gardener, Phil Chandler, Southern California’s respected landscaper and plantsman, who designed my garden. The small foliage and compact winter deciduous canes of ‘Spong,’ which grow to look like a fountain, blend well with the nandina and myrsine background and the Vinca minor ground cover. (There is no winter pruning for these gallicas and centifolias because their new tips yield spring flowers. To encourage new shoots, cut off the entire cane of old or spent wood at the base after the annual flowering. Or prune during the peak flowering, and use the stems for special bouquets.)

In 1789, the arrival in Europe of recurrent blooming China roses ( Rosa chinensis ) triggered a fervor of hybridizing and collecting. Enthusiasm escalated, and royalty joined the competition. During the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the century, vessels with cargoes of roses for Empress Josephine’s collection at Malmaison were allowed to pass unharmed to France from England.

In another part of the world, other ships on longer voyages from the newly explored Orient brought additional species and varieties to Europe. Respites in warm locations such as the island of Mauritius were planned for the plants so that they would survive the long voyage. One journey brought the enchanting, tea-scented, gently colored tea rose, with pointed buds. With the new glut of available genes, European rose breeders produced the first Hybrid Tea, ‘La France,’ in 1867. It had a typical tea-rose high center that even today seems to have mesmerized rose fashion. A glance through today’s rose catalogues prompts the question, was there ever anything else?


The next significant episode in miniature-rose development was the inception of the Polyanthas, with small flowers, large leaves and floppy, open bushes. From 1881, one of them, ‘Cecile Brunner,’ captivated history, along with our hearts; it is still called the “Sweetheart Rose.” The pale-pink, fingernail-size, pointed buds are perfect Hybrid Tea replicas. I coddle my bush and snip off spent flowers to increase production.

In the corner of my garden where it helps greet guests, the dwarf Polyantha and obvious relative ‘Marie Pavie’ is rarely without a flower, even in partial shade. Because ‘Marie Pavie’ is similar in coloring, gardeners refer to it as the round-budded Cecile Brunner, and it carries a date of 1888. Clusters of little white flowers tinged faintly with pink bend over shiny leaves and compose the most graceful bush in my collection. One seedling from the pale-pink ‘Marie Pavie,’ cross-pollinated with the little dark-red-flowered ‘Tom Thumb,’ was named ‘Katharina Zeimet.’ This offspring, introduced in 1901, is a small, white-flowered Polyantha.

The second era of modern miniatures is represented by ‘Rosmarin,’ dated 1965 and the first to be classed as a miniature rose. ‘Rosmarin’ is also a progeny of ‘Tom Thumb,’ crossed at a later date by breeder Reiner Kordes with ‘Dacapo,’ a Floribunda. The bush is plucky-looking, three-feet tall, upright and densely branched. The small white flowers have a deep pink tinge, and during winter there always seems to be one bloom for a nosegay. Although ‘Rosmarin’ ends my collection of old miniature roses, I prefer to think of it as the beginning of the newer introductions.

But there is a pretender in my bouquet. ‘Sweet Chariot,’ which I received from garden editor Bob Smaus, seems to belong there with the old-fashioned flower forms. What is it? I wonder. With those tones of deep lavender, could there be gallica in its history? The doubled petals and heady scent hint at centifolias; their perfume, prized from history, fills my room. The branches, shooting up from under the ground, remind me of gallicas, but they open out like Polyanthas and have their shiny green leaves.


‘Sweet Chariot’ is not old, though. The introduction date is 1984, and in my opinion the rose represents the summit of Ralph Moore’s rose-breeding expertise. Moore, considered by John MacGregor IV to be “master of the miniatures,” owns Sequoia Nursery in Visalia. When questioned about the parentage of ‘Sweet Chariot,’ Moore, in the accepted tradition of competitive hybridizers, was mum. The petals drop shortly after its sprays are cut, but that is inconsequential to me. It was, after all, bred for hanging baskets and landscape; besides, I like tokens of the past.

Most of the old roses in my collection can be seen in the rose garden at the Huntington Botanical Gardens and will be sold there in limited quantities during the Classic Rose Show, on April 26 and 27, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.; reservations are required for Sunday. For information, telephone (818) 405-2160.

Southern California Heritage Roses meets the third Saturday of the month at the Huntington Botanical Gardens or in private gardens. Sub/Rosa, its quarterly newsletter, highlights the history of old roses, and the meetings offer invaluable local cultural information. Dues are $5 a year and can be sent to Roland Mettler, 3637 Empire Drive, Los Angeles 90034. Several mail-order sources for roses are listed in Beverly R. Dobson’s yearly epic publication, Combined Rose List. Send $7.50 to 215 Harriman Road, Irvington, N.Y. 10533.