When Diane Stellar strolls through her Laguna Beach garden, she's among old friends. Although they're a thorny group, she greets them by name.
Stellar's companions are her antique roses, a collection made even more remarkable because it thrives in the dappled shade of a huge pine tree a few feet from the beach. Her roses are living proof of legendary gardener Vita Sackville-West's contention that a good gardener needs to be blessed by love, taste and knowledge.
Stellar loves caring for her garden companions. She has spent six years learning their life stories, some of which are ancient.
"I'm a romantic, so I've always loved old things," she says, gesturing to her antique-filled home. "I can't imagine why it took me so long to find out about antique roses. It was love at first bite . . . or first thorn."
Stellar was introduced to the roses by Carol McElwee, a Newport Beach-based landscape designer.
Roses fall into two general categories--moderns and antiques, also called heritage or old garden roses. (New roses bred by David Austin and others boast old-rose attributes--beautiful, fragrant blooms, lush foliage and hardiness. "Found roses" growing near old houses or in cemeteries are given a study name until they are classified).
Moderns include hybrid teas, grandifloras, floribundas and polyanthas.
Old roses existed before 1867, when the first hybrid tea rose bloomed onto the scene.
Antique roses include albas, centifolias, damasks, gallicas or French roses, Chinas, teas, perpetual hybrids and bourbons.
Scott Daigr, a rose specialist at Hortus, a Pasadena nursery that specializes in old roses, says, "Having an old rose is like having an heirloom."
Old roses hybridized themselves--
although in some cases with human assistance; modern roses are strictly the work of human intervention. Old roses have an ancient forebear while moderns are test-tube babies.
Old roses are a cross between ancient European strains, which bloomed only once in a season, and their Asian cousins, which were remontant, or bloomed more than once a season.
The Dutch facilitated cross-breeding in the 16th century when they were infatuated with tulips. Dutch traders sailing into new ports in China, Japan and the near East found these remontant roses in different colors--yellow was unknown in European roses--and brought them back to breed.
In some cases they intentionally crossbred the roses they'd found with their European natives; in other cases, two types of roses were planted in the same garden, and nature handled the crossbreeding.
The stories behind the old roses are one reason Stellar is so attracted to them.
"I pick the roses in my garden more for their stories, or the meaning of their names, than for any other quality," she says.
One of her favorites is Duchesse de Brabant, a pink tea rose that dates from 1857. This was President Theodore Roosevelt's favorite--he wore a bud as a boutonniere most of every day of his adult life.
And there is the rose Steller calls her mighty rose, a huge climber that grows to 30 feet and has enormous thorns. It also has a nearly endless display of fragrant yellow roses. "It's name is Mermaid, which is very appropriate, and it has thrived in my garden," Stellar says.
Stellar's first love, a soft-pink hybrid perpetual, La Reine, made the move with her from Newport Beach.
"These roses have stood the test of time for gardens throughout history because of their size or length of their bloom, and that connection down through time fascinates me," Stellar says.
In addition to the name and the lengthy family tree, old roses have endeared themselves because of their look and scent. Many are powerfully fragrant.
Says Daigr: "People who buy them talk about the fragrance and the romantic, classic look. Most people in Southern California don't have an estate that needs a rose hedge, but they do want to give their gardens a classic look."
Old rose bushes look more like a natural shrub than do stick-like modern hybrid plants.
"I find they don't need as much pruning, nor are they as disease prone as modern roses," Stellar says.
Hardiness is a major concern for Stellar's roses because of the extreme conditions posed by salt air and too much shade on a steep slope.
She has a rose hospital on a sheltered, sunny patio to nurse those that aren't thriving. Recoverees are replanted in another location or given up for adoption.
"My biggest problem is the soil itself," Stellar says. "I'm constantly digging in organic matter to amend it."
Her favorite soil amendments? "It's a lot like fad diets," she says. "I try to use a lot of things, in case whatever I read that month turns out to be the fad diet and was wrong."
Her most consistent additions: aged steer manure dug into the soil with redwood chips on top.
"I also feed them more often than experts say to because of the conditions the roses grow in," she says. "I use a balanced rose fertilizer in granular form, although I will also use citrus and avocado food. And I'm big on earthworms."
Finding antique roses has become easier in the past decade. Several nurseries carry them, and some mail-order companies are devoted to old roses.
SOME COMPANIES THAT OFFER CATALOGS:
* Antique Rose Emporium, (800) 441-0002
* Heirloom Old Garden Roses, (503) 538-1576
* Vintage Gardens, (707) 829-2035
* Wayside Gardens, (800) 845-1124
* White Rabbit Roses, P.O. Box 191, Elk, CA 95432 or www.mcn.org/b/roses