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May arrives... smelling of roses

From her Vosges garden, Cathy Thompson reveals her favourite varieties

How many roses have you got in your garden? Please note that I do not mean hybrid teas and floribundas, but the real, old-fashioned sort and the species roses.

If it is more than one, be cautioned that France might turn you into an addict. Here, roses don’t just scent the air... they positively reek of history.

In May, the curtain is truly up on the rose season and the long-awaited flowers of ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ (inset)make an appearance. There is nothing comparable to the perfectly quartered shape of this rose – palest pink I can get any day, it’s the form that makes it exquisite.

SDLM (as it is affectionately known) was not actually grown in Josephine Bonaparte’s famous rose garden at Malmaison, but her rose garden is definitely part of SDLM’s story. Josephine bought the estate in 1799 – cannily making her extravagant purchase when Napoleon was off campaigning in Egypt.

She collected many plants internationally, including importing seed and plants from her native Martinique, but it is the roses for which she is best known. These often arrived by way of an English nurseryman, John Kennedy of London. One year she spent £2,600 with him and it was through him that the China roses, ‘Slater’s Crimson China’, ‘Parson’s Pink’ and ‘Hume’s Blush Tea-scented China’ arrived at Malmaison. And all this at the height of the Napoleonic wars!

Unbelievably, there were even special arrangements made by the British and French admiralties for the safe passage of Kennedy and Hume’s Blush Tea-scented China to Malmaison during 1811. For this consignment (which included other plants), Josephine paid £700.

Of course, the most important characteristic of these Chinese roses was that they were repeat-flowering, a feature unknown in the European roses of the time. They had been imported to Europe in the eighteenth century, but it is highly likely that it was the fashionable trend set by Josephine at Malmaison which inspired French rose breeders to get busy with this new gene pool throughout the nineteenth century. Josephine had made France the home of the rose and new cultivars flooded onto the market.

SDLM is a Bourbon rose, and so part of that valuable group of erratically repeat-flowering plants first found in a hedgerow on the Ile de Bourbon (now Ile de Réunion) as a natural hybrid between the old Autumn Damask and the recently imported China rose ‘Old Blush’. This group is important for gardeners who, like me, adore old-fashioned roses but are not so keen on the fact that they flower only once.

David’s Austin’s lovely modern ‘old-fashioned’ varieties are superb, but I’m coming to realise that the Bourbons are far more tolerant of our hot summer sunshine. And, although tending to flower in flushes rather than continuously, some Bourbons such as Madame Isaac Péreire and Louise Odier are as reliably repeating as Austin’s best.

This Bourbon characteristic is variable, however: SDLM has its best flowering in May, with another flush in late summer.

SDLM was bred and introduced by Beluze of Lyon in 1843, long after Josephine’s death in 1814. When he took the cut flowers to the city market they were sold in a trice, so much so that the plant seems to have turned his head a little. Initially reluctant to sell actual plants at all, he seems to have taken to stalking visitors to his nursery.

It was reported that: ‘Beluze was so happy in the possession of this jewel [SDLM] that, whenever someone would enter his yard, he would place that person under the strictest surveillance, believing that otherwise the person would take many cuttings...’

In order to maximise flowering, SDLM needs pruning directly after the first flush and then (but only if necessary to restrict it a little) lightly in winter. It has one horrid flaw – it is a rose that ‘balls’ at the hint of a rain cloud. The flowers are so solid when in bud that they turn to brown globes of misery in rainy weather.

Flowering at the same time as SDLM is a rose less romantically named, Blairii No 2 (pictured, above). Bred in 1845, this climbing rose is really lovely. Mid-pink with a darker centre and very thorny, vigorous stems, ensure that you prune quite hard just after the rose has flowered so that you don’t have to do so again in winter, removing the May flush of flowers as you do so. I know this to my cost: although another Bourbon, Blairii No. 2, sadly lacks the ‘remontant’ gene.

Areas where bulbs have been naturalised in grass can safely be mown from the end of May.

Give me your stories about the dreaded box blight and box tree caterpillar … how bad has it been and how do you cope? Have you tried a box replacement? I am trying yew and Euonymus japonicus ‘Microphyllus’. Email:
Read Cathy’s garden blog at

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