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French garden diary - June 2019

A female rose by any other name - Cathy Thompson on variety names and flowers that flourish in her own garden

A few years ago I was taken to task by someone who reads my gardening blog for referring to a rose as ‘she’. While I understand the resistance to anthropomorphising a creature that does not even have a pulse, it is hard to avoid the temptation when you have a garden in which ‘Mme Isaac Péreire’, ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’, ‘Louise Odier’ and ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’ flounce about.

My garden is populated by real and fictional personalities and it does not stop with roses. I dare anyone who looks knowingly at a seedling of ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ (Eryngium giganteum) to avoid using the pronoun ‘she’.

Moreover, I cannot forget that Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae must also be a ‘she’, because Mrs Mary-Anne Robb smuggled a piece gathered in the wild past British customs in her hat, in order to introduce this incredibly useful groundcover for shade to your garden and mine. You may know the plant as ‘Mrs. Robb’s Bonnet’?

For a long time I have wondered about the namesake of one of my favourite roses, ‘Ghislaine de Féligonde’. Introduced by the French rose breeder Eugène Turbot in 1916, it is a very compact rambling hybrid from R. grandiflora and R. wichuraiana, perfect for a low wall.

I love ‘her’ for the large clusters of up to 20 flowers and the colour is simply delicious: apricot in bud, opening to pink-tinged creamy-yellow. In my garden it lives up to its reputation for disease tolerance and acceptance of poor soils (here it is planted against a wall with almost no ‘real’ soil at the roots).

But who was ‘she’? The popular story has it that the real Ghislaine was a wife who, hearing that her husband was wounded and lying in no-man’s land during the Great War, snuck out under cover of darkness to rescue her man and nurse him back to health.

It turns out that this character is as fictional as Jude the Obscure (also a rose!). Turbot was using the old plant breeder’s marketing ploy of naming a recent introduction in keeping with the zeitgeist. There really was a Ghislaine de Féligonde, the daughter of Count Charles de Féligonde, and the rose truly was named for her. But since she was born only in 1914, it is hardly likely that the two-year-old Ghislaine was either married or in a position to attempt such a daring rescue.

The story woven around her name appears to originate in the war experience of a family friend (who was not rescued from the battlefield by his wife). Great way to sell a new rose in war-torn France!

Fortunately my own Ghislaine is not susceptible to the two rose pests that gathered force and struck in my garden during late May and early June 2018. Having planted over 50 cultivars of roses since I arrived here, you might say I was asking for trouble, but it’s hard to think of roses growing cheek-by-jowl with shrubs and perennials as a monoculture.

The saddest of the two plagues was the budworm caterpillar that seriously diminished the display during open days at the end of May and beginning of June. These beasties pupate in soil detritus and, on hatching, crawl up and enter the base of buds, chewing from the inside out. Usually buds are aborted, remaining tiny and failing to open.

Control is tricky, since it involves careful observation from the end of May until you notice the first hatchings. Then spray with the same biological control that you are probably, by now, using to control Box Tree Moth caterpillar (Bacillus thuringiensis). You may fail to kill the pests already feeding inside buds (pick these off by hand and destroy), but you will hopefully kill young caterpillars on the move.

The second pest to wreak a bit of havoc last year was the beautiful, shiny green Rose Chafer, which enjoys feeding on roses in full flower. Damage was tolerable in this case and is easily controlled – hand-pick and drown in a bucket of soapy water.

Do not (in my opinion) simply ‘relocate’ the beetles: you may read the ‘relocation’ advice on certain naturalists’ websites, but the beetles can, and do, fly. And – whatever you do – do not apply soil pesticides (even if you can still obtain them). The larvae of the beetles perform an invaluable recycling service in your garden’s soil.


What plant are you fond of that’s been named for a person – famous or otherwise?

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