Roses, Oh Yes

I bake really good bread, but “man can’t live by bread alone.” Sometimes, you’ve got to “stop to smell the roses.” Enough with the quotations! But back to the roses.
Roses in a vase
A love of roses has crept up on me over the years, due mostly to changes in kinds of roses available. Up until about 30 years ago, hybrid teas were pretty much the only roses on the block. These plants’ gangly stems are each capped by a vividly colored, fairly stiff, formal blossom whose petals wrap together into a pointy peak. You see where I’m going: hybrid teas are ugly, to me at least. 

Also available were grandiflora and floribunda roses. Grandifloras are like hybrid teas, except their stems end with clusters of a few, but smaller, blossoms. Floribunda roses have even larger flower clusters of even smaller flowers. Despite being bushes more full with flowers than hybrid teas, grandiflora and floribunda flowers are still rather prim and proper except for their traffic-stopping colors.

  Then so-called species and old-fashioned roses entered the scene, roses that are as nature made them or only slightly hybridized. These roses constitute broad groups, but generally, what they have going for them are more subdued — think pastel — colors and more blowsy blossoms on more heavily branching, fuller-bodied, shrubs. 

The downside to species and old-fashioned roses, even if you like their blossoms and their growth habits, is that many bloom only in the spring. Hybrid teas pump out blossom after blossom all summer long.

Rose d'Ipsahan blossom

Rose d’Ipsahan

Enter Rose de Rescht, my first old-fashioned rose, given to me by a local, fellow gardener. Ann told me that this rose variety had soft pink flowers and heavenly scent. She was right about the appearance and fragrance, wrong about the name. After years of sleuthing, I’ve identified the rose as Rose d’Ispahan, probably originating in Persia but first discovered in a garden in Isfahan, Iran, renowned for its gardens and roses.

If I had to grow only one variety of rose, Rose d’Ispahan would be the one, for the beauty of its flowers, for its intense fragrance, for its cold-hardiness, for its lack of large thorns, and for its pest resistance. And that’s even though it blossoms only in spring. (It does so over a long period, though.)

Rose d'Ipsahan

Rose d’Ipsahan

But I don’t have to grow only one variety of rose. My other favorites are some of rose breeder David Austin’s varieties which combine the pest resistance and repeat blooming of modern roses with the blowsy, fragrant, pastel colored blossoms and full-bodied shrubs of old fashioned roses. My currant, and perhaps all-time, favorites are Lady of Shallot and, in my opinion needing a more euphonious name, Golden Celebration.

Golden Celebration rose

Golden Celebration rose

Both sport yellow — no, Golden! — blossoms, some apricot in those of Lady of Shallot, and a rich yellow, all contained in a petal-filled cup-shape in those of Golden Celebration. Another of my favorites, Lady Judi Dench, never woke up in spring a year ago; perhaps it was the cold, perhaps something else.

 Lady of Shallot rose

Lady of Shallot rose

I also grow another David Austin Rose, LD Braithewaite, with deep red blossoms and dark green, slightly reddish leaves. Not my favorite as far as appearance but this rose is very cold hardy and pumps out tons of blossoms almost all season long.

LD Braithewaite rose

LD Braithewaite rose

And Strawberries, Oh Yes

Strawberries and rosesOn to strawberries. I’m growing three kinds: the Pineapple Crush variety of white alpine strawberries; the Earliglow variety of garden strawberry; and a few varieties of vescana strawberries, which are hybrids of garden and alpine strawberries. This also is the order, starting with the best, of flavor for the three types.

Why do I grow anything but the best? Because alpines are so small that it’s hard to fill a bowl with them. I grow vescanas, for the first time this year, because I never grew them before.

The Earliglow berries taste good and do quickly fill a bowl, ideally yielding one quart of berries per plant over the course of the season. Except this year, a problem has surfaced. Leather rot is a fungal disease (Phytophthora cactorum) that rears its ugly head — infected berries that taste bitter and have white patches that turn brown — usually following excessively wet periods from late spring to early summer, which is odd because weather has been on the dry side. Also odd because I’ve never seen the problem here before.
Strawberry leather rot1
Which brings me back to vescana and Pineapple Crush. Both are very disease resistant, and vescana berries are almost as big as garden strawberries, so I’m thankful to have them, even if they do taste like canned strawberries.

And Honeyberries, Oh NO!

After three weeks of hanging on (the berries, not me), honeyberries, which are edible honeysuckles, are ready for a fair tasting. I wrote previously about the awful flavor of this new fruit and was instructed to let the berries hang till dead ripe.
The berries sampled this year were so ripe that each had to be plucked from the branch with my palm facing upwards beneath the berry; a mere touch would cause ripe ones to drop.

Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat (a drum roll). First to be tasted was the variety Solo. Reaction: spit it out quickly. Tart with bad flavor. Second fruit tasted was Sugar Mountain Blue. Also spit out, but not quite as quickly. And finally, Sugar Mountain Eisbär. Although retained in the mouth and having a hint of sweetness, this one, like the others, had bad flavor.

The flavor of honeyberries is allegedly like a mix of blueberry and raspberry. Not so! If you have space, plant blueberries or raspberries instead.


First Good-Tasting Berries of the Season

Strawberries, the aptly named variety Earliglow, are ripe, which means it’s time to start crawling for fruit. That’s one thing I don’t like about strawberries.

Strawberries, clockwise from left, vescana, garden, and alpine

Strawberries, garden, vescana, and alpine

Another thing I don’t like about strawberries is that, although they’re perennial plants, a bed needs replanting after about 5 years. By then, viruses, fungal diseases, weeds, and just plain aging have finally taken their toll. The decline creeps up slowly so is not all that obvious. And no, you shouldn’t replant in the same spot where the now pest-ridden bed was, but in a new location. And don’t replant with rooted runners from those old plants, but with new, certified disease free plants.

Any bad feelings I had dissolved away as I tasted my first berry of the season. I almost agreed with Izaak Walton, in the 16th century, “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” (He had never tasted our native highbush blueberries.) Aside from good flavor, strawberries bear quickly, their first or second season in the ground, and are the first good-tasting, fresh berries of the season.

I planned ahead, this being my planting’s fifth year, ordering plants for spring planting and setting them in a relatively weed free bed in my vegetable garden, two rows running up and down a three-foot-wide bed with a foot between plants in the rows. Right after harvest, out goes the old bed, to be given an inch dressing of compost and then in go leek and/or fall cabbage and cauliflower plants.

Strawberries, new and old bed

Strawberries, new and old bed

I’ll keep the new bed productive for its five years with annual renovation, a brutal affair that begins with, right after berries have been harvested, lopping off and raking up all the leaves, etc., etc. No need to dwell on this now, while enjoying berries from the old bed.

A Strawberry Better than a Strawberry

Conventional garden strawberries (Fragaria X ananassa) aren’t the only strawberries on the block. I’ve written previously about another kind of strawberry, alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca), which is a totally different species than garden strawberries. Sure, they also have their downsides: they’re small, typically dime size; they’re very soft and perishable; and after two or three years, plants get old at their center so either need to be divided, or chucked, and new plants started.

Pineapple Crush alpine strawberries

Pineapple Crush alpine strawberries

On the plus side, new plants are fairly easy to start from seed, similar to growing tomato transplants except needing more patience. And the plants bear their first season. Not only bear their first season, but bear more or less continuously all season long.

Alpine strawberries are very resistant to pest problems. And birds? No problem if you grow Pineapple Crush, the white ones. The birds ignore them. Pineapple Crush berries also have the best flavor, with more than a hint of pineapple.

I’ve been testing people’s reactions to tasting my white alpine strawberries. Without fail, within seconds of putting one in their mouth, a person’s eyes light up and they exclaim “Wow.”

Trying for the Best of Both Worlds

Okay, alpine strawberries are small. You’re not going to fill your freezer with these strawberries. Hmm, how about combining the best of garden strawberries and the best of alpine strawberries? It’s been done. The hybrids are called vescanas, botanically Fragaria X vescana, a combining of their parents’ botanical names.

As a fan of alpine strawberries, how could I resist searching for these hybrids? I found some and, last spring, planted them, the varieties Annelie, Rebecka, Sara, Florika, and, not sounding very appetizing in name, S-228. The alpine genes express themselves in disease resistance and bearing fruit more or less continuously through summer and into fall. Garden strawberry struts its genes in the hybrids’ fruit size which, for the hybrids is much larger than the alpine strawberries but smaller than the garden strawberries. 

The fruits are red but red alpine strawberries, which are more common than white alpine strawberries, might have been used in the breeding.

Most evident in coming upon my small patch of these vescanas is how fast they are spreading. There are runners all over the place! I usually frown on such a habit because keeping my strawberry bed from becoming overcrowded necessitates pinching off all runners except for those needed to put rooted plants in place to replace old plants.

Vescana strawberries

Vescana strawberries

Making lots of runners is billed as an asset for the vescanas, allowing them to be grown as so-called meadow strawberries, the meadow needing neither renovation nor mulching. I’ll let my plants wander off somewhere by themselves and see how they fare.

You may have noticed that there’s an elephant in the room; up till now there’s been no mention of flavor. I was saving that. Quoting from a journal article by the breeders of Rebecka, this variety has “fine aroma.” Perhaps in Sweden where that variety was bred. Or, quoting from the patent for Florika, “The variety is a vescana-type strawberry plant characterized by its capability of developing exceptionally rich and fine flavor of medium sized fruits.” Perhaps in Germany, where this variety was bred.

Here in New York’s Hudson Valley, I thought the fruits were good, but nothing special, and surely not as especially good as my Pineapple Crush white alpine strawberries.

Now that I think of it, Izaak Walton’s very high praise of strawberries might have been more warranted than I first noted. So-called garden strawberries are relative newcomers on the garden scene, originating as a chance hybrid in the 18th century. Prior to its arrival, the strawberries that were grown or harvested from the wild were mostly the musk strawberries (Fragaria moschata, very delicious) and alpine strawberries.

I haven’t said “wow” upon tasting any of my vescana strawberries. 

Earliglow strawberries

Earliglow strawberries

(For more about growing strawberries, see my book Grow Fruit Naturally).