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  • Writer's pictureAnne Jennings

Ball Gowns and Barbs

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

‘The peach gown she'd chosen was the colour of the sunrise, the rippling watered silk seeming to subtly change from rose to pink to nearly orange in different lights. She'd fallen in love with it at once.’

Elizabeth Hoyt, Duke of Desire

Chelsea week is upon us – that time of year when thousands throng to the small patch of ground at The Royal Hospital to see the magnificence of British horticulture crammed into just under 3 acres and squeezed into one week.

Sadly not this year, though the Royal Horticultural Society has tried hard to create a virtual extravagance - but perhaps the attempt only emphasises how much we are missing the real event.

In a normal season, a highlight in the Great Pavilion where specialist nurseries strut their stuff is found in the exquisite displays presented by rose growers. This is one genus that needs less forcing or holding back than many, for this is the natural time for the annual rose fest – a glorious celebration of colour and scent.

Whole books are written about roses – dig them out, and don’t forget the irresistible and informative catalogues produced by rose nurseries.

But my focus just now is on one simply delightful member of the family whose flower-laden stems cascade from the old birch tree near the bottom of the garden – Rosa Ghislaine de Feligonde.

I make no apology for the next paragraphs being overly descriptive - it just has to be that way:

The plant begins it contribution to the garden in March when winding stems are clothed in fresh apple green leaves that remain disease free all season. Although part of the rambling rose fraternity, Ghislaine is unusual in her enthusiasm to flower and repeat flower, providing blooms from early May through to July. She has a delicate scent – refined and subtle as one would expect of such a distinguished lady.

And the flowers. To describe them I will again resort to simile and repeat myself in referencing ball gowns, organza, chiffon, tulle – you get the idea. For this is not a rose of single colour, easily categorised and blandly described. It is in the layered sheen of colours seen in couture creations that evoke the complexity of shades, made even more complex in double, nay triple, blooms with petals overlapping like petticoats and silken skirt layers.

Yet before the blooms, the buds. Deep orangey-red fat and luscious, so as to almost tempt a nibble, they belie the subtlety to follow. When freshly opened the flowers do resemble tones seen in bud but over the next few days chameleon magic occurs. Petals fade and shade to peach, buff, mustard, straw, coral and cream, latterly with the faintest tinge of blush pink.

Their finale, especially in brighter settings, is to transform to a soft white, yet the prominent golden stamen extend the colour complexity seen in the younger flowers.

Now, never being one to quibble, and with the utmost respect to rose growers, I must suggest an adjustment to the claim that this rose is almost thornless. Whilst there are few large thorns along stems there are many very small barbs which assist those cascading stems to latch onto the ridiculous piled up mess of hair atop my head and yank until the bun is loosened – almost daily I tell you! And as for tying in and training – fingers, hands and arms like pincushions at the end. Either I have a very odd form of this rose or someone is gilding the lily, so to speak. She is a spiky lady.

But what I do like very much about the out-of-character meanness of these thorns is the connection to a story, legend, myth, untruth – whatever – detailing the origins of this rose’s name.

It is said that when Count de Feligonde lay injured in the First World War, his broken body had become caught in barbed wire on the war field, and he was left alone to die. The Count’s wife (you’ve got it!) Ghislaine, a trained nurse, rushed across the fields to treat and rescue him, providing medical care on the spot.

Now, Feligonde family history rather poo-poos this narrative suggesting that Ghislaine is daughter rather than wife and was only a young child at the time of the Count’s injury. Nevertheless, it’s a good story and ties in nicely with my insistence of the stems being barbed.

Well, there we have it – one of my favourite roses which deserves a place in all gardens. Rosa Ghislaine de Feligonde is vigorous (but at 2.5m controllable), colourful, scented, healthy, repeat flowering and never fails to delight.

So, what’s not to love?

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