The Sweet Smell Of Famous Roses

THE REAL DIRT

February 07, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

My friend Ralph thinks he's the sweetheart of the stars, because:

* Barbara Bush has sat on his doorstep.

* Elizabeth Taylor gives him flowers.

* Dolly Parton tries to peek in his windows.

Big deal. Ralph's famous friends are plants, not people. They are roses named for the rich and famous. Dolly Parton is growing alongside Ralph's house. Elizabeth Taylor produces deep pink blooms each year. And Barbara Bush has thrived since its arrival by parcel post last spring.

These are the "other" women in Ralph's life. Is his wife jealous? Certainly not. She works beside Ralph in the garden, tending her favorite rose, a miniature called Elvis.

Elvis lives, in Ralph's back yard.

Ralph is one of millions of Americans who has started growing roses since 1986, when it became the national flower. A recent Gallup Poll shows that one in four Americans grows roses, spending $40 million on their care each year.

Membership in the American Rose Society has climbed 43 percent in two years, making the society the largest specialized garden club in the country.

Why the ruckus over roses? They're pretty, they're cheap ($10 to $15 a plant) and they're easy to grow, thanks to new disease-resistant varieties that have made rose cultivation a cinch.

I order roses around Valentine's Day: a new shrub for myself and a dozen flowers for my wife, so she won't feel neglected. My rosebush won't arrive until spring, but it pays to shop early for good catalog selection. February seems an appropriate month, having produced the country's first rose breeder (George Washington) and another president whose namesake (Mister Lincoln) is the most popular red rose around.

What to grow? There are hundreds of choices, from roses with blooms as large as dinner plates, to those as small as pencil points. Rosebush varieties range in height from 6 inches to 20 feet. Most roses have thorns; some recent ones do not.

There are antique roses, some of which have been cultivated for hundreds of years. (The oldest known rosebush, growing outside a German cathedral, is said to be 1,000 years old.) And there are new fresh-faced hybrids on the market. This year's favorite is Lucille Ball, an apricot tea rose whose color matches Lucy's hair.

There are roses in shades of pink, red, mauve, yellow, white, tan and green. Plant geneticists promise a blue rose within the decade.

Some roses are fragrant; others are not. Two aromatic choices are Mister Lincoln and Double Delight.

Fragrance is "a tricky subject," says Bob Ardini, spokesman for the American Rose Society. Cold, damp weather can inhibit the scent of a rose that would be aromatic on warm days. But a smart gardener can trigger a rose's perfume.

"I knew a man who'd cut a rose from a bush and stick it under his hat," Ardini says. "The heat would elicit fragrance from the rose."

Regardless of your selection, all roses have these basic needs: rich, well-drained soil, plenty of water and at least six hours of sun a day. Water them early in the day, but not at dusk, which promotes fungal disease.

Roses grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere, clear to the Arctic Circle.

Fossils from Colorado put the rose's age at 35 million years.

Indians were tending wild roses at the time of Jamestown's settlement in 1607. The pilgrims followed suit.

George Washington may have bred roses, but it was John Adams who first planted them on the White House lawn. The presidential rose garden has been moved through the years. The current site, two 50-foot flower beds, is believed to be the spot where the original White House stood.

The presidential rose garden was redesigned in 1962, during John F. Kennedy's term, at the height of the Cold War. Workmen digging the site reportedly struck a mysterious cable, partially severing the wires and whipping White House aides into a frenzy.

The cable was the hot line that linked the nation's military forces.

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