Tag Archives: roses

Fragrant, spicy, lemony, lush and voluptuous

are some of the inadequate terms we use to describe roses, but equivalent to the terms oenophiles employ for the equally ineffable flavors of wine. Oaky, fruity, tannic, et cetera.

Really, no word can describe the experience of sticking your nose in a bloom and inhaling. My friend needs little encouragement to dive in. Swoon.

The thing to do if it is available to you (as they say in yoga class, referring to your ability to hold a pose) is to simply wander about a rose garden like the one at the Lyndhurst Estate and, yes, stop and smell the roses. We are so fortunate to have this magical place within walking distance.

What I love is that delving into botanical literature you find that roses have stories, roses are stories. The Lyndhurst rose garden was first planted in 1914 as the project of Helen Gould, the eldest daughter of robber baron Jay Gould, who bought  the estate in the 1880s. Over time and with successive owners who weren’t quite as enthused about the project it almost died out, to be revived by the Garden Club of Irvington-on-Hudson starting in 1968. Now 500 plants in five concentric rings thrive at the garden’s peak each June, and the lot is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Each ring features different kinds: the outer ring has been planted with shrub and old garden roses, the middle hybrid teas and grandiflora, and the inner with polyanthas and floribundas. The ones I like best have labels, barely legible old keys to each one’s provenance.

Pink Knockout, for example, is a bubblegum-pink sport – meaning, basically, offspring– of Double Knock Out. Kind of like race horses.

Another, Soaring to Glory, developed as recently as 2018, is a sun lover that is especially resistant to disease. Something to like in a rose.

One of the arches bears a mysterious old plaque, Zepherine Drouhin.

It’s a special flower, dating back to 1868, described in the rose literature as a vigorous climbing Bourbon rose with masses of highly fragrant, semi-double, carmine flowers, 3 in. across (8 cm), counting up to 30 petals. Born on thornless, purplish stems.

The world might be complicated, tedious, awful. The only complexity of rosa is how many petals each one has, what shape its whorl, how the heck you describe its scent to differentiate it from all the other spectacular specimens. There is no bad rose.

One reminds me of a wild rose we once found in a neighboring meadow. Why it strayed from a domestic border I don’t know. That flower had no name that I ever knew; it was anonymous yet ravishing. I dug up part of it when we sold the house and replanted it when we moved to suburbia, careful to leave some of the roots so the plant would bloom for the new occupants.

Some efforts fail, as in life outside the rose garden. Some deaths remain in the borders as if to remind us that existence is in fact fleeting. Such as Summer Surprise, surprisingly a nonstarter.

Or Voluptuous, which doesn’t quite live up to its hype.

You must time your visit to the 67-acre Lyndhurst properly. We have been overeager and jumped the gun with a visit when the season has barely started, only to find tight buds, not yet coaxed into blooming by sun and rain.

On the other hand, if you go too late in June, much of the fragile prettiness has shattered. Already, today, petals litter the lawn.

But still we find swaths of buxom beauties.

It’s difficult to take a bad photo of a rose, try as you might.

This is what one looks like close up.

Though it’s tempting to click, best to pocket your phone and simply drift from bed to bed, under the perfect sky, in a state of rose-addled bliss.

The frame of a greenhouse designed in 1881 by Lord & Burnham, when it was built the largest in the country, rises beyond a hillock. Once the foremost metal-framed conservatory in the country, now a ruin. You know I love ruins.

When Jay Gould had it built, he was inordinately proud of the orchids that were raised here – with a full-time staff of 16 gardeners, what could go wrong? – and used to run the plants down to gift to grateful New York City residents, with a steam heater to keep the flowers warm. Now there are just three gardeners to run the whole estate, and the greenhouse is nominally off limits.

Okay. But an original fountain in the center bubbles, its bowl upheld by… pelicans perhaps? Or some mythological creature with bird feet?

When Helen Gould first dreamed up the rose garden, she planned for the folly to have only pink climbing roses. After her death, the estate passed to her younger sister Anna, the Dutchess of Talleyrand-Perigord, who had gained a divorce from her new husband’s cousin Boni, the Count of Castellane, he who had bilked her of $10 million of her inheritance. The heiress had two children in this second marriage, Howard de Talleyrand-Périgord, Duc de Sagan (1909-1929), who died of a self-inflicted gun wound when his parents refused him permission to marry until he was 21, and Helene Violette de Talleyrand-Périgord,  who married Comte James Robert de Pourtalès, divorced him, then married Gaston Palewski, former Minister of Scientific Research, Atomic Energy and Space Questions. Lives perfumed with the best of the best, aside from that unfortunate suicide. By the time Anna went to the rose garden in the sky in 1961, few of the shrubs were left.

Jay Gould enriched the lives of his swanky city pals with orchids. Perhaps he might have sent roses.

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Can a flower speak to you?

I think it’s possible.

Standing in Floral Park, Queens, under the canopy of Lady Linden, I’m distracted by the  perfume in the air.

It takes something to be distracted in the shade of a linden, especially at this time of year, when the heart-shaped leaves (cordate, if you want the technical term) have materialized and you can see the lighter colored bracts hanging all over the trees like golden tickets out of Willie Wonka. Few seem to agree about the purpose of the mysterious linden bracts, which are actually a kind of specialized leaf. Do they exist to channel rainwater away from delicate buds and flowers, do they attract bees, are they some kind of wing to carry seeds away?

Lindens are magical — in ancient mythology, tilia symbolizes faithful love, and is more currently believed to neutralize negative energy. The edible flower is a sedative. Its fragrance is also seductive, but flowers here haven’t yet bloomed… so what smells so good on the streets of Queens? It could be the curry cooking in someone’s house, as I watch the Sikhs go about their business.

Yes, here there are plenty of Norway maples and honey locusts—weed trees — and pin oaks (no tree looks lovelier silhouetted against the sky).

Even some Japanese pagoda trees in these cramped New York City tree pits. Take that, Bronx Botanical Garden! Where we’re working I see a baggy, saggy old London plane, sheltering a seedling in its crook.

You might think it has seen better days, but I would assert this actually is this tree’s better day, perhaps its best, the distinguished old grandmawmaw, queen of the Queens block where Whitney Avenue meets Bryant Avenue, no doubt rooted here long before the tickytacky abodes sprung up in the neighborhood.

But what is so sweet about the air today? I looked around and then I crowdsourced some Petal Pushers I know to find out the ways in which flowers have spoken to them.

A lot of our passions seem to come down to bouquets. The yellow sweetheart roses in my wedding bouquet, a memory that blooms every time I see a yellow rosebush.

Lily of the valley, noted by one Petal Pusher as the bouquet she loved passionately but was denied when she got married because the flowers were “too fragile,” though she knew her mother had held them as a bride. Another Petal Pusher told me she was obsessed with the lilies of the valley in her yard when she was growing up, remembering leaning over them to inhale.

The lilacs by the railroad tracks one Petal Pusher used to gather for his mother: nobody cared how many I picked, he says.

I remember as a teen being so captivated by the scent of honeysuckle that I searched out the essence of honeysuckle perfume and dabbed it on, drowning pleasantly in its fragrance.

I always wanted to grow allium, the giant onion, but never have. Once upon a time, when we lived in a farmhouse in an upstate apple orchard, I used to patronize the garden of one Mrs. Yurg — she sold rose plants and day lilies, and visiting her you’d wind up chatting over a bucket of day lily plants swimming in a cold bath.

Some Petal Pushers cherish flowers that they associate with a loved one no longer with us. Trilium, for example, was the favorite of one Petal Pusher’s mother, whose passion for the wildflower was something the family would gently tease her about. White orchid, says another Petal Pusher, recalling the one that stood as a sentinel overseeing her husband’s hospital room at the end.

Flowers can speak of another time, a simpler time. Or perhaps they give a more complicated past some simplicity. The garish spectacle of tulips in a Dutch field, in the recall of someone who saw them on a teen tour of Europe. We passed fields and fields in every color of the rainbow. I swooned!

The iris farm across the street from where one Petal Pusher lived in college, into which he slipped on hands and knees so no one would see me to gather floral displays for dinner parties.Swanky!

The lotus blossom, which signifies resilience, on account of the troubled adolescents this Petal Pusher works with.

Childhood memories. Someone fancied Rose of Sharon: We would wait until a bee went deep into the flower then close it up.

Still another Petal Pusher reminisced about the wild purple lupines that grew at the edge of her grandparents’ land, and how she used to pretend I was either a Pilgrim or a Witch, and the lupines were my food or magic elixir.

I recently paid a visit to a border of peonies I walked by every June on my way to high school. Peonies, I have often thought, are the perfect flower. The ones I remembered had vanished, and I guess the new residents preferred the tired old standby, arbor vitae. Undeterred, I called upon a church where I knew they’d be on display, and I wasn’t disappointed. There they were, nodding after the rain.

And only one pink specimen in bloom, a promise of what’s to come.

Complete with a moment of inspiration.

In Queens, under the tilia, it is the rose that permeates the air, framed as it is by the chain link.

A rose is a rose is a rose – something of a misquote, in fact, from Gertrude Stein’s 1913 poem Sacred Emily.

She really said, Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, somewhat less intelligibly, referring to a person named Rose, but more the way Stein rocks it. Later, as the quote became known, she commented: Now listen! I’m no fool. I know that in daily life we don’t go around saying ‘is a … is a … is a …’ Yes, I’m no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.

The point about roses is it doesn’t matter the location, they’re always superb. Yes, as I said, yellow sweetheart roses. But even the delicate pink but somewhat frowzy ones shine against the vinyl siding in Floral Park.

It can’t only be the roses. Is it the clover? Crush one between your fingers and it releases the scent of honey.  A whole yard of clover – why does anyone plant turfgrass?

They are truly bellyflowers, the term another Petal Pusher shared that is used by wildflower fanciers to denote blossoms you have to get down low to see, preferably with a jeweler’s loupe. Don’t possess a loupe? No time like the present.

Another flower lover prefers the gigantic fleshy flowers, like the okra blossom she grows on her deck.

Remember flower power? Such a cool expression. Coined in 1965 by American poetry icon Allen Ginsburg and inspiring countless daisy head garlands, not to mention the practice of inserting daisies into the snouts of National Guardsmen’s weapons.

Generations later, powerful flowers survive in Queens, between the curry and the bracts.

They do speak to those who listen.

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