Metaphorically ‘blue blood’ does not run freely in the veins of roses, but this has not deterred rose breeders over the years from seeking out the elusive blue gene, in the quest to provide us with a blue rose. Why I really do not know, for personally I have no great desire for a sky-blue or navy blue rose.
Working with Edward Le Grice
While I admit that I have never tried for a blue rose myself in my own modest hybridising activities, I did have the privilege of working with that great man of roses, the late Edward Le Grice in the early to mid 1950s. At this time he had begun to successfully mix and match an incredible variety of hybrids, both old and new, and species for that matter, in his search for blues and all those other lovely shades of brown, purple and grey-blue roses. These are now his hallmark and are a part of his legacy to all of us who enjoy roses, old and new.
Somewhat pretentiously perhaps, I have implied that I worked with him. More accurately, I worked for him as an apprentice learning my trade. Looking back though, I allow myself to think it was the former. Although he selected all the parents for me, after a season or two of just writing the labels for the crosses, he later taught me how to emasculate flowers and apply the pollen. All relatively mundane tasks to me now, but then, under his quiet tutelage and many words of wisdom, he made me feel ‘ten feet tall’.
Later each year, after helping him to collect ripened pods and sow the seeds, I vividly recall how he shared his pleasure and excitement when they first started to germinate and his delight as each new little seedling gave us its first ever flower. At times too, there was disappointment and even sorrow as a promising fledgling became stricken with mildew, withered from an inadequate constitution, or was discarded from lack of originality or personality; for as always, in the haphazard world of rose breeding, many seedlings, the majority in fact, never stayed the course.
Still bright in my memory is the first ever lowering of one of Le Grice’s most lovely creations, a single Floribunda of soft greyish-blue colour enhanced by a centrepiece of many golden-orange stamens and scented. It was named and introduced a few years later in 1962 as ‘Lilac Charm’.
Over several years into the 60s and 70s after I had moved on to pastures new, I watched with interest and pleasure as more and more of his uniquely coloured beautiful roses, mostly Floribundas – which were also his speciality type – were introduced. Amongst them, to name but two, ‘News’ in 1968, was a fragrant semi-double purple variety with ‘Tuscany Superb’ as one of its parents and ‘Great News’ a fully double plum-purple with a silvery reverse and a rich fragrance.
Other blue-ish modern roses of that era include the still popular Hybrid Tea ‘Blue Moon’ raised by Tantau of Germany in 1965 and the charmingly named ‘Lavender Pinocchio’ bred by Boemer of the famous Jackson and Perkins Nurseries in America in 1954. The same nursery also introduced the lovely Hybrid Tea ‘Sterling Silver’ in 1957 which, despite a reluctance to grow in all but the best soils, is still available from one or two English nurseries today.
Kordes of Germany raised one of my favourite, if somewhat temperamental, Floribunda-type shrub roses ‘Magenta’ (‘Kordes Magenta’) in 1954. It has large trusses of deliciously perfumed multi-petalled flowers of lilac, grey, magenta and purple. Another rose I have a soft spot for is the short growing Floribunda ‘Intermezzo’, from Pedro Dot of Spain in 1963, which today would probably have been introduced under the heading of a ‘Patio’ rose. Smoky-lavender is perhaps the best description of its colour.
Another Patio type (how I hate that classification; I much prefer ‘Compact Floribunda’) by today’s grouping is ‘Baby Faurax’, from the French breeder Lille in 1924. Like ‘Intermezzo’, it grows no taller than 38cm (15in) and bears large clusters of little semi-double cup shaped violet-purple blooms which have the added attraction of n-dlk-white brush marks and speckles to set them off. If not sprayed regularly its penchant for powdery mildew can be off putting, but at least this blends in with the overall colour effect !
Having got carried away in my memories of past pleasures, I have so far mentioned only relatively modern roses – or are roses of my youth ‘moderns’? If they were cars we would call them ‘classics’ which indeed they are. If some of us in our Historic Roses Group, and all others interested in old roses, don’t keep them going they will surely disappear.
I can think of other greys, lilacs, lavenders and purples from the days when Hybrid Teas and Floribundas reigned supreme. Older readers with a taste for the unusual shades must forgive me if I have omitted their particular favourites. I must not let the nostalgia of advancing years imply that ‘the rose’ took a turn for the worse when Patios and Ground Coverers grabbed centre stage, despite their more healthy disposition.
I come now to some of the darker toned blue and purple shaded roses that have been adorning gardens for much longer than the HTs and Floribundas. By browsing through old rose books and catalogues, it becomes clear that there were many purple and blue-ish roses in the last century and earlier which did not survive the rigours of time. I wonder why they should have disappeared for ever?
Perhaps when they themselves were `moderns’ they were just fleeting fancies only to disappear from catalogues within a few years of introduction, some probably deserving such early oblivion. Others no doubt were gems failing to get a good press, through no fault of their own and were eventually dismissed by nurserymen and gardeners alike. Perhaps they were discarded after only a few years of popularity because of the foibles of ever changing fashion, under the notion that something new is always something better. Nothing changes !
Surprisingly, with one or two notable exceptions which I will come to later, it is only by stretching the imagination a little that any of the old shrub roses of today’s catalogues come close to the bluey shades achieved by the breeders who worked in this field in the 50s and 60s.
Predominant are the dusky reddish-purple Gallicas of the last century which were revered by the Victorians and are too numerous to mention all by name. However several are much too garden worthy to dismiss without a word or two of recognition. Amongst them is the fully double velvet textured deep purple ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ (1840), the large and multi-petalled shapely crimson-purple of unknown origin ‘Charles de Mills’, the small flowered rosette shaped violet-purple ‘Orpheline de Juillet’ (1848), as well as the lovely almost single flowered purple-smudged-crimson ‘Alain Blanchard’ (1839) and the very ancient violet-maroon ‘Violacea’ also known as ‘La Belle Sultane’. These latter two roses display delightful golden stamens as they open which adds to their charms.
Among the Mosses, two purple-dark reds of distinction are the free flowering ‘Capitaine John Ingram’ (1856) and the slightly older, even more purple ‘Nuits de Young’ (1845). These are two roses which could never outgrow their welcome in any garden and they have the added attraction of moss which, when touched, leaves a smell of an old fashioned common cold remedy on the fingers.
Then there are a couple of old Centifolias that must be mentioned: the lilac and grey highlighted crimson ‘Robert le Diable’ (1831) and the floppy old magenta flushed purple ‘Tour de Malakoff’ (1856), which in its heyday was also known as ‘Black Jack’.
All the roses so far mentioned are fragrant except for ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ which is not. ‘Charles de Mills’ is – to some noses but not mine, but then there are “roses for noses and noses for roses”.
So far I have mentioned only once-flowering varieties. A single flowering may be off putting to some but never to me for nature provides us with some of its most beautiful subjects but fleetingly. Lilacs and daffodils I have never heard chastised for their transience. However, for those who must have continuity of bloom, there are the ancient Portlands: ‘Rose du Roi à fleurs pourpres’ (1819), is a fully double deep purple with a strong fragrance, while ‘Pergolèse’ (1860) starts off purple and pales to mauve, while ‘Indigo’ (1830), is even more richly purple than the previous two.
The short growing Portlands are excellent for the smaller gardens and they also make themselves very much at home when grown in pots, tubs or urns.
Two rather more vigorous roses of these shades are to be found amongst the Bourbons; these are the double maroon- purple ‘Great Western’ (1838) and the shaggy cerise-purple, highly scented ‘Mme Isaac Pereire’ (1881). Another is an old Hybrid Perpetual from Victorian times, ‘Gloire de Ducher’ (1865) with its fragrant, velvety textured large flowers of maroon colouring and strong perfume.
Then there are the ‘oldies’ of subtle smoky-lavender and pinky-lilac shades which, for me, come nearest to blue amongst the 19th century roses. Once again most are to be found amongst the Gallicas. To name those closest to my heart – ‘Belle de Crécy’, a medium sized rose from pre-Victorian times is made up of many petals in subtle shades of mauve, lavender, lilac, and grey; ‘De la Maïtre d’École’ (1840) is of similar colouring on a pink background; ‘Nestor’ (c1840), with its very double flowers of rich magenta; and the even lesser known but very beautiful ‘Cosimo Ridolfi’ (1842), which can appear bright lilac, especially in sunny weather.
Then of course there is the very fragrant old Moss rose ‘William Lobb’ (1855), whose colour seems to change on a whim from purple-magenta to smoky blue-grey. Although usually listed as a shrub, I grow this rose as a climber over an archway and it still gets out of hand.
To my eye though, the most blue and the most movingly lovely of these shades from the past is the aptly named old Hybrid Perpetual ‘Reine des Violettes’. If the weather is kind to her she will, amid a multitude of soft green foliage, produce a succession of large, fully double, softly delicate fragrant flowers which, when cut and taken into the house, will add that extra bit of class to any dining table of crystal, silver and lace.
It is amongst the old ramblers though that one finds the bluest of blue shades, epitomised most of all by the well-loved, almost thornless early flowering ‘Veilchenblau’ (1905), with its trusses of individually ruffled, semi-double flowers which open first to violety-blue and then pale to pure lilac with each petal laced with cream/white and set off by a loosely formed but prominent set of honey-yellow stamens.
Imagine the German J. C. Schmidt’s pleasure as his new rose flowered for him for the first time. Records have it that he crossed ‘Crimson Rambler’ with another crimsony rose ‘Erinnerung an Brod’ (‘Souvenir du Brod’) to achieve this result. He was probably also delightfully surprised that such a relatively delicately coloured offspring came about from this choice of parents. Profuse when in flower in early summer, ‘Veilchenblau’ has plentiful bright mid-green foliage.
Of a deeper shade than ‘Veilchenblau’ and later to come into flower is the fully double rambler ‘Bleu Magenta’, purporting to French origins and of unknown date, probably c. 1900. This rose has even fewer thorns than ‘Veilchenblau’ (which in effect means practically none) and the cascading clusters of grape-purple, fully double rosette shaped flowers are well set off amid an abundance of darkish-green semi-glossy foliage.
‘Bobby James’ (1961, a scrambler and much more vigorous), grown with ‘Bleu Magenta’ can be most effective, with the odd cluster of purple peeping out from amongst the masses of creamy-white flowers of the more modern rose – like bunches of grapes.
lgoult of France raised ‘Rose-Marie Viaud’ from ‘Veilchenblau’ in 1924 and his rose is sometimes confused with ‘Bleu Magenta’ but it flowers later and its blooms are slightly more double. Although in the same rosette form they are also slightly more loosely packed into the clusters. Furthermore, the colour is less purple, more smokey-blue with each truss composed of flowers of different shades, from greyish-silver to soft cloudy magenta.
Like the previous two, this rose has copious leathery foliage and a few thorns of consequence, although it is much more prone to mildew than any of the other ramblers of this colouring. This is not an affliction I get too bothered about for it usually starts to appear as the flowers go over and can be taken care of by immediate dead-heading, especially if the plant is growing on an arch or a trellis – structures on which this rose is most comfortable.
Marginally, my favourite rambler though of all the ‘blues’ is again another Multiflora/Wichuraiana hybrid, ‘Violette’ from Turbat, France, (1924). Beautifully formed and arranged in small clusters, each unfading violet-purple, almost fully double flower which, as it opens, is brought to life by a central array of golden-yellow stamens.
As a plant, it has dark foliage and is less vigorous than any of the other ramblers mentioned and its growth more pliable. It too, like the others of its colour, is relatively thornless. Try growing it as an intermingling companion to the similar sized creamy-yellow ‘Goldfinch’ (1907) or even the more vigorous ‘Aviateur Blériot’ (1910) which is also cream. The latter will provide the necessary extra support to help it attain heights way above its normal stature of about 2.7m (12ft).
Except for ‘Violette’, all these ramblers can achieve heights of 4.5-6m (15-20ft), even more if planted to scramble up into the branches of trees. Having said this, these colours are sometimes lost in heavily foliated trees where whites or creams may be a better choice.
The earliest to flower of the purple blue ramblers is the deep reddish-purple ‘Amadis’ (1829) from Laffay, France. It is a Boursault which, in some seasons, also produces a small second flush of its semi-double flowers, often streaked white with creamy stamens, complemented by its dark green thornless shoots and foliage, both of which turn reddish-purple late in the summer. In autumn its leaves turn rich tawny-brown. Left unpruned, which I consider best for all the Boursaults, this easy going rose will grow to a height of 2.7-4.5m (12- 15ft).
It may be stretching the definition a bit but I must mention one or two species roses which, although often described simply as pink, have bluish or lilac tints in their flowers. Rosa californica first cultivated in about 1878 for example and its double form Rosa californica ‘Plena’ introduced by Geschwind of Hungary in 1894. These two make splendid dense shrubs if left to develop without too much pruning and certainly, en masse, make a distinctly lilacy sight.
Another excellent species, from the North American continent with lilacy undertones to its basically pink flower, is the lovely single flowered Rosa nutkana. Cultivated first at about the same time as Rosa californica but with larger flowers, it too has a double form, Rosa nutkana ‘Plena,’ which is of unknown origin and seldom seen.
I never put roses into league tables, but with the possible exception of ‘Reine des Violettes’ and ‘Charles de Mills’, none of the “blues” would be in my top ten, although I must say that my garden would be much less interesting to me without each and every one of them.
Peter Beales (1936 – 2013) hardly needs an introduction; he founded and ran the Peter Beales Nursery, famous around the world for its ‘Classic’ Roses. Peter gave two lectures in Japan, where the nursery was represented at the British Exhibition, in the summer of 1998 .
This article appeared in the Autumn 1998 issue.