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Is a Blue Rose a Rose?

Accuracy and fairness are important tenets of journalism, and so let me start by saying that not all rosarians are insane.

This assertion may be hard for the non-rosarian to believe. Given the thousands of available plants with which a gardener might become obsessed, cacti or begonias or natives or heirloom peppers, why would anyone in his or her right mind choose the hybrid tea rose? This most disease-prone of plants is a pesticide salesman’s dream come true.

That’s not hyperbole. You can trust me: I used to sell pesticides. Were it not for hybrid tea roses, my employers might have gone bankrupt. There were regular applications of systemic insecticides. There were fungicides to control the ubiquitous fungal diseases: black spot, powdery mildew and rust. Occasionally, I’d sell soil fumigants to people replacing their old, ailing hybrid teas with newer, not yet ailing hybrid teas. Our repeat customers would develop whitefly infestations after insecticides had killed all the predatory insects in the garden. We’d sell them stuff to kill the whiteflies, which–as whiteflies only go away if you stop spraying–constituted a job security measure on our part.

And all for what? Rows of thorn-covered sticks poking oddly out of the ground. Sometimes a few leaves adorn the sticks, generally with unsightly spots on them. Why one wouldn’t just plant ocotillos and be done with it is hard to fathom.

“Why, the blooms, of course!” will cry the defensive rosarians in the crowd. And while hybrid tea blossoms pale before the brilliant red trumpets of an ocotillo, they’re lovely flowers. Mostly. If botrytis doesn’t get them, that is, and if black spot hasn’t sapped the plant’s vigor, and if rose decline hasn’t sent the entire garden into a downward spiral. And if you don’t insist all of them smell like roses. Some hybrid teas do carry a faint scent vaguely resembling the heady aroma characteristic of the genus from which they were whelped. There are trade-offs to consider here. With hybrid teas, one must, generally, choose between fragrance and what rosarians refer to as “disease resistance,” which means the variety being discussed will actually have some green leaf surface showing through the black spot.

It gets worse. So monomaniacal are hard-line rosarians that they permit no other plant to contaminate their gardens: not a sprig of alyssum, no turf, no spring crocus or narcissus may defile their rows of thorn sticks, all identical except during that fleeting season of sterile scentless bloom. Such rose gardens seem less garden than farmer’s field, like rows of brussels sprouts with plowed soil between them–except that brussels sprouts farmers plant cover crops, come to think of it.

Still, not all rosarians are insane. Maybe even most of them aren’t. Most that I’ve met lately, for instance, are rethinking that whole sterile soil between the rows thing, interplanting their roses with herbs, or spring bulbs, or even tomatoes. Old rose species are continuing the comeback they started about two decades ago, with vigorous, brilliantly-scented gallicas and dog roses gaining favor as tough, droughty hedges with tasty hips. The Lady Banks rose (Rosa banksiae) has become nearly ubiquitous in the Bay Area, and rightly so: a tough climber covered with long-lasting flowers, which–in the white form–even smells like a rose. In many nurseries, hybrid teas are now outnumbered by floribundas, which bear smaller, generally more fragrant blossoms on “disease-resistant” plants that actually seem to resist disease.

And promising new rose selections are hitting the nurseries as well. A dozen varieties of ground cover rose are for sale nowadays (“Red Ribbons” is a nice one, almost overplanted lately), and then there are such specialties as the deep-shade-tolerant native Rosa californica: light on bloom, but an interesting form in a traditionally hard spot to garden. As rosarians tend toward diversity in their plantings, and a sense of perspective in their garden plans–with even hybrid tea fanciers making room for other living things on their properties–the truly insane rosarian is getting harder and harder to find.

Which is why I was surprised, a few weeks ago, to read an item in the paper describing rosarians working with genetic engineers to create something never before seen in nature: a blue-flowered rose. Vanderbilt University researchers are splicing human liver enzyme genes into roses, hoping that the enzyme will turn the flowers blue. Apparently, black spot isn’t enough: these guys want roses to get liver spots as well.

In the story, San Francisco rosarian James Armstrong was quoted as saying “It would be nice to see a blue rose, and the only way that1s going to happen is through genetic engineering.” I too think it would be nice to see a blue rose, assuming that blue is the variable kind of color naturally produced by most plants, a result of a complex interplay of genetics and cellular chemistry, benign viruses and sun and soil and temperature. (If the white coats succeed in breeding a rose that looks as if it has been dipped in blue dye, then I can suggest an easier way to get there.)

Let’s look at the larger picture. I also think it would be nice to have salad vegetables that fertilize themselves, but I’m not about to ask Burpee to splice horse genes into my tomatoes so that I can plant “Manure Girls.” Part of growing plants–indeed, part of growing UP–is recognizing the limits within which one has to work.

True, gardeners do fight these limits as much as anyone, what with our tarps, mulches and anti-transpirant sprays, our lath houses and protected south-facing walls.

But it’s one thing to try to get your radishes to weather a cold snap. It’s another thing to try to get your radishes to grow peacock plumage.

Despite my radical environmentalism, I am not a knee-jerk “anti” when it comes to genetic engineering. I was excited when I heard of the new Vitamin-A-precursor-enhanced “Golden Rice,” intended to help alleviate nutritional deficiencies in developing countries. (Of course, it turned out a body would need to eat a hundred pounds of the stuff a day to get the beta carotene contained in a medium-sized carrot, but that’s beside the point.) I’m intrigued by thoughts of splicing malaria immunity into Anopheles mosquitos, which might save hundreds of thousands of lives a year. Where a world problem exists that could reasonably be alleviated by genetic research, I’m all for at least considering it.

That said, what, exactly, is wrong with a world that lacks blue roses? There are plenty of blue-flowering plants that do just fine in the same conditions as hybrid tea roses: right off the top of my head there’s ceanothus, bearded irises, lobelia, delphinium. Alyogyne flowers even look more or less like single roses.

The only reason I can think of for having any interest at all in a blue rose is really wanting blue flowers in your garden, but for some reason being utterly, pathologically unwilling to plant anything other than roses. But that would be . . . what’s the word I’m looking for?

Insane.

CHRIS CLARKE is the editor of Faultline: the magazine of the California environment. He can be reached at: cclarke@faultline.org

 

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