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I promised you a rose garden....

If political and international crises and scandals have your head reeling, go plant a rose bush or wander over to Tudor Place, sniff the petals, and take a lesson from the rose. Horticultural wisdom: If those mixed up in affairs of state did more pruning, watering and deadheading instead of letting their BlackBerries grow wild, they’d surely be better off.

No flower – nor any social networking tool--is more romantic than a rose.

I love iris, orchids and lilies of the valley -- just about anything that blooms, but roses, cultivated for more than 5,000 years, are in a class of their own. Having a very shady garden, and therefore being unable to grow roses, and wanting to enjoy someone else’s hard work (oh, the pruning, the watering, the deadheading!), I wandered up to Tudor Place a few weeks ago in search of roses and a bit of borrowed romance.

Roses are among the original ornamentals planted at Tudor Place, where Martha Custis Peter, Martha Washington’s granddaughter and the mansion’s first occupant, planted them in 1815, near the end of the War of 1812. She must have done so just as the house, designed for her and her husband by William Thornton, the architect of the Capitol, was nearing completion at what is now 1644 31st Street NW.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

Two of her favorites are still grown there. One of them is a charmer called “Four Seasons Rose”, (Rosadamascena ‘Bifera’), which has purportedly been in cultivation for a millennium. Its flexible, upright stems bear soft, light pink ruffled roses all summer. She also loved “Old Monthly” or “Old Blush” (Rosa chinensis “Old Blush), which was brought from China to the West in 1752. It is upright as well, and can be grown as a climber. At Tudor Place it is in a perfect spot: full sun on the south side of the house, where it thrives next to the “Four Seasons Rose” bearing medium pink blossoms all summer long. Perhaps it’s the romantic in me that likes to think of the first First Lady’s granddaughter taking cuttings from the roses at Mount Vernon where she was born, and planting them at her new home in Georgetown. The “Old Blush” shrubs currently growing at Tudor Place are very likely cuttings of the ones Martha Custis Peter herself planted.

Her descendants also planted roses, most notably in the knot garden north of the house. It dates to the early 1800’s and was originally planted with herbs near the Round Garden where the Peter family grew vegetables. The original knot garden was decimated in the late 1850’s by neighbors who poached its boxwood hedges for Christmas greens while Britannia Peter, then owner of Tudor Place, was away. When Britannia returned at the beginning of the Civil War, she replaced the knot garden with grass, and had most of the boxwoods moved to the lower walk, where some of them still survive.

That was the end of the knot garden, the layout of which was forgotten, until Britannia’s grandson and great grandson serendipitously found a copy of the plan in a book published by the Virginia Garden Club. The book described a number of gardens, including one belonging to a Peter cousin who’d replicated the Tudor Place knot many years before at Avenel, her estate in the Potomac community of Montgomery County. Delighted with the discovery, Armistead Peter III, Tudor Place’s final owner, persuaded his father to take cuttings of the original boxwoods and, using the newly minted shrubs, recreated the original knot garden across the walk from the old one with a few adjustments, and planted roses in it, rather than herbs.

Peter, in his writings about the garden, tenderly remembers his late wife, Caroline, picking and arranging roses in the house, and that she had been especially fond of “Gruss an Aachen”, which he had planted in the triangles around the center of the knot (talk about romantic!). It is easy to imagine it being a favorite, since this rose, introduced in 1909, grows to about 3 feet tall and its orange-pink buds yield a flower that opens to a light pink and fades to creamy white.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

In addition to “Gruss an Aachen,” there are the five petalled dog roses (rosacanina), the hips of which are high in vitamin C and antioxidants, and are used to make tea, wine, and marmalade. It only blooms once a season on its sprawling stems. Nearby is the Mary Rose, one of my favorites, and not just because I managed to keep one alive for ten years. A David Austin rose introduced in 1983, it is an old fashioned looking pink rose that blooms in clusters. Mary Roses are wonderfully fragrant and will re-bloom if they are deadheaded.

Close to the knot garden is the newly rebuilt grape arbor. The old one had been covered with grapes, as well as the very robust New Dawn rose, a sweet faintly pink climbing rose, which is very easy to grow. My test for “easy?” If I can grow it, anyone can, and I can grow New Dawn. The old ones here were diseased and have been replaced with new plants that will bloom lustily in the years to come. New Dawn re-blooms, if deadheaded, though its summer blooms are less prolific than its first bold display.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

A Tudor Place climber that I am dying to try is the exotically named Bourbon rose, “Zephrine Drouhin”, introduced in 1868. I always thought Bourbon roses were named for the Bourbon monarchs, but in fact, they are named after the island (Ile Bourbon, now renamed Reunion) in the Indian Ocean from whence they come. “Zephrine Drouhin” has a voluptuous deep pink flower that grows on nearly thornless stems and reputedly blooms well in shade, the only rose to do so, heavily in the spring with a second flush of flowers in autumn. What makes it almost irresistible to me is that the BBC Gardener’sWorld.com considers them fit for a beginner. I’m checking the catalogues now.

Many, though not all, of the roses at Tudor Place are past their season’s prime now, but it is still worth a visit to see the repeat bloomers, not to mention the rest of the garden. Happily, the roses will be back in force next May, romance and all!

Self-guided Tudor Place garden tours are Monday-Saturday 10 am-4 pm; Sundays noon-4. There is a small admission fee. The house is closed on Mondays.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen