rose

Dec. 24: Floral advent calendar: Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'

I feel I have to sneak one more rose on this list. Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ is one I discovered in my garden at work, and it is one of my favorite roses. It’s an old China rose from 1860. True to its name, it is a mutable creature in several ways. It starts the season with a few flowers floating above loose, red-stemmed foliage.

Then around the end of May it explodes in a rather lurid mass of hot-pink blooms—not my favorite look if I’m honest. Too over the top for me, but it does pack a punch.

Then after that big flush it settles back down and continues to put out regular blooms until…well, it was still blooming last week when I gave it a winter prune, and it would probably have continued all winter. This is my favorite state, when the blooms are sparser, floating about the plant like butterflies, but the foliage has matured and darkened.

The flowers of ‘Mutabilis’ also change as they progress. Each bud starts out orangey-pink, and then the flowers open to a copper yellow that changes to bright pink and finally “copper crimson,” according to David Austin (who passed away last week). It’s like three roses in one.

Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ can also be grown as a climber. Here it is in Charlotte Molesworth’s lovely nearby Benenden garden, Balmoral Cottage, in June, scrambling up a bit of topiary.

Pruning in the walled garden, February

The wind is blowing at 20 mph, making it feel like -5°C (23°F). I'm at the top of a 12-foot ladder as first rain, then snow, then sleet blows around me, rocking the slender aluminum support that's the only thing holding me in the the air. My steel-toed wellies slide on the metal rungs, my five layers of clothing making me as graceful as a rubber-suited snowman. I clutch at wisteria, at icy wires fixed into old mortar by improbably slim metal vine eyes. My wet pruners slip from my hand and fall, the open blade thwacking two inches deep into the mud below. All I hear is wind. 

Down on the ground to retrieve my pruners I give up on ladder work and turn toward a climbing rose that needs pruning. I untie it and carefully tease the long canes out from where they'd been stuffed behind wires. My mouth is full of muddy lengths of flexi-tie. It's the easiest place to store them when it's too wet and cold to root around in pockets.

My gloves are soaked through and anyway it's impossible to bend and tie stiff rose canes wearing them. I take off my gloves and throw them to the ground. In just a few moments my exposed hands become so cold they burn with pain and I'm having trouble feeling what I'm doing. A rose cane under pressure springs out of my wet grip and lands a thorn into the back of my finger, right into a vein. I'm too cold to feel it but a bright stream of blood spouts in an instant. It flows down my finger, down my hand, then down my wrist. I stare at the blood, fascinated that one thorn could unleash such a torrent. My hands are so cold. I want to put my gloves back on because even wet at least they'll block the wind. But do I really want to wear a glove full of blood for the three and a half days left in this week?

It's too cold to think straight. I smear the blood across my dirty waterproofs. Later I'll wipe mud from around my mouth. Even later that night my husband will take my hand and notice the purple discoloration of internal bleeding puddled under my skin the entire length of the thorn-stabbed knuckle. When I examine it I'll find next to the bruise another rose thorn buried a quarter inch deep in my skin. We've been pruning roses since October; by now I know the drill. I'll sterilize a sewing needle, rootle around in my flesh, and the blood will run down my hand again.