People often ask my opinion on the best roses to plant in the South of France, where I have lived and gardened for nearly 40 years.
In my experience the most reliable are climbers and certain shrub roses, and several of our old favourites, such as ‘Sénateur La Follette’, were indeed created here in the Midi. This particular rose, pale pink with lovely long pointed buds, was produced by a Mr Busby, the gardener to Lord Brougham who built the elegant Château Eléonore at Cannes. It is one of the first roses to blossom (reminiscent of another French rose, ‘Albertine’), a vigorous and gigantic climber that can easily reach ten metres (30-32 feet). Sadly it has little scent and does not last in water but it is truly spectacular climbing through a tree and as a conversation-stopper it is “top of the pops”. Do not be afraid to prune it hard from time to time during the autumn. My own ‘Follette’ looks particularly attractive meandering up a cedar tree, its pink flowers toning well with the grey-green needles.
Another well-known and well-loved favourite is Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’, the little double yellow pompom rose, named after the wife of Sir Joseph Banks, the Director of Kew in 1807. It was introduced into England from China as long ago as 1824 but it is not completely hardy there. Here in the South of France it has no problems. It is another vigorous climber and will reach a height of at least six metres (20 feet) on slender branches which are practically thornless. There is a very beautiful double white variety, ‘Alba Plena’, also white and yellow single varieties but they do not have the same allure, nor are they as prolific. The only disadvantage of Rosa banksiae is that it does not flower when very young.
Other roses to search for are those created by the family Narbonnand, once famous for their nurseries at Golfe Juan and Antibes. After the depredations of war these nurseries disappeared, although several of their roses can still be found – for example ‘Noella Narbonnand’ with deep crimson flowers in early spring, ‘Isabelle Narbonnand’, an apricot rose which flowers well in winter, and ‘Sénateur Amic’, probably the last one to be created, another carmine rose which flowers early in the year. Yet another, which is still in cultivation and quite well known, is ‘Général Schlablikine’, a deep pink double rose that can flower three or four times a year. As a shrub it can reach about 2 metres (5-6 feet) and thrives on a quite heavy pruning after each flowering. It strikes very well from cuttings at almost any time of year but, alas, it does not last well in water and has a tendency to mildew, as do all the Narbonnand roses.
Other roses that do well here include the following.
‘Alister Stella Gray’ is a very vigorous Noisette shrub with masses of small double yellow flowers, which are very beautiful in bud. It will scramble over walls and make a marvellous show.
‘Canary Bird’ is a big shrub rose with enchanting single yellow flowers in April; it is easy to propagate from suckers and not fussy about position. This is a hybrid from the lovely Rosa hugonis whose petals are a slightly gentler yellow.
Rosa ‘Complicata’ is a medium-sized shrub which spreads profusely by suckers; it has large single pink flowers and is not complicated at all!
The hybrid musks or Pemberton roses are excellent shrubs for the Midi: ‘Penelope’, ‘Thisbe’, ‘Felicia’, ‘Moonlight’, ‘Cornelia’ and ‘Nur Mahal’, to name a few, and also the beautiful ‘Buff Beauty’ (not a Pemberton rose but created by Bentall), which if planted in front of an east-facing wall will grow to ten feet and flower several times a year. All are scented.
‘Isfahan’, an old damask rose, was reputed to have been brought from Persia and is a marvellous shrub, which can reach seven feet or more and has a glorious scent.
‘Madame Isaac Pereire’ is a large deep carmine Bourbon rose with a wonderful scent and grows easily from cuttings; however, it is not very long-lived.
‘Constance Spry’, produced in 1961, was the first of the David Austin roses and has prospered ever since. A lovely “feature” shrub, growing to seven feet or more, it has large pink, very scented “cabbage” roses: a splendid rose for a large or a small garden.
Other David Austin “English roses” do not do very well for me here although many people have had great success with them.
Climbing roses, which are a great feature in my garden, are as follows.
‘Félicité et Perpetué’ is a semi-evergreen climber with delightful creamy-white, very compact pompom flowers; the buds are tinged with pink. This old rose, introduced in 1827 and named after two Christian martyrs, is very sturdy and will reach three metres (18-20 feet) if allowed to clamber into a tree.
Rosa laevigata, the Cherokee rose, is one of my favourites and perhaps the most beautiful of all single roses. It is a pure white prolific climber with shiny green leaves, whose flowers have five petals and yellow stamens. It likes to be against a south-facing wall, which it will cover very quickly. It has a slight scent but, alas, it only flowers once.
‘The New Dawn’ is a really impressive and abundant climber with pale pink flowers and healthy green leaves. Martin Rix describes it as “one of the all-time best roses”. It has the advantage of flowering later than some other climbers, which adds interest to an otherwise “roseless” garden, and can reach 6 metres (20 feet). It came from the USA in 1930, has never looked back and is easy to propagate from cuttings at almost any time of the year.
The Big Six that do really well here are ‘Bobby James’, ‘Seagull’, ‘Rambling Rector’ (there is no stopping him), ‘Kiftsgate’ (although this is disappointing in my garden compared with the original), ‘Wedding Day’, and ‘La Mortola’ with its beautiful grey-green pointed leaves. These are all big white ramblers or climbers, semi-evergreen, and are really dramatic when in flower.
No exposé on roses would be complete without mention of the Meilland family – one of the most renowned rose growers in the world and producers of the magical rose ‘Peace’ and also ‘Baccara’, one of the all-time best roses for bouquets. They specialise in hybrid teas, which can do reasonably well here but in my experience only for about five-six years, after which they generally deteriorate and have to be renewed.
The most famous Meilland rose of all, ‘Peace’, burst on to the world almost immediately after the end of the Second World War – hence its name. The story of its creation in For the Love of a Rose by Anne Bridge is well worth reading and is extremely moving.
Meilland have also produced famous climbers such as ‘Cocktail’, ‘Pierre de Ronsard’ and ‘Domaine de Courson’, as well as beautiful “landscape” roses – ‘Bonica’, ‘Swany’ and the Meillandecor groups.
All their roses can be bought by mail order and arrive beautifully packed, in perfect condition. They are a delightful firm to deal with and do not hesitate to replace any damaged plants.
This article first appeared in The Mediterranean Garden, the journal of the Mediterranean Garden Society, No. 61, July 2010, and is reproduced here by kind permission. © Joanna Millar.