BETTER ROSES FOR A WARMING WORLD AND OTHER GARDEN ADVENTURESby Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri July 25 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 17 mins, 53 secs
Manipur is burning and its despair all around. But here’s an extract from the book ‘Roses in the Fire of Spring’, which will transport you to another realm, followed by an interview of Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri with authors M.S. Viraraghavan & Girija Viraraghavan.
In the late 1980s we got a copy of Ellen Willmott’s The Genus Rosa, published in 1914, dealing with the various rose species of the world. In it, we read about two rose species connected with India – the tropical species of the swampy areas, Rosa clinophylla, which we had heard about before, and another species, Rosa gigantea, native to India’s north-east region. Sir George Watt, a Scottish surgeon with botanical interests, who had ‘discovered’ them, had written a great deal about both these species. In an unpublished diary of his explorations in Manipur in 1882, he wrote about R. clinophylla, known to him as Rosa involucrata: ‘common among the sandy margins of the rivers which traverse the valley especially around the city [Imphal?] … children are sent out to collect the large, beautiful, white flowers… They are used as offerings in religious worship or worn in the hair of the women’.
In the same unpublished diary, Sir George writes about his discovery of Rosa gigantea, also in 1882, in the forests off Ukhrul town in Manipur, where he was part of a commission to demarcate the boundary between India and Burma. This wild rose, he says, ‘produces a truly superb effect and when seen from a distance causes the trees to appear like magnolias with large yellow flowers.
Researching a little more, we found that, just a few years later, in 1888, a General Sir Henry Collett had found the same wild rose growing in the Shan Hills of Burma. Whilst trekking, he saw, at a distance of two miles, something large and white, and looking at it through his binoculars, he realized it was a rose. When the leading taxonomist of the time François Crepin, of the Botanic Garden in Meise, Belgium, compared the two sets of specimens sent by the two enthusiastic botanists, he found that both the Indian and Burmese plants were the same, and gave the name ‘Rosa gigantea’ to this species.
In January 1990, as we were attending a national rose convention in Kolkata, and nearer the north-eastern state of Manipur, we decided we would follow in the footsteps of Sir George Watt to see if we could be as successful as he was in finding this rose species. In Kolkata, we visited the Botanical Survey of India in Howrah (that hallowed institution set up in 1793 originally by Col. Robert Kyd, but which owes its pre-eminence to William Roxburgh who became its director in 1796) to look for leads. We were shown herbarium specimens of R. gigantea, and various locations were given on the sheets, one of them being Ukhrul, on Mt Sirohi. We went to Guwahati, and then on to Imphal, state capital of Manipur, and onwards to Ukhrul, which is at an elevation of 2,200 m (7,000 ft).
From Ukhrul, we drove up the mountainous forest path to Mt Sirohi a fair distance, before the road gave out and we had to walk. Suddenly we saw a huge creeper going up a tall tree. Stopping to check, we realized we had hit pay dirt. This was a rose with the largest leaves imaginable, and a number of very big yellow–orange hips, but no flowers. They would have flowered earlier in the season – in the icy winter now, there were only hips from the previous year’s flowering season. We were elated at the thought that this could have been the same location, or, at least, the very same area where Sir George had found his specimen. We collected some hips and some cuttings and returned to carefully pack them for the long journey back home.
(From ‘Roses in the Fire of Spring’, by M.S. Viraraghavan & Girija Viraraghavan, Running Head, 2023)
In their new book Roses in the Fire of Spring: Better Roses for a Warming World and Other Garden Adventures (Running Head, 2023), world-renowned rose hybridizers M.S. Viraraghavan and Girija Viraraghavan record their journey of over fifty years, creating more than a hundred new rose varieties, in a range of colours, shapes and types. The authors spoke to me on their lifelong passion for the rose.
The passion for roses goes back a long way – can you recall the first moments when you realized that this was a ‘calling’ you had to follow? Any epiphanic moment that leaps to the mind?
From quite a young age, Viraraghavan was fascinated with roses, but the epiphanic moment was really when his family spent summer vacations in Coonoor, staying at the government guest house within Sim’s Park, which overlooked a rose garden. Every morning, he would wander about this garden, which was a blaze of colour of the new roses created from the golden rose of Persia, R. Foetida by Pernet Ducher, a great French rose breeder. The brilliant, never-before-seen colours of these roses amazed him - from bright gold and apricot to dazzling oranges and reds. In particular, one of the golden roses took his breath away - ‘Julien Potin’, aptly named for a jeweller. Its vivid colour was quite overwhelming for the boy of thirteen, already thrilled with roses. From this came the intoxicating thought: ‘If Pernet Ducher could do it, why not I?’
There’s a delightful little bit about Viraraghavan sir’s viva-voce for the IAS and how his knowledge of roses played an important part in him getting through that. Would you like to share that with our readers?
A difficult part of the IAS examination is the viva-voce, where a panel of senior administrators question the aspirant about various aspects of his or her life and ambitions. Viraraghavan was in the middle of this interview when the Chairman, by chance a learned rose grower, asked him what his hobbies were. ‘Growing roses,’ was the response. The next question was meant to be a googly to confuse a nervous candidate. ‘What roses can you grow in Madras City?’ But Viraraghavan had read the Complete Gardening in India by K.S. Gopalaswamy Engar, well-known horticulturist of Bangalore, many times, so his answer was nearly verbatim from the chapter on various kinds of roses, which do well in low-to-medium elevations, i.e., warm climates. He reeled off the different rose classifications: Teas, Noisettes, Bourbons, Chinas, Hybrid Teas, Hybrid Perpetuals. The interview committee then decided it was prudent to go on to other questions rather than get a lecture from a young and seemingly unflurried candidate! But his capacity to master detailed information on various subjects had been noted, and he came through with flying colours (pun intended).
You mention making your presence on the world stage as late as 2000. Please give us a brief account of your work on roses before and after – a potted highlights package, if one can call it.
From the start, our rose breeding focused on creating better roses for warm climates based on the dictum of India’s pioneer rose breeder, B.S. Bhattcharji of Bengal and Bihar, who had stressed the need for a separate breeding line for warm climates as distinct from the Western focus on creating cold-hardy roses suitable for them. Thus, in the early years, our work was with those roses, which, though Western, performed well in hot climates, and we had bred many that did well in Hyderabad where we lived. Then, after perusal of many books on roses, we realized the potential in two Indian rose species Rosa gigantea (from northeast India) and Rosa clinophylla (perhaps the world’s only tropical rose species). After getting them with great effort we began to work with them.
At every annual national rose convention in India, we would present updates of our work. In 1999, at what happened to be a World Regional Rose Convention, in Jaipur, Viraraghavan’s talk, as always, focused on the breeding, with the two rose species mentioned. After the talk, the World Federation of Rose Societies President, Helga Brichet, and Vice-President (South America), Mercedes Villar, came up to him and said they had never before heard of this kind of rose work or of these rose species and invited him to be a speaker at the next World Rose Convention to be held in May 2000 in Houston, Texas.
That was the start of a further phase of rose breeding with the realization that other than India, several warm parts of the world were also looking for roses that would do well there. These two rose species had been personally collected by us from their native habitat. At Houston, and in other places, people were fascinated by this aspect, which no earlier breeder had undertaken, that is, personally collecting rose species in the wild, at great risk, growing them and using them in creating new roses; starting from scratch as it were. It made sense to them when Viraraghavan explained the dictum of that great German breeder Wilhelm Kordes, who said, ‘The soup ladle will only bring out what is already in the tureen’ - meaning that fresh genetic input was required if new and different roses are to be created. The enthusiastic response to his ideas strengthened his determination to go ahead with this new rose breeding line. There is nothing as intoxicating as the realization that the rose world is watching our work with great interest.
One of the most fascinating sections of the book is the one titled ‘The Ones Who Came Before’. Please provide readers with a short account of these legendary influences.
We had noticed that invariably roses were named for famous people with often no connection to the world of roses. This made us think: why not name our roses for the intrepid plant-hunters who had discovered roses in the wild, on mountains and in forests, and botanists who had contributed to the knowledge on plants. One wild Indian rose is R. gigantea, from our north-east, and Myanmar. Three great plant hunters were responsible for collecting this species in the wild – Sir George Watt, General Sir Henry Collett and Frank Kingdon Ward. We decided to name our rose hybrids for all three.
Sir George was a medical doctor with an interest in botany, and worked as a surveyor with the British India government. During the course of his work, in the 1880s, he found Rosa gigantea growing on the slopes of Mt Sirohi, now in Manipur, and collected specimens. Almost simultaneously, so did Sir Henry Collett, except in the Shan Hills in what is now Myanmar. Both specimens were identified as being the same and named by the great Belgian taxonomist of the time, François Crepin.
Climbing Mt Sirohi in 1990, we came across and collected plants from perhaps the precise location that Sir George had found Rosa gigantea. We named our first hybrid, a creamy yellow climbing rose, for him. We then felt it should be planted near his ancestral home in Scotland. With the help of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, we managed to get this new rose planted in the Logan Botanic Garden, very near Sir George’s birthplace. Some years later we embarked on a sentimental journey, along with his descendants and his associates’ descendants, visiting his grave and the hospital he had worked in after retiring from India, to see the rose blooming in Logan.
We named a second seedling we had bred from R. gigantea for General Sir Henry Collett, a rose with big creamy white blooms that has been planted in suitable areas in Britain as well, and, gratifyingly, being grown by some of his descendants. A third rose, a climber with blooms of yellow-suffused pink, was named for Frank Kingdon ward, the legendary and intrepid plant hunter who collected innumerable new and wild Himalayan plants despite his surprising acrophobia! We then came across a piece by the then BBC 4 gardening anchor, Matthew Biggs, who had visited Kingdon Ward’s grave in Grantchester near Cambridge. He wrote about the neglected condition of the grave of one of the world’s greatest plant explorers. So, we decided to make amends by planting ‘Frank Kingdon Ward’ by the wall nearest his grave, in the churchyard, in a moving ceremony organized by Matthew Biggs, and attended by a number of well-known British horticulturists, as also the family. An urn with the ashes of Sheila Macklin, Kingdon Ward’s wife, for whom he had named a Himalayan lily, and who had died just the previous year, was interred near his grave, and close to where the rose was planted.
We have also named a rose for Leschenault de la Tour, the great French plant explorer who found a beautiful new rose species, called Rosa leschenaultiana after him, in the Western Ghats in the early 1800s - our rose named for him is a climber with pure white blooms.
And of course, we have a rose to celebrate the remarkable life and career of the great Indian botanist and cytogeneticist, E.K. Janaki Ammal, who co-wrote the Chromosome Atlas of All Cultivated Plants in 1945. She studied botany at Michigan State University in the 1920s on a full scholarship, later receiving a PhD and DSc honoris causa. Back in India, she played a vital role in creating the ‘Noble’ strain of sugarcane – an extraordinary hybrid of sugarcane and bamboo leading to varieties thick as a man’s arm in contrast to the pencil-thin traditional varieties.
But credit was stolen by seniors at the research station, and so she went off to Britain. There she worked at famous institutes, including John Innes, Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society. Later, she met the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on a plane, and he put her in charge of reforming the Botanical Survey of India in Calcutta. But sadly, she was a forgotten figure by the time of her death in 1984. Our rose named for her has the same colour hues as the saris she wore – orange yellow and saffron. A plant of this rose was planted in 2020 at the World Regional Rose Conference Kolkata, at the Botanical Survey of India garden. The rose has also been planted in the John Innes Institute, in Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden in Wisley in the UK.
If one were to ask you of one moment each – one particular achievement in the journey and one abiding regret – what would these be and why?
There can be no doubt that the moment, which was special in our rose breeding career, was the moment described above, when Helga Brichet and Mercedes Villar came up to us in Jaipur in 1999, and said they had never heard such a new approach to breeding roses, pioneered by us, of using two Indian rose species to create a new line of warm-climate roses. It was their invitation to speak in Texas that launched us on to the world stage of roses.
As for an abiding regret, that’s all too easy to answer. It’s the systematic neglect of Indian-bred roses by the rose-growing public of India, who remain fascinated by roses raised in Europe and the US though they are utterly unsuited for Indian climates. This unreasonable preference for foreign rose varieties is part of the general craze for all things foreign. Fortunately, more recently, there has been a change, and young rose breeders and growers are realizing that Indian bred roses do better in the heat and are slowly beginning to grow these.
Give us an insight into the challenges and pitfalls of growing and creating roses in India, as informed by your journey. Interesting story that highlighted these.
The main challenge was getting Indian roses accepted by the Indian rose growing public, as highlighted above. Indeed, now our roses are being grown in India, perhaps because they are grown around the world! Another thing is one must learn patience. It takes us about eight to nine years to name and release a new rose. It is a long process, of the actual crossing of two roses, waiting for the fruit to ripen, then harvesting the fruit (rose hips), collecting the seeds, stratifying them in the refrigerator (if one lives on the hot plains), sowing the seed, waiting for the seedlings to sprout, growing the plant for a number of years to test its potential, and suitability, and only then finding a name and releasing it, by sending to a rose nursery to make more plants.
Our long career in rose breeding and our connected travels around the world has provided us with many interesting, even hilarious experiences. We were in Japan, at the Sakura Rose Garden. With us was a group of people including our friend, the well-known Japanese plant scientist Dr Yuki Mikanagi. We were looking at a rose plant, with dark pinkish-red blooms and white on the reverse, bred by us and as yet unnamed. Yuki said she liked this rose very much. We immediately told her that we would name it for her. She said, ‘But this rose is red and white, whereas my name means “snow” in Japanese. Viru’s instant response was, ‘Then we will name it Blushing Yuki,’ much to the delight of Yuki and everyone.
In his government service days, when we lived in Hyderabad, Viru would tend to his roses, watering and spraying them with fertilizers before leaving for office. There would be a number of telephone calls for him about some official matter. Girija would answer the phone (landline in those days), and when she told the callers he was busy spraying, they would hear it as ‘praying’ and immediately apologize: ‘Please do not disturb him when he is at his prayers’.
Both of us were hands-on gardeners, doing most of the work ourselves and you cannot garden without muddy hands and clothes. Very often visitors would mistake us for the garden help and request us to take them to the master or the mistress of the house. The looks on their faces when they realized who we were would make us laugh.
On one occasion, we were in California to receive the ‘Great Rosarians of the World’ Award. At the ceremony we both first gave a talk on ‘Roses in India, Past Present and Future’. At the end of the ceremony, an earnest old lady came up to us and asked, in all seriousness, ‘Do roses grow in India?’
For most of us, roses are red and a Valentine’s Day Gift. Appendix 1 of your roses runs to 50 pages! Tell us briefly of some of the interesting ones, in particular the very evocative names you have, for example, Kindly Light, Meghamala/Wine-dark Sea, Twilight Secret. What goes into giving a name to a rose?
Apart from the roses we have named for friends, for other roses we like to give evocative names.
- KINDLY LIGHT: we named this lovely white shading to soft pink rose after the hymn ‘Lead, Kindly Light’, a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi’s. We have the practice of giving two names to some of our roses, one better understood in India, if it is a Sanskrit word, and one for the West. This rose is named ‘Swami Vinayananda’ in India, for a monk of the Ramakrishna Mission order. He was a great plantsman, his book on dahlias is a definitive work on all aspects of dahlia growing and he was a very good rose grower.
- MEGHAMALA/WINE-DARK SEA: One more example of two names for a rose. Meghamala translates as ‘garland of clouds’ - the name for our rose was inspired by the purple garland-like pattern, reminiscent of clouds, on the petals of this rose, which otherwise are dark orange-red in colour. ‘Meghamala’ is from a line by Devulapalli Krishna Sastri, beloved modern poet of the Telugu language, to whom the rose is a tribute. ‘Wine-Dark Sea’ derives from Homer’s epithet, in both the Iliad and Odyssey, of the purple shadows of approaching night on the orange-red waters reflecting the rays of a setting sun on the Aegean Sea.
- ALLEGORY OF SPRING: We named a very special light-pink rose with intriguing pointed petals after the famous Botticelli painting La Primavera, also called ‘Allegory of Spring’.
- INCENSE INDIGO: An indigo purple rose with an enticing fragrance was the inspiration for this name.
- TWILIGHT SECRET and TWILIGHT TRYST: Two purple-hued roses that remind one of the late evening, shadowy light, romantic secrets and trysts.
- AHIMSA: We gave this name to a golden yellow rose borne on a plant without any thorns (prickles), thinking of the Mahatma’s philosophy of non-violence.
- KUSABUE’S GUARDIAN ANGELS: Kusabue is the name of a rose garden in Sakura City, Japan, entirely looked after by volunteers, all very senior citizens. This is our tribute to them.