Authors: Margaret Dilloway
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women
How to Be an American Housewife
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
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Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Dilloway
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The care and handling of roses with thorns / Margaret Dilloway.
1. Roses—Breeding—Fiction. 2. Aunts—Family relationships—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3604.I4627C37 2012 2012009276
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To Deborah, for the inspiration
To Keith, for the faith
Some people are always grumbling because roses have thorns. I am thankful that thorns have roses.
Complete Rose Guide
This month is when you will see the benefits of the severe pruning you gave your roses last month. Sometimes a little tough love is good. Greenhousers may see blooms early in the month, while the rest of us will have to wait until the end.
Now spring is nearly here. Your roses will need a great deal of nourishment after the hard winter. Use a general fertilizer (20-20-20) to give them a solid start with strong foliage.
The first critters of spring make their appearance now, out in force after the winter rains subside. Organic gardeners, arise early and pluck all the snails from the roses. Try out ladybugs for natural aphid control, or handwash your roses. Poisons should be used according to directions; keep out of reach of the kiddos and furry friends.
OR A MOMENT,
HAVE MADE A MISTAKE.
pause and shake over the yellow rose. I have already stripped the petals to expose the stamen, which will release the pollen from this father plant. But is this the rose I had put aside earlier? Or did I want the white rose with orange-tinged petals, with a bloom so open it looks more like a daisy? These parents are known only by their codes: G120 and G10. I double-check in my rose notebook. G120. G10. I do not breed the plants without writing down this information. That way, I can recreate an outcome, or adjust by breeding with another plant. My memory has been suffering lately, though I refuse to acknowledge this aloud. I adjust the lamp, calm my twitching hands, and continue.
I am a rose breeder. Not just a rose grower. Most rose hobbyists grow only roses that other people have already perfected. I invent new varieties.
Breeding roses is not something I do for fun. Not solely for fun, anyway. It’s the kind of fun most people classify as “drudgery,” but then again, I’m not like most people.
Roses are my hobby, and what I want to be my vocation. Someday, I hope, I will wake up, find a prize-winning rose peeking out at me in the greenhouse, quit my job, and devote myself to roses full-time. My pastime inspired me to dig up my nice neat suburban lawn and plant a wild thorny mass. A homeowner’s association would have booted me long ago.
You would have to be nuts to want to do what I want to do with these roses. Which is, to make a never-before-seen Hulthemia rose and bring it to market. One that will be prized for its scent and distinctive spots and stripes. If I can produce this rose in my little garden, I will take it to one of the smaller rose shows. If it wins a prize, I might be brave enough to enter one of the larger shows, like the American Rose Society convention show. If a rose of mine wins Queen of Show, it would be like a Barbizon modeling school dropout winning Miss America. It would give me the confidence that my rose was worthy of a pricey patent, a process costing at least two grand before attorney fees.
My greatest hope is to get a rose into the American Rose Society test gardens, where a few select new roses are grown in different climates to see how they fare for two years. Of these, the rose society selects one or two varieties as the best of the best.
How long are my odds? Consider that a big rose company, with endless resources, will come up with hundreds of thousands of new seedling varieties every year. Of these, only two or three make it into the market.
And consider me, Galilee Garner, an amateur with an extra-large yard and perhaps a few hundred new seedlings, at best, trying to compete against professional growers. It doesn’t look very good for me, does it?
However, there’s something more important at work here. Luck. You can’t overestimate the importance of luck. It’s like playing the lottery. Sometimes, a person playing one dollar in the lottery wins it all, while the person who spends one hundred dollars a week for a year walks away with nothing.
Take the man who bred the Dolly Parton tea rose in his Michigan basement. He was growing all sorts of rose hybrids when he found an ugly little red-orange seedling with only twelve petals at first bloom, not the twenty you might expect. Just as his hand closed around the seedling to yank it out, he thought to smell it. And its smell was incredible.
He left it alone. It grew into an enormous sixty petals, inspiring its name, blossoming into one of the most popular roses ever. That man retired off the Dolly Parton, I believe. All because of luck.
And I grow roses that need a lot of luck. I didn’t pick the easy roses to breed, the sort you can find in any old garden center or big-box store. I love the Hulthemia roses. They are difficult and obstinate, thriving when I introduce them to an impossible variety of conditions. Like any rose grower, I have my own particular methods of doing things, my own fertilizer formulas, my own routine. I pay as much attention to temperature as an ice cream maker does in the middle of the Sahara, though I know one day my successful seedling will have to survive in a variety of punishing climates. I apply the exact amount of water and fertilizer necessary, at exactly the correct times. When fungus appears, like powdery mildew or black spot, I attack it before it spreads to other plants. I set loose ladybugs to eat those little green aphids, the tiny bugs that have plagued roses since before the time of Moses.
And as long as no other event occurs to throw them off course—which doesn’t happen often, in my mostly protected greenhouse—they do wonderfully.
Difficult and obstinate. Thriving under a set of specific and limited conditions. That pretty much describes me. Maybe that’s why I like these roses so much.
A student of mine described me in these words—difficult and obstinate—on the Rate Your Teacher website my school’s headmaster, Dr. O’Malley, set up. A silly website. Another place where everyone is the expert, but no one knows the real story. A website I imagine the headmaster and parents clucking over while they sip their coffee at Headmaster Coffee Break. “That Ms. Garner,” they probably say. “Won’t she ever learn?”
Obstinate. I was impressed with this anonymous student’s word choice and by the apt description. If this student put as much time into my biology class as he did into writing this review, maybe he would have passed. I suspect the student is a “he,” because the student added as a postscript, “Constant PMS. Get over it.” Females take exception to such accusations.
Most people are surprised by my rose hobby. I look more like I’d have a secret science lab in my basement, a torture chamber, perhaps, than a rose garden. Visually, there is no good explanation for my rose obsession. Roses are frilly and soft and sweet-smelling, which I am not. If you saw me in the teacher lineup, our faces bathed in harsh light against the black height lines, would you pick me for the rose lover? No. You would pick someone like Dara, the art teacher, with her carefully messed halo of Botticelli curls. Or Mrs. Wingate, the English teacher, whose fluffy circle skirts sometimes remind me of roses in their layers and frilliness. Not plainspoken me, squinting unmercifully back at you, my eyes barely visible behind my round gray-tinted lenses. A garden gnome without the jolly expression.
I am short, due to the childhood onset of my failed kidneys, an inch under five feet on my best day. I have never been called “pretty.” More like, “she looks pretty good, all things considered.” My face is always puffy. My skin, while not glowing, at least has been spared freckling from the sun, thanks to my sunblock and hat diligence.
If you looked at the rose more than superficially, you’d see why I am drawn to them. Florists strip those thorns for you so you don’t stick your fingers when you buy them, while some breeders have engineered the bite right out of them, creating smooth-stemmed varieties. I personally wouldn’t try to strip mine down for anyone. I love roses, thorns and all. People should learn to take care.
My house is in Santa Jimenez, a small community inland of San Luis Obispo, in central California. It’s a great place to grow roses, with fairly mild winters and early warm springs. We have a mix of houses, from small tract cottages, to working farms, to mansions of the well-to-do where we get many of our students.
I live on the outskirts of town, on a long and narrow rectangular acre of land. My house sits near the front, my land stretching out behind it. I would have preferred a square so my neighbor wouldn’t be as close.
It’s a far different place from where my sister and I grew up in Encinitas, down in Southern California. The lots were postage-stamp-sized, and you could not only spit on your neighbors but say “Bless you!” when they sneezed. My parents still live down there in the same three-bedroom ranch they bought for a song back in the day.
A muffled rap sounds at the vinyl door. The greenhouse is vinyl, glass being out of my price range currently. I push my golden-wire-rimmed glasses back up my sweaty nose. “Come in.” I’m not very much concerned with strangers. I’ve been on my own for far too long to worry about anything except what is right in front of me.
It’s my friend Dara. Dara taps on her bright yellow plastic watch. “You’re not ready.” Her curly hair is bound up in a ponytail. I move my own dark brown bangs off my forehead, out of my eyes. We met in the teachers’ lounge of St. Mark’s School, nearly three years ago, when Dara was new to the school.
I had asked Dara for help drawing the Hulthemia I’m trying to breed, since my sketches are little better than cave drawings. She responded by creating a watercolor painting of my dream flower, so beautiful that I had it framed and hung it on my bedroom wall. After that, Dara asked to see more roses, and would come over to my garden just to sketch. Then Dara asked me for photos of DNA sequencing to use in some of her conceptual art projects. Before long, she was dragging me to see artsy films and I was dragging her to popcorn flicks. Our friendship has taken off over the years. She is my closest friend.
Today, in my greenhouse, her face is red and two semicircles of sweat are forming on her midnight blue silk blouse. It’s March, unseasonably hot this day as Southern California sometimes gets, but I have not noticed the temperature, even out here in my sweat lodge of a greenhouse. Where we live, the summers cook to over a hundred degrees, and we are too used to air-conditioning. The results are people like Dara: unused to real air, they get overheated and cannot handle it. Humans are not meant to live in overly controlled climates. I’ve kept my temperatures as close to natural as I can, given my health restrictions.
“You’re interrupting me at a very crucial moment,” I say to her, though I am in fact almost done. “I’m making a new rose baby.” Dara says roses are a Freudian substitution for my lack of love life. I tell her I can’t miss something I’ve never had. Well, there was once that fellow biology student I met in college. I thought all our late study-dates and joking banter were something more, but he saw it differently.
“Are you ready?” Dara does look like she’s about to swoon, so without moving my arms I kick another stool on wheels toward her across the concrete floor.
Dara could be my twin sister, if twins were polar opposites of each other. While I am small, she is tall and long-limbed. Where I am thin, with hanging skin that makes me look two or three decades older than I am, she is muscular and firm. My hair is nearly black, and hers is that gold blond people try to get out of a bottle. Add to this that she is the art teacher at the private Catholic school where we teach and I am the biology nerd, and we’re perfectly yin-yang. The only matching thing between us is our feet, both size ten. The big feet look better on her height; even I, the non-artist, can tell that.
Of course, she would never deign to wear the practical sneakers I own, while I would fall over if I tried to wear her spiky-heeled, pointy-toed shoes that the Wicked Witch of the West would choose. “It’s what they say to wear on
What Not to Wear
,” is her response.
“They’re telling you
to wear it. It’s the name of the show,” I always say, teasing her. “Besides, I don’t believe in cable. It’s expensive, and life’s too short.”
To this she rolls her eyes, as though she’s my young teenage sister instead of a colleague only four years younger than I.
“You’re going to be late.” She leans her elbow on a table and points her sweaty face toward the fan. “I’m surprised you’re not dead out here.”
“I could have driven myself.” I transfer the stamens, now free of petals, into a clean glass jar. Later, the anthers at the tops will shed their pollen, which I will then collect and transfer to the mother plant.
After I set the pollen from the father rose into the mother rose, I will leave it alone. In fall, if I’m fortunate, the mother rose will ripen into a rose hip, containing the seeds. I cut this seed pod open and put them into peat moss, then put the seeds in the refrigerator to induce dormancy. Next spring, I will plant these seeds, and from this new variety will hopefully spring a magnificent new rose, with the best traits of its parents.
• • •
HE MOTHER IS A
of vivid magenta, with an equally vivid crimson sunburst in its very heart, bleeding outward toward the petals. Hulthemias are not widely known to consumers; they are relatively new and the most difficult type to grow. Most amateurs simply don’t try to undertake their breeding. These blossoms are round, like an old-fashioned rose, but the center opens up to reveal the welcoming yellow stamen and the distinctive dark blotch at its heart. “Blotch” is not the prettiest word to describe the color, but it’s how breeders refer to it. The blotches are usually red, but can also vary from deep pink to purple to orange. It’s always darker than the surrounding petals.
If they look different from any other rose you’ve seen, it’s because they are. They are not a true rose. These roses are hybrids of flowers called
which the Persians considered weeds, with barbed vines running amok. In 1836, an accidental Hulthemia hybrid growing in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris caught the attention of rose breeders. They coveted the red hearts for regular roses.
It took one hundred forty-nine years to get there. The first Hulthemias, including that specimen in the Paris garden, were homely and infertile. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that an Englishman named Jack Harkness, of the famous Harkness Roses, was the first to get a breakthrough. His friend Alec Cocker decided that if the flower could exist by accident, it could exist if he bred it. He got more Hulthemia seeds from Iran and gave some to Harkness. In 1985, Harkness finally got a Hulthemia variety that could reproduce: Tigris. These early Hulthemia were crossbred with true roses, a project taken on by multiple other breeders, and eventually we got what we have now.
There are specific attributes a Hulthemia needs to be successful with the casual rose grower. People want a rosebush that will not get too gigantic for their small backyards. They also want a fragrant bloom. They want a rosebush that will produce dozens of blooms over and over again throughout the season. This repeat blooming is something that was only fairly recently bred into our modern roses, obtained from Chinese roses. The French began to cross Chinese roses with European roses around 1798.