Farewell, Mr. Lincoln

Mister Lincoln has passed on to his reward, wherever that might be. The loveliest, largest-flowered, most gloriously fragrant of all the roses in my garden, my absolute favorite, is no more.  In his place, as expected, blooms the hardier Dr. Huey rose, with its scented blooms formed of deep red petals and golden center eyes.

Dr. Huey is a nice rose, so tough that it is often used as the rootstock onto which more delicate varieties are grafted. But in appearance and scent, it is to Mr. Lincoln what a robin is to a male  peacock in full display.  Mr. Lincoln is a superstar hybrid tea rose, first released in 1964, designated a 1965 All-American Rose selection, with flowers as large as five or six inches in diameter. It is a wow.

We’ve had other Dr. Huey roses emerge, once when the Gold Medal grafted onto it died, and once when one of our three beautiful pink Queen Elizabeth rosebushes faded away.  Doc keeps coming up in the Queen’s old place, no matter how many times I’ve pruned it down to the roots. It’s hard to kill a Dr. Huey. In terms of toughness and determination, Dr. Huey is to Mr. Lincoln as a mockingbird is to a sickly finch.

 Mockingbirds on the prowl

It’s extremely hard to daunt a mockingbird, particularly when there is a nest of baby mockers to be defended. I’ve seen them angrily drive away crows three times their size, and hawks easily twice the size of the crows. An enraged mockingbird is all noise and flapping and pecking, a cohort of kung-fu fighters unto itself.  But when it sings, it sings sublimely.

We didn’t see these when I was growing up in New Jersey; we had noisy catbirds.  But now that we are technically below the Mason-Dixon line in Maryland, we experience the joy of mockingbirds.

Sublime is a good word to describe the garden at this time of year. The azaleas have finished their riots of color, and their sisters the rhododendrons are losing steam.The few remaining native dogwoods in the area, Cornus florida, dropped their white bracts a couple of weeks ago. Now the lovely Japanese kousa dogwoods are displaying their oddly pointed white bracts, looking like late snow atop their green leaves. People have been planting kousas to replace the native dogwoods, which are dying from the disease anthracnose. Kousas are somewhat resistant to the disease, but they are a far cry from the white drifts of the native trees that used to dot our woodlands.

As a side-note,  true dogwood flowers are the tiny yellowish green things in the centers of the four large white or pink “petals” known as bracts. If it weren’t for those spectacular bracts, dogwoods would hardly be noticeable. As in showbiz, you gotta have a gimmick.

 Dying dogwoods

First reported in 1978 in New York and Connecticut, dogwood anthracnose has spread and destroyed vast numbers of the beautiful trees in the eastern and southern states. It is caused by a fungus named Discula destructiva, an accurate name if ever there was one.  A similar disease  is killing off western dogwood species.

Fortunately, my alma mater, Rutgers University, has come up with promising alternatives to the native dogwood.  Dr. Elwin Orton of the department of plant biology and pathology spent a quarter-century or more developing  hybrids of Cornus florida and Cornus kousa that resist  Discula anthracnose as well as a pest called the dogwood borer. The first group is known as the “Stellar Series”®, Cornus X rutgersensis, and includes  white  varieties as well as one named Stellar Pink.

Rutgers dogwoods to the rescue

In 2008, Rutgers released disease-resistant  Jersey Star® dogwoods, crosses of kousas and the western native dogwood Cornus nuttallii. One variety, Venus®, has absolutely gigantic bracts.

A few years ago we decided to plant the Rutgers hybrid dogwood called Constellation®, which has rounded white bracts similar to the native trees, though it blooms later. Ours managed to survive despite having part of an old mulberry tree fall against it while being removed, so I class it in the mockingbird-tough category. It is in bloom now, and looking more beautiful every year.  I thank the goddess of all flowering things, and Dr. Orton, and Rutgers for its springtime display.

As I poke through the internet trying to learn more about dogwoods and Mr. Lincoln roses, I believe I have detected the culprit that caused Mr. Lincoln’s passing.  This rose  is said to be susceptible to spring time freezes, and we had several episodes of that last month, drat it. It never occurred to me to put some covering over poor old Abe when we heard the frost warnings.

The suspected killer

The only visible frost damage I found in the garden after the first episode was to the hydrangea bush and the young deutzias, which lost their buds to the cold. There were two more light freezes, but I thought all was well.  The deutzias generated a new set of buds and are just now beginning to bloom – they look something like a white forsythia. Ours are still young, dug from the garden of  a delightful editor I used to work for, back in the days when I still had a job.

We are enjoying the early bloom of the perfumed white Sir Thomas Lipton shrub rose, the gorgeous deep rose Hansa, the amazing profusion of pink blossoms on the William Baffin climbing roses, and the dependable but unscented pink and red Knock-outs. Pretty Bonica, weighed down by more buds and leaves than ever before, started winking its pink eyes this morning, and the sturdy pale pink Cape Cod rose in the side yard is flourishing. The remarkably fragrant white Frau Karl Druschkii is just getting started.  I think the kelp meal I fed them last year worked wonders.

Will others meet the same fate?

The later bloomers, the pink Queen Elizabeths, coral Tropicana, coral-pink Fragrant Cloud, deep pink Perfume Delight and the deep red Chrysler Imperial, have yet to open buds, and I worry that some of these more tender varieties may have met the same fate as Mr. Lincoln. And I fear the pretty, fragrant Reine des Violettes, the Queen of Violets, is on its last legs from intractable black spot. The miniature yellow and orange roses will bloom in a few weeks, I hope.

But Mr. Lincoln took an icy blow to its tender heart. And again. And yet again. Slain by unexpected cold, slain in the month of April like its great namesake 147 years ago.

All those teasing warm days in March lured out the young delicate rose leaves weeks before their usual time, defenseless against frost. I knew we would pay for that preternaturally early springtime, and we have. As my mother used to say in Estonian, Suve silmad, talve hambad. The eyes of summer, but the teeth of winter.

Farewell, Mr. Lincoln. Rest in fragrance and peace, in that vast and glorious rose garden of the land of eternal summer.

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