CLIMBING ROSES OF THE RIVIERA
The gardens of the Riviera have always been famous for their climbing roses, and this is especially true in the case of La Mortola. Thomas Hanbury was the first person to introduce Rosa banksiae ‘Lutescens’ into Europe from China, and there are many handsome bushes of this beautiful cultivar in the Hanbury gardens today. Their single yellow flowers and turquoise-blue fruits make it one of the prettiest of all the Banksiae roses. Nevertheless, it is also the least grown, not just here on the Riviera but throughout the world. The double-flowered Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ is popular in some climates for its relative hardiness; it is the only form that I can grow in London, and there was for many years a famous old specimen on the walls of the castle at Chillon on the shores of Lake Geneva. The Hanbury gardens also have the two white-flowered forms, the violet-scented Rosa banksiae var banksiae and the single-flowered form that is known as ‘Normalis’ but is really a selected form of the species – chosen because it is nearly thornless. In subtropical areas of China one sees different forms of R. banksiae selected as hedge-plants for the edges of fields, and these always have many thorns to keep farm animals from straying.
Their evergreen leaves – quite different from those of all other roses – and the handsome gnarled trunks that develop on them as they age are further reasons for growing these useful climbers that tolerate without complaint the hot summers and long periods without water that are characteristic of the Mediterranean climate. One of the reasons why Banksian roses were so widely planted in the grand old gardens of the Riviera is that they flowered so early – sometimes starting into bloom in February – while the rich visitors from northern Europe were in residence. There was no point in growing Wichurana and Multiflora ramblers because these flowered after the fashionable season ended in April and, in any case, were perfectly hardy in England, Germany and much of central Europe. You may see magnificent specimens of ‘Albéric Barbier’ and ‘Laure Davoust’ at La Mortola, but Lady (Dorothy) Hanbury planted these after the World War II, when she took up full-time residence in Italy. Most of the older gardens were planted to provide a sequence of flowers and colours throughout the months of winter and early spring. Tea roses were immensely popular and, indeed, the glasshouses of the Riviera dei Fiori were filled with plants of ‘Safrano’ and ‘Marie Van Houtte’, whose flowers were delivered still fresh to the markets of northern Europe by the ever-expanding railway network.
But the greatest Riviera nurseryman at that time – Gilbert Nabonnand, who set up his nursery at Golfe-Juan in 1864 and flourished – was also an inspired rose-breeder, and introduced a great number of roses from the 1870s up until his retirement in 1885. His work was continued by his two sons, Paul and Clément, who also bred new climbing roses until the 1920s. The Nabonnand family introduced about twelve new roses every year, so it is not surprising that only a few have survived to our present time, but many were named for the international visitors and fashionable ladies of the winter season of the Côte d’Azur, including ‘Reine Olga de Würtemberg’, ‘Lady Waterlow’ and ‘Général Schablikine’, all still widely grown today. Best of all – and a great feature at La Mortola for much of the year – is the magnificent Noisette rose ‘Noëlla Nabonnand’, which produces long, elegant flowers, as much as 15 cm in diameter when they open out – large even by today’s standards, more than a century after it was introduced. The flowers are a glowing purple-crimson, with much paler undersides to their petals, and strongly scented. Gilbert Nabonnand also designed gardens, and re-planted the second Lord Brougham’s garden at Château Eléanore at Cannes with so many roses that it became famous for its Teas and Hybrid Perpetuals—more than 200 varieties and thousands of bushes. It was at Château Eléanore that Rosa gigantea flowered for the first time on the Riviera in April 1898. Brougham considered it ‘the most desirable, and by far the finest single rose… ever seen’. Brougham’s head gardener, a Mr Busby, bred its most famous hybrid, which was introduced commercially in 1910. ‘La Follette’ grows with great vigour on the topia at La Mortola and, though it flowers only once, carries its flowers for many weeks – for as long as 3 months in some years, starting in February. It is perhaps the most characteristic of all Riviera roses, whose vigour makes it a popular choice for growing up into old ‘Taggiasca’ olive trees. The examples at Boccanegra are the most beautiful I have ever seen, but there are good specimens too at William Waterfield’s Clos du Peyronnet and indeed in many of the old gardens associated with English owners.
The beauty of its elegant, scented flowers inspired the Nabonnand brothers to breed more hybrids of Rosa gigantea in the 1920s and, though most of them have now disappeared from Riviera gardens, there are two very fine cultivars that may still be found – full-petalled, silvery-pink ‘Emanuela de Mouchy’, introduced in 1922, and dark pink ‘Sénateur Amic’ (1924). The form of Rosa brunonii known as ‘La Mortola’ was first brought to England by a student from Kew who worked in the Hanbury gardens and then introduced into commerce by an English nurseryman – famous also as a writer on fruit – called Edward Bunyard in the 1930s, but it owes its popularity to the writings of Graham Stuart Thomas in the 1960s. It has unusually large flowers and large leaves, beautiful in their shape and greyish-green in colour and is now an immensely vigorous and popular climber for mild climates. The Hanburys also introduced a hybrid between Rosa banksiae and R. gigantea that still grows in Carolyn Hanbury’s private garden and in a number of gardens with English connections along the Riviera but has never been given a full description or a cultivar name. Its single, white flowers, some 7 or 8 cm in diameter are most elegantly carried in medium-sized clusters and make a delightful display early in the rose-season. La Mortola is especially associated with Rosa laevigata, because there are several old bushes of this Chinese species that have survived through years of neglect since the early years of the 20th century. They are planted on the slopes to the eastern side of the palazzo, in an area that I remember – nearly 50 years ago – was planted with Acer palmatum and ornamental cherry-trees. The large white flowers of Rosa laevigata are one of the most brilliant and beautiful of wild roses, and their beauty is enhanced by great circles of yellow stamens and shiny, evergreen leaves.
There is a pink hybrid of Rosa laevigata called ‘Anemonenrose’ which has been planted on the edge of steps that lead down from the palazzo to the formal garden in front. Here, too, is its darker pink sport ‘Ramona’, exactly the same as ‘Anemonenrose’ in all respects except colour. These two beauties are never as vigorous as their parent Rosa laevigata, and indeed their habit of growth is rather thin and miserable, but you do not notice this in early spring when you gaze into their huge pink flowers. La Mortola is not noted for its shrubby roses – the Teas, Hybrid Teas, Rugosas and Hybrid Musks that offer so much pleasure to garden-makers and garden-owners on the Riviera. And very few roses were ever acquired from Italy’s greatest rose-breeder in the mid-20th century – Domenico Aicardi in Sanremo. But France’s largest and most successful firm of rose-breeders – the Meilland family – flourished for many years at Antibes and have continued to produce very fine climbing roses at their modern breeding station at Le Luc. A great number have been released in recent years, and they are perfect for small gardens in a Mediterranean climate – large-flowered and strongly scented, short-growing and almost continuously in bloom. I particularly recommend ‘César’, ‘Looping’, ‘Michka’, ‘Pierre de Ronsard’, ‘Polka 91’ and ‘Sorbet’, but none of these is a truly historic rose of the Riviera – at least, not yet. Perhaps, when someone writes an article for this Notiziario in 100 years time, they will describe these beauties as some of the most valuable old climbing roses of their day. Meanwhile, let us celebrate and be thankful for the cultivars that have been one of La Mortola’s greatest gifts to gardens of the Riviera.
Quest-Ritson’s Grande Enciclopedia illustrata delle rose [de Agostini, €40] was a winner of the Cavour Grinzane prize in 2006. He is also the author of Climbing Roses of the World [Timber Press, 2003], which lists and describes over 1,600 different climbing roses.