After being robbed at knifepoint in the Chinese countryside, being showered with broken glass during a gale in the Yellow Sea, and fending off pirates on a river junk while sick with the flu, Scottish plant hunter Robert Fortune must have wondered whether it was really worth risking his hide in search of a few new flowers. No one, however, questioned his motives when he returned to England in 1846 with a sweetly fragrant climbing rose, its butter-colored blossoms edged in pink, with a center that glowed brilliant gold. He had smuggled the long-blooming rose (which was later named 'Fortune's Double Yellow') out of the forbidden city of Soochow, where he had been prowling around undercover, dressed in local garb, a fake ponytail affixed to his freshly shaven head, looking for love of the horticultural kind. A heart-stopping rose, like a heart-stopping woman, can drive a man to extremes.
Unlike the tulip mania of the 1630s, which had its moment and then wilted, rose fever has been in constant bloom since Fortune's time—though it's considerably less life-threatening these days. The year 1769 saw the first official Rosa hybrid; a few decades later, there were close to 1,000 varieties (from 150 natural species). Unsatiated, breeders spent the 19th and 20th centuries frantically crossing roses every which way, angling first for bushes that bloomed for months instead of weeks (hybrid perpetuals), then for bigger, more shapely flowers (hybrid teas), then for a more old-fashioned look and better fragrance (David Austin's English roses). Today there are a staggering 16,000 cultivated varieties. Gardeners, naturally, have responded in kind; rosaholics are so common there is even an official term for them. A rosarian, mind you, isn't necessarily a trained professional—just someone who wakes up one day to find that these intoxicating flowers have slowly taken over her life, like a vigorous climber enveloping a trellis.
Such was the case with Mary Ann Tighe, whose sophisticated garden in Southampton, New York, has more than 77 rose varieties, each vibrant, healthy, and lovingly coddled. Her rose fever began innocuously enough, with a single bush growing behind the Mediterranean-style house where she and her husband, plastic surgeon David Hidalgo, spend weekends.
"We bought the property in 1987, more for its majestic old trees than anything else," says Tighe, who is vice chairman of the Insignia/ESG real-estate firm in Manhattan. "When we were making our bid, David asked me if the house had a swimming pool, and neither of us could remember. We actually had to call the broker to find out. That shows you our priorities." The trees were the only real landscaping, though; there were almost no shrubs, and nothing even resembling a garden—just a tough old rambling rose of unknown name that bloomed pale shell-pink flowers once each spring.
Tighe cut the rose way back, transplanted it to a sunnier area, and used it as a building block for a new garden—her first. With designer Tish Rehill, she decided to create a corridor of different garden "rooms," inspired by those at Dumbarton Oaks, that would feel almost like an extension of her house. For structure and winter interest, she defined the perimeter with stately, sculptural yew trees and boxwood. Her early attempts at a rose garden, however, resulted in pure misery.
"Here I was, just down the street from rosarian David Dawn's extraordinary garden, where hundreds of rose varieties were flourishing," Tighe recalls. "And yet we had such a bear of a time establishing ours. No matter what we did, they looked terrible. Our garden was a compendium of blight: rust, blackspot—you name it." So Tighe went straight to the source, hiring Dawn's enthusiastic protégé, horticulturist Charles Bellows. The two men inspected her garden and quickly pinpointed a predicament. The evergreen hedges had grown in too well: They blocked the breeze, trapping moisture and creating a steam-room effect in hot weather. Her solution was to install two tall fans to help the air circulate. "My husband teased, 'Gee, why don't we just put a dome over the garden and air-condition it,' " Tighe says. Rose obsession had officially taken hold.
A soil test soon revealed another problem: a layer of impenetrable clay several feet down where rainwater was pooling, eventually causing root rot. "Roses are like children," Bellows explains. "If they don't have good nurturing when they're young, they grow up with problems. You need the right soil conditions so that the tender little roots can grow out and become strong." Since a brick path traced the spine of the garden, bringing in heavy earthmoving equipment was out of the question, but Bellows was undaunted. He and his team dug—by hand—individual six-foot-deep postholes for each of the 100 or so rosebushes, filling the holes with sand, gravel, and a special soil mix. "It was agony because the clay was like concrete," Bellows says. "But boy did it really make a difference."
Over the next ten years, Tighe and Bellows replaced virtually every rose, experimenting with new varieties and finding out through trial and error which ones performed well in Southampton. (Roses are environment-specific, rendering books on growing them mostly speculative—unless they happen to be written by your next-door neighbor. As Rayford Clayton Reddell says in The Rose Bible, "What shines in Portland, Oregon, may sulk in Portland, Maine, and vice versa.") Today, Tighe has more than 125 bushes.
Tighe's garden does not reveal itself fully at first glance; there are hidden secrets and distinct stages of discovery. From a terrace festooned with wisteria you enter the garden on a herringbone brick path lined with a tall perennial border. Soon you find yourself in a white garden room that is its own peaceful world. The most enchanting rose in this sanctuary is 'Blanc Double de Coubert,' an old Rosa rugosa Tighe first read about in Russell Page's classic memoir, The Education of a Gardener.
"I planted it not expecting much," she says. "That spring it was the first rose of the year to bloom, and I was sold. It keeps performing all summer long, with gossamer white flowers and leaves like embossed leather. And the smell is heavenly—very clean and fresh, like talcum powder. Then, in the fall, it gets spectacular orange hips. The leaves don't just crumple up and turn brown; they stay perfectly formed and become vivid yellow. You don't even need to spray it or prune it—just put it in the ground. I have at least eight of them now."
Farther down the path, a circle of roses lined in clipped Korean boxwood beckons, then suddenly you are ringed by box parterres filled with dozens of rosebushes of every color. The sheer variety is as transfixing as the individual blossoms; you could stare forever at 'Peace,' a creamy, pink-edged flower that radiates lemon yellow from its center, almost as if it were lit from within, or at 'Just Joey,' with its daintily ruffled apricot petals.
Just beyond, 'Abraham Darby,' a David Austin rose with cupped double blossoms and a fruity fragrance, spills generously over an arbor. "They're a delicious color, almost like an orange Creamsicle," Tighe says. "My husband always points out that I don't eat sweets, but every rose reminds me of a dessert." (How fitting: Roses are her sweet indulgence.) 'Abraham Darby' is not always a strong climber, but Bellows spent several years carefully training it along the wooden supports. Framed within its profuse blossoms is a serene view: a stone sculpture of a boy gathering roses. There is always something drawing you deeper into the garden, and always something urging you to linger where you are.
Like many rosarians, Tighe grows mostly modern roses, particularly hybrid teas (also called large-flowered roses). Introduced in 1867, the hybrid tea was a revolutionary rose; to appreciate why, one need only contemplate the agonizing complexity of breeding these beauties. The easiest way to distinguish roses is, of course, by color; however, just as diamonds are judged by the "four C's" (cut, clarity, color, and carat), roses are judged by the four S's: shape, size, scent, and shrub. Breeders who try to improve on one or two of these aspects inevitably lose control of others—they may get a large flower but a weak fragrance, say, or a beautiful bud but a leggy shrub. Factor in disease resistance, vigor, and duration of bloom, and the possibilities increase exponentially; it's easy to see why breeders become so obsessive. (In The Companion to Roses by John Fisher, the Oregon firm Jackson & Perkins estimated that it needed to plant 100,000 seedlings to eventually produce a single rose worthy of introduction.)
Hybrid tea roses are still a phenomenon because they possess such a wide range of positive attributes: blossoms that keep going all summer, bright candy colors, vigor, and disease resistance. Their flowers are frequently very shapely, with a long, slender, pointed bud unfurling crisp petals from a sheath that seems to swirl into infinity. Some of the finest examples of such "high-centered" blooms can be seen in Tighe's garden, including the apricot 'Medallion,' two-tone blush 'First Prize,' and pink-edged white 'Pristine.' For heady perfume, Tighe planted the magenta 'Big Purple,' fire-engine-red 'Mister Lincoln,' and mandarin-orange 'Dolly Parton.' (Hint to gardeners: The darker the rose's color and the more petals it has, the more likely it is to have a strong scent.)
Despite the overwhelming popularity of the hybrid teas, by the fifties gardeners missed the delicate fragrance and ineffable charm of heirloom roses. That's when David Austin came to the rescue. Working in Albrighton, England, he became one of the best breeders in history by crossing modern hybrids with antique damasks and gallicas (which are thousands of years old) to produce an extraordinary race known as English roses, with softer, less strident colors than hybrid teas.
"I started planting David Austin roses because they bloom throughout the season yet have the look and fragrance of the old roses," Tighe says. "I love old roses, but they aren't, shall we say, great rent payers. They give you one good show, and it lasts two weeks if you're lucky and it doesn't rain." Tighe was especially drawn to Austin's double-blossomed show-stoppers, with dozens of velvety petals billowing out in voluptuous profusion. The boxwood circle at the center of her rose garden highlights several of these roses: 'Gertrude Jekyll,' the color of strawberry ice cream; 'Heritage,' a soft pink; and 'Mary Rose,' almost raspberry. "They're very Victorian in feel," she says. "They have a damask look and old-world shades of pink."
The latest rage in roses are the Romanticas bred by French hybridizer Jacques Mouchotte. His 'Yves Piaget' was an instant hit in Europe with its massive, frilled, salmon-pink flowers and hardy, attractive shrub. Only recently has it been widely available in America. Of course Tighe had to try it: "The scent is very heavy and perfumey, not like a classic rose."
Now that Tighe's roses are so well established, she is free to spend less time fussing over them and more time getting to know them. (As Georgia O'Keeffe once said, "Nobody sees a flower, really. . . . We haven't time—and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.") Each Friday, when Tighe arrives in Southampton from Manhattan, she greets her roses during a slow walk at dusk. "I like to pick a different blossom each week for my dressing table and desk," she says. "Then I can really study and enjoy it."
But she can't sit back for long, especially when there are so many tempting new varieties to try. "If you are involved with a garden, you're always looking for a way to make it better," she says. "My fascination with roses keeps growing." Then she describes a flower that becomes beautiful in a certain way just as it's fading; it's clear she has learned to love roses for their nuances, not just their showy blooms. And although Tighe tries to stick to shrubs that love the local climate, there are a few fish-out-of waterfavorites that she can't quite let go of. " 'Just Joey' really doesn't do well here," she says. "We lose a few bushes every year. But I can't help myself, I keep replanting them." Such is the curse of the rosarian.
"I think down deep we all have a passion that's inherent, and we just need to tap into it," Bellows says. "I find it so satisfying to be able to see a landscape and then improve it. I don't make a fortune, but there hasn't been a single day when I felt as though my job was work."
Seven Wonders of Tighe's Garden
BOURBONS 'LOUISE ODIER' (introduced in 1851): Fragrant, with perfect pink blossoms that look like camellias. "This is one of the great old roses, but it only blooms for two weeks. I'd give anything to make its spectacular flowers linger."
DAVID AUSTIN ROSES' LILIAN AUSTIN' (1973): Named for Austin's mother, it has a compact bush and beautiful foliage. "The flower combines all sorts of different colors: ginger, lavender, coral. It has a charming old-rose fragrance."
'MARY ROSE' (1983): Huge pink double blossoms that look like peonies. "This is a classic David Austin rose: In form, color, and scent it's an old damask, but it behaves like a modern rose. It's like a very proper, old-fashioned English lady who is always up for a party."
HYBRID TEAS 'HAWAIIAN SUNSET' (1962): Full flowers, fruity fragrance. "If Hawaiian Punch were a flower, it would be this: a rowdy coral."
'LADY X' (1966): High-centered flowers of an unusual color. "A very uncommercial rose with a look of modernity. When it stays, it becomes an exquisite shade of gray with a hint of lavender."
GRANDIFLORAS 'GOLD MEDAL' (1982): A tall bush bearing numerous bright-yellow flowers with a soft fragrance. "It's kind of brassy. If this rose were a woman, she'd be a Texan with lots of makeup and shiny jewelry."
'SONIA' (1973): Vigorous shrub with salmon flowers. "The well-behaved girl of the garden. There's never a day when she isn't blooming steadily. The only problem is, she's not a looker. She's more like a girl in sensible shoes: not dazzling, but very reliable."
Less is More: the High Minimalist's "Rose" Garden
How does one reconcile the wonderfully baroque spirit of roses with a spare, clean aesthetic? Ask Manhattan landscape architect Perry Guillot, who used these traditional flowers as the high note of a wholly modern landscape.
It all began three years ago, when one of Guillot's clients bought a 1950s stucco house on New York's Long Island. The boxy white structure was nothing but crisp edges and rectilinear forms, so he knew an old-fashioned garden would be out of place. "The garden needed to borrow from the plain surfaces and character traits of the house," he says. "It had to be bold and elegant." Guillot decided to establish strict parameters for his design: He would use only seven different plants for the entire property, including the tall privet hedge that already lined one side of the garden and the long wall of arborvitae shrubs at the back. "I wanted to bring simplicity to the landscape," he says. "It would be a garden about tone, not texture. That meant no climbing roses or hydrangeas."
To echo the planes of the house, Guillot created four square parterres of Japanese holly (Ilex crenata), filling them with masses of high-centered pure white roses. "I chose 'Iceberg' roses because they bloom from the first of June to the first of November," he says. "And if you cut them back hard, you get even more blossoms and more punch."
Guillot also moved the swimming pool farther away from the house and surrounded it with a thin, blue-stone border. This transformed the once-casual beach pool into a water feature as sheer and formal as those in the Moorish gardens of the Alhambra palace. Along two sides of the pool Guillot planted four tall arborvitae, which stand like soldiers at attention. The idea, he says, was inspired by André Le Nôtre, the great French landscape architect of Versailles. "I have always admired the way he used plants in a regimented way to highlight depth perception," Guillot says. "I wanted to create that feeling with the arborvitae."
Because the garden is so spare, the subtlest details sing: the delicately scalloped edges of the holly leaves, the meticulously trimmed ilex hedge that traces the base of the house like green piping, the way shadows thrown by the arborvitae play off the garden's geometric shapes. Most of all, your eye is drawn to the delicious white roses, which shine like so many bright lights amid the sea of green.
"I like to joke that it's a garden where the wind doesn't blow," Guillot says. "Everything is static; there is no ruffling of leaves. The garden has a kind of awe to it." It is a harmony of form, symmetry, and order.