The Eastern Cape town of Bedford is famous for its annual Garden Festival but has another floral attraction – a rosarium. Here the heritage of old roses, ancestors of our modern cultivars, have been preserved and are thriving in an arboretum of tall trees.
South Africa’s old roses have particularly interesting stories to tell. Cape Town-based horticulturist Gwen Fagan devoted an entire book to them. Called Roses at the Cape of Good Hope, the book takes you from the first moment Jan van Riebeeck plucked a bloom in the Cape in 1657 (a scant 5 years after Europeans first settled here) to 1910, when hybridised tea roses first made an appearance, ousting their older ancestors.
It was the 1820 British Settlers who brought over much of the original rose rootstock to the Eastern Cape and planted them in gardens around Bedford, Somerset East, Graaff-Reinet and Hogsback.
When rose doyenne Fagan started hunting for older rose plants, she found that farms and old graveyards in the Eastern Cape were true treasure troves. Here she found 60% of the country’s old rose mother stock, which she was able to propagate. Because there were no nurseries here, there was no incentive to hack out the old and plant the new. Also, the climate is harsh, and what grows well is generally left alone to carry on, scrambling over fences, up trees and over houses. Perfumed flowers like the old roses made them even more popular.
Her stories inspired some of the South African Heritage Rose Society members. Wendy Kroon, later the SA Heritage Rose Society chairwoman, raised the issue of forming a heritage rose society. The objective of the society was to collect, preserve, propagate and showcase roses of historical, national and international interest, as well as to implement and practice ecologically sustainable methods of cultivation.
Four Eastern Cape rose enthusiasts received an invitation to visit the Parc de la Tête d’Or, a botanical park in Lyon, France, and were taken to see the collection of early French roses. The four were so excited by what they saw that they pushed for the development of a similar garden back home. At their first meeting in Bedford enthusiasts were keen to use a vacant area of the St Andrew’s church grounds for their new national rosarium.
“Unfortunately (the yard) is dominated by very old gum trees which have really destroyed the soil,” said society fundraiser Dr David Comyn.So Comyn, who owns land on a river bend in the wettest part of Bedford, offered the club a piece of ground below his home for the establishment of the rosarium. “It’s up against a little hill and there’s evidence other rose growers had done exceptionally well there in the past,” he said.
“Most civilised countries have a mother garden from which old roses are propagated and dispersed among the population.”
In October 2011, the first roses were planted at Bedford’s Camelot Arboretum. Today they are safe and thriving in the town’s good deep soils. They grow in happy companionship with indigenous pelargoniums, sutera and agapanthus, clambering up shrubs and shady trees, filling the garden with a heavenly fragrance.
Here you will find roses hardly ever seen in modern gardens. They have quaint names like Mermaid, General Gallieni, Pompon la Bourgogne, Maiden’s Blush and Fanny la France. Eventually, this sanctuary will protect more than 2 000 roses.