Our National Collection of Portland Roses

Who better to reflect on the rose in the month of St. Valentine than David Buchanan-Cook of Helensbank Garden, with its collection of well over 100 roses, including the National Collection of Portland Roses?

I was randomly searching Google recently, and came across an interesting statistic. For many years, the vast majority of proposals of marriage have taken place during the festive period, especially on Christmas Day and at New Year. That changed quite dramatically, however, in 2020 with a shift to 14th February, possibly due to Covid restrictions over the Christmas period. 

14th February is, of course, St. Valentine’s Day. As I’m sure we all know, Valentine is the patron Saint of beekeepers, epilepsy, and plague – but more usually known as the patron Saint of engaged couples, happy marriages, and, more generally, love. 

One of the symbols most often associated with the Saint is the rose – and the rose features widely as a symbol of love in all art forms across the centuries. Having recently celebrated the birthday of Robert Burns, we only need to think of examples from our own Scottish poetry heritage, ‘A Rosebud by My Early Walk’ and, of course, ‘My Love is like a Red, Red Rose’.

It is a tenuous link I admit, however, it is not roses as a symbol of love that I am going to write about, rather, to stand that phrase on its head, I am going to tell a tale about a love of roses.

Love at First Scent

As a gardener, I always used to think of roses as nasty, jagged, thorny plants that needed much molly-coddling and sometimes, thanklessly, only flowered for a few weeks of the year. There appeared almost a dark art to their nurture and success – and too heavy a whiff of horse manure for my liking.

That was until 2003 when, on leaving an employer, I was given a very generous token to spend in a garden centre. I had read somewhere that Alan Titchmarsh’s favourite rose was called Jacques Cartier. I rather liked the look of it, so added that to my list.

And I was smitten! It truly was love at first sight – or perhaps at first scent! 

A Portland Rose

Jaques Cartier is not only a sumptuous peony-full, large-flowered rose of the most beautiful shade of pink, but it repeat flowers throughout the season and, best of all, has the most amazing scent.

Jacques Cartier belongs to a small but important family of roses called Portlands. These I discovered were derived from an accidental cross between an Autumn Damask and a Gallica rose back in around 1750. So were there any others available today?

I had a look around and fairly easily found 4 which were readily available from rose breeders in England and – having ordered 5 of each plant – I quietly (in the vain hope that my partner would not notice) converted a herb garden into a small rose garden. It was a triumph!

The hunt was now well on in the search for further varieties. My love of Portland roses turned to obsession: new flower beds were dug out of the lawn, and existing flower borders extended, to accommodate a growing collection.

History of Portlands

During my research I discovered that in 1848 there were 84 varieties of Portland roses growing at Kew Gardens. Their popularity was short-lived, however, possibly because of their limited colour palette, predominantly in shades of pink, purple, cerise, and white. 

The introduction of the Hybrid Perpetuals close on their heels, with their yellows, oranges and reds, also quickly pushed the Portlands down the popularity stakes. Their historical importance, however, lies in the fact that the Portlands were the very first repeat flowering roses.

By 1993, ‘Modern Roses’, referred to as ‘The World Encyclopaedia of Roses’, listed only 16 varieties of Portland roses. David Austin, one of the leading rose specialists in the world, in his more recent book ‘English Roses’, believed that there were only about a dozen varieties available today. I was suitably smug. By that stage, I had identified, and was growing, 18 different varieties …. and the search went on.

A National Collection

In 2020, a friend suggested that I should consider applying to Plant Heritage to have my collection accredited as a National Collection. After a long and fairly arduous application process, we were awarded that accolade in January of 2021. It means that we have the largest collection of Portland roses in the UK, if not Europe. It also means that we have a duty to preserve the collection for posterity. 

And the collection continues to grow. I have so far managed to identify 36 varieties, and currently have 29 growing here in the garden at Helensbank. 

Growing Conditions

On a practical note, we tend to grow the Portlands in groups of 3 or 5; Portlands lend themselves to this self-supporting treatment. We have, however, also had success growing them in mixed borders, and individually in terracotta pots. 

A good pruning and feeding regime is essential. We do a main pruning in February and regularly dead-head the spent flowers to encourage fresh flushes. We use a combination of mature garden compost and well-rotted manure, and feed them at least twice a year, in early spring and again after the first flush of flowers. They stand up well to the vagaries of the Scottish climate. 

The Beauty of the Rose

Achieving National Collection status is far more than a pat on the back for buying lots of plants. We hope that this award will bring attention to this long-neglected, but historically important, small family of outstandingly beautiful roses. 

And yes, it’s true, my initial thoughts were correct, roses are jagged and thorny creatures. What I have learned, though, is that if a rose is full of thorns, it does not mean that it is not full of beauty. Indeed, the more you focus on the beauty of the roses, the more invisible the thorns become, which strikes me as a good recipe for a happy marriage – and one of which I would hope St. Valentine himself would approve.

Helensbank Garden, with its collection of well over 100 roses, including the National Collection of Portland roses, opens annually by arrangement from 1st June to 30th September under Scotland’s Gardens Scheme. There is also an annual garden concert in July/August. Further information about the garden can be found at www.Helensbank.com

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