This post is not about writing. I performed a mercy killing today. I didn’t want to. I’ve put off the task for over a year. I kept telling myself, She’s not so bad. As long as she’s still blooming I can trim off the infected parts and keep her going.
Yes, I’m writing today about a rose bush named Linda Campbell. You may be thinking, how silly! Bushes die all the time. It’s the way gardening goes.
Of course it is. Gardeners know that plants have their seasons. They live their span and they die. Or they’re planted in the wrong spot, and they fail to thrive. Some die instantly, getting the mistake over with. Others linger on and on–struggling and yellow, scraggly and sick–until finally you yank them out. Still others fall prey to insects that munch them, strip them, and riddle them into unsightly specimens you’re ashamed to own. Varmints don’t help. I’ll never forget happily planting marigolds in a very tall raised bed, and finding them eaten and gone the next morning by some mystery phantom that came in the night.
But Linda Campbell didn’t deserve her death. She wasn’t planted in the wrong spot. She didn’t succumb to Blackspot or an infestation of Japanese beetles or aphids or a gnawing rabbit. I’d owned her for many years at my previous home, growing her in a huge pot, and she did just fine although no rose truly enjoys living in a pot. I brought her and her sisters (two other Linda Campbells) with me to this home. I planted her at the southwest corner for maximum sunshine. She and one of her sisters bracketed my office window.
The Linda Campbell rose is a rugosa, a hardy shrub variety that’s tough as nails, blooms constantly in huge red clusters, sheds its spent blossoms so that no dead-heading is required, resists disease, and grows into a massive shrub. Give her room and leave her alone, and she will reward you with a summer-long show of color. Any time I come across her at a nursery, I tend to snap her up and find room for her somewhere.
The villain in this lament is a rose virus–Rose Rosette Virus (RRV)–that’s reaching perniciously into more and more gardens and backyards. Horticultural references say it’s spread by a mite, and the blame has been assigned to wild multi-flora roses growing in nature.
Or did it come about from breeding easy-care roses? Rumors and misinformation abound. All I know is that RRV is getting worse, that the new landscaping trend of planting Knockout roses very close together is allowing the mite to spread the disease more quickly, and that once a plant is infected there’s no hope and no cure.
The rose virus wiped out my favorite rose nursery in California several years ago. That’s where I used to order antique varieties, the roses grown by the ancient Romans and the Tudors.
I’d heard about the virus. A friend of mine has been issuing warnings about it for years in her blog reddirtramblings.com, but I’d never encountered RRV until I moved to this house. I brought my roses with me, of course. I always move my roses along with my furniture. One bush, a variety called Penelope that covers herself with the loveliest creamy white blossoms, had been growing in a pot in my previous backyard. Here, at the new place, my backyard featured a long raised bed with in-ground sprinklers, so I put Penelope in the ground and looked forward to seeing her explode happily in size and bloom.
Instead, she immediately contracted the rose virus. Up grew the distinctive “witches’ broom” deformed canes and leaves. I consulted my gardening expert friend, who confirmed the worst. I dug out Penelope and disposed of her.
Everything seemed fine. But then, a year or so later, one of my Linda Campbells in the front of the house sent up a small witches’ broom. I couldn’t believe it. She was–as I’ve already mentioned–a transplant from my former house. I couldn’t believe RRV had struck me twice. I hadn’t been buying new bushes, bringing in contaminated roses from nurseries. But it struck this Linda just the same.
If mites are the carriers, why this bush and not the one next to her? If mites are the carriers, why the Penelope in the backyard when nothing back there has been affected since?
I cut off the affected canes and disposed of them responsibly. (Never put an infected rose into your community’s compost!) I disinfected my pruners, and hoped for the best.
Months went by, and Linda looked okay. I lived in hope and denial. She would send out a couple of witches’ brooms a year, usually in the fall, and that would be it. In the back of my mind, I worried about whether delaying was risking the others, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill her.
Until today. The Polar Vortex arrived, bringing unbelievably pleasant temperatures here to the mid-July prairie. This summer, sick Linda has been sending up more and more deformed canes. She’s tried, pathetically, to bloom and couldn’t. It was time to let her go.
So I strapped on my back brace and got out my tools for the grim execution. Today is trash pickup day on my street. I had to bag her up and put her in the regular landfill, and I didn’t want her lingering on the curb, possibly spreading the virus to anyone else. The best way to dispose of an infected bush is to burn it, but my city prohibits that, so this was the best I could do.
As I chopped her down and dug her up, I felt anger at whatever’s responsible for this horticultural Frankenstein’s monster. Do I believe that nature has caused this plague? Not entirely. Do I need to read more about RRV? Probably.
Given the chance to choose, however, between what mankind fumbles and nature tries to correct–and given the fact that roses have existed for thousands of years in lovely manifestations of bloom and fragrance–I have to side with suspicion and doubt. The mite may transmit the disease, but I don’t think the cause comes from nature.
So I’m angry. When, I asked myself with every shovelful of dirt, did we decide that roses putting on one annual show of blooms weren’t good enough? When did we decide that they had to have a certain form so we could exhibit them at flower competitions? When did we decide that dead-heading was too much trouble? When did we decide that we’d rather have constant blooms instead of fragrance?
Isn’t fragrance the whole point of a rose?
Perhaps you’re thinking, too bad–so sad–it’s just a rose. Plant another and get over it.
But you see, I can’t plant another rose bush where Linda was. If I could simply yank her out and replace her, I’d be mildly annoyed but okay. In all the years I’ve grown roses, I’ve seen many of them die in this hot, drought-ridden prairie climate.
The trouble with the rose virus is that the roots are infected, too. Unless I can eradicate every piece of root from my flowerbed, no other rose can go in there. And if she sprouts anew from a piece of root–like the undead in a horror film, she’ll have to be executed all over again because she’ll still carry the plague.
I knew, when I began today’s task, that I’d never get the roots out. Roses take about three years to settle in and fully establish their root systems. The modern spindly, delicate hybrid tea roses–the ones that produce those lovely, long-stemmed blooms so perfect for formal bouquets–tend to die after one season here and have tiny little root systems because they never become well established. But the shrubs, ramblers, rugosas, and even the sturdy hybrid teas that live on and thrive–all develop generous deep root systems, sometimes nearly as large as the bush.
So today, although I wanted to remove every bit of root, I couldn’t do it without excavating the entire bed and destroying the perennials under-planted beneath the roses. I dug and dug, but eventually I had to cut the long feeder roots and leave them in the ground.
Now the symmetry is gone. Will the other rose in this bed succumb next? I don’t know. What will I plant in Linda’s place? Daylilies? Monarda to attract the butterflies? I don’t know. Right now, I’m too disgusted to decide. Because I want Linda there, or at least some lovely rose there, and the virus means I can’t. The virus has taken a little bit of natural beauty from my life.
RIP, Linda Campbell. Today, as I dug you up, the skies wept for you with gentle rain.