Before we were married, my husband and I bought a brick house with a giant Chinese elm growing along the west-facing wall. This tree was massive, almost a meter wide at the base, with gigantic limbs arching over the roof. It sprinkled tiny papery leaves everywhere in the fall. We surveyed the heavy boughs looming over our roof and the trunk roots six inches from the house’s foundation and decided the tree’s cooling shade wasn’t worth the risk of structural damage. So we took it down.
But now the brick wall looked bald, and it baked in the afternoon heat. It needed something to clothe it, to insulate and decorate it. I decided to plant a climbing rose that would soak up the afternoon sun and cover the wall in blossoms. It needed to be a rampant climbing rose – one that could grow wide and tall and cover a lot of real estate. I asked an online community of rosarians to recommend the botanical equivalent of a Broadway showgirl, a rose who’d throw open her arms and belt out at maximum floral volume. The answers that came back were unanimous: “New Dawn.” New Dawn blooms pale pink, and her canes go on for miles. She’s easy, the rosarians explained. A real climber – and delightful, if you’re into that sort of thing.
New Dawn lived up to her reputation. She bolted across the brick wall, soaked up the light and thrived in Northern Virginia’s summer heat. She grew and bloomed like a long-running musical, showering us with pink roses the spring after our wedding, and then when my daughter was born and my son was born. One year, a Hindi woman found me in my front yard and said she was amazed to see so many roses growing on the wall. She asked if she could take some for a celebration. Of course, I said. The pale delicacy of the roses on the rampant vine seemed almost a form of false modesty – the diva in a peignoir lowering her eyes, “Why, this old thing?”
My daughter grew from baby to toddler and into grade school dazzled by this rose, by its stature and extravagance. After the thicket of canes had grown up and around the wires, seven feet tall and nine feet wide, birds came to nest there. The thorns didn’t bother them. Three nests were bracketed by rose canes, high up. In winter, when the canes were bare, the nests were more visible and beautiful – the weavework of the birds. The nests seemed like a blessing on the rose.
And then, two years ago, something seemed wrong with the canes at the very top. The leaves were spindly and oddly shaped. The flower buds didn’t open. And the canes had ten times the usual number of thorns. They were almost more thorn than stem. They looked angry.
I called a local gardening emporium and described the unusual canes. There was a pause on the other end of the phone, before the woman in the perennial nursery sighed, “I’m pretty sure you have rose rosette disease. It’s a virus – it causes the rose to grow all those thorns and spindly leaves and deforms the flowers.” The disease is also called “witches broom,” because the sprays of leaves produced by a diseased rose are red, dense and withered – gothic, really. I asked the lady at the nursery if there was anything I could spray on the rose to get rid of the disease. “There’s no cure for it,” she sadly replied. “You can prune the top canes off, and maybe next year most of the canes will be healthy. But eventually, it kills the plant.”
This was a blow. Not just because we’d be losing a plant that enhanced our house’s curb appeal, but because as a caretaker, I now had to live with New Dawn’s lingering disease. There was hope for one more year of vitality but whether it was next spring or the one after, our New Dawn was going to die. And as she died, she would become more and more difficult to deal with, because of the bristling thorns on the diseased canes. She drew blood from the person looking after her – me. But I didn’t resent this, because it was so sad, because my rampant rose was dying and I didn’t know how long it would be before there was nothing left of her beauty, until she was all thorns and knobs of sickle-shaped leaves and withered buds that would never open.
I pruned off the top canes. The next spring was a mix of beautiful blossoms on half the canes and witches brooms on the rest. This is our last spring and summer, I thought. After this summer, there will be nothing healthy left. I made sure my daughter paid attention to New Dawn’s blossoms in her last season, her finale.
I grew strangely fascinated by the diseased parts of the plant. Rose rosette isn’t a disease that causes a plant to wilt or drop leaves. The diseased growth is exuberant. The thorns are strikingly numerous and aggressive the stricken canes. The leaves grow red in dense bunches. Fresh growth is twisted and ugly, but it’s strong, the way one imagines a witch’s hand is strong. There’s a kind of awful attractiveness in its virulence.
The following spring, before the rose broke dormancy, we dug out the root and cut canes off the wires, up to the middle of the wall. The upper tiers of the rose had the birds’ nests, and we didn’t know whether they were still occupied. We didn’t want to disrupt the nests if there were eggs in them. So we let the dead canes dry out, a skeleton scaffold for the birds’ nests. We planted grapes on either side of where the rose had been rooted, to train up the same wires. It seemed stupid to plant another rose, since disease was likely lingering in the soil.
One of the grape vines didn’t survive the frigid winter of 2013. But one did, and we’ll plant a replacement to keep it company: Reliance, a red seedless grape that does well in the heat. My four-year-old son won’t remember the rose. He’ll only remember the grapes as he grows from an adorably tender, squishy preschooler into a strapping adolescent. All he’ll remember are grapes ripening in the summer heat, and how sweet they are, right off the vine.
I think, I hope, my daughter will remember the rose. She’ll remember being a little girl, looking up at a wall of flowers. She’ll remember our showgirl’s exuberant charms and put-on delicacy. She’ll remember how sharp and unkind an ailing beauty can be, and we still take care of things, even when they become thorny. She will help me salvage the nests, and decide where they belong.