My great-grandfather ordered the first sprig of this Dr. Van Fleet rambling rose shortly after it was introduced in 1910. He planted it at his house in Bertha, Alabama. When my grandparents married in 1930, my grandmother brought a rooted cutting to her new home a few miles down the road in Clopton. Years later, when we moved to Birmingham, my mother brought a cutting to our new house, and later still I brought one to Nashville. Here’s a picture of my brother and me with our grandmother and the Dr. Van Fleet at our grandparents’ house in Clopton:
Here’s a picture of the rose in the back yard of the house where I grew up in Birmingham:
The Dr. Van Fleet is a very hardy rose. For almost two decades, ours withstood countless droughts and Nashville cold snaps, needed no chemicals at all, and seemed completely impervious to insects. Every year it sheltered at least one cardinal’s nest, and those baby birds always made it safely into the world. (A bird’s nest built among the thorny canes of an antique rambling rose is about as predator-proof as a nest can be.) But four years ago my Dr. Van Fleet contracted Rose Rosette Virus, a fatal and incurable disease that was first discovered in wild roses in 1941 and is now widespread in the United States. The virus is carried on the wind by mites, and the popularity of knockout roses, which are particularly vulnerable to RRV, seems to have hastened its spread.
The telltale sign of RRV disease is the witch’s broom—stems of disfigured new growth clustered at the end of a rose cane. The photo at the top of this page was taken in 2013, the year my Dr. Van Fleet got sick, though I didn’t know it was sick at the time. If you know what you’re looking for, you can see the beginnings of a classic witch’s-broom formation in the front-right corner of that picture.
I didn’t know what I was looking for in 2013, but the next year I knew my rose was very sick. There was almost nothing left of it but thorns.
Having no choice, I cut it down and dug up as many of the roots as possible. I was heartsick. All my beloved elders were gone by then, and the rose I had hoped to pass along to my children, in remembrance of them, was gone too.
Rambling roses are absurdly easy to propagate: to create a new rosebush, you just place a pot of dirt beneath a cane that’s resting on the ground and set a brick on top of the cane to hold it against the soil in the pot. Beneath the brick, the rose will put down roots. After a few weeks, you can remove the brick, cut the pot free from the main cane, and carry it to a new place in the yard. A rose propagated in this way is genetically identical to the original rose. In essence, you have only one rose, though it is growing in two different places. My own Dr. Van Fleet was the very same rose my great-grandfather planted beside his house in Bertha.
The year I lost the Dr. Van Fleet, I saved a potted rose I’d started the fall before and simply forgotten about. Because I started it after the rose was already sick but before I knew it was sick, I assumed it too would soon be afflicted with the witch’s broom. I saved it just in case I was wrong, but I set it down far from any other flowers in my yard, and I never planted it. Still in its pot three years later, it is healthy. This week, at age 107, it bloomed: