About 30 years ago I began collecting heirloom roses. Inspired by the large arbor we had built over our patio, I succumbed to the Wayside Garden catalogue charms of Leontine Gervais, a rambling rose introduced in 1903. I also sent away for Mermaid, a large-flowered climber from 1918, and climbing Cecile Brunner, the 1894 sport of the “Sweetheart Rose.” I had no experience with climbing roses, and these three presented completely different challenges.
The first challenge in training climbers is having a sturdy structure that is large enough to support the rose. The patio arbor was about 8 by 10 feet and built to last. I planted Leontine (right) by a corner farthest from the patio door.
As the canes grew, I wound them loosely around the pillar, securing them with ties cut from nylon stockings which proved to be flexible as well as durable. As the canes reached the arbor’s top, I used a pole to guide them over the crossbars, weaving them as they grew. Believe it or not, I had an armature across the arbor by the end of the first season. The next year, I trained the new growth over those canes, creating a canopy.
Leontine Gervais, like other rambling roses, blooms once in May forming a fragrant apricot cloud. The foliage then provided dappled shade over the area, making it very inviting throughout the summer.
Mermaid is a large-flowered climber that blooms continuously throughout the season. The single pale-yellow flowers have prominent amber stamens. We placed a six-foot fan trellis against a west wall and had to improvise additional support with wire anchored to the roof soffit to support the lateral growth. Eudora Welty in The Optimist’s Daughter has a scene in which said optimist is pruning Mermaid. Believe me, you will empathize with him. This rose has many very large thorns which provide shelter for small nesting birds. Its growth is vigorous, so keeping it under control is a constant battle. That being said, this rose never had any disease or pest problems and looked spectacular.
Mermaid on a trellis at our old house. The cat's name was Rorschach.
Climbing Cecile Brunner is a polyantha meaning it blooms in clusters of small pink flowers. I placed it against the fence in the long perennial border so I could train the canes laterally, which leads to more flowering. The biggest problem with this was finding an easy way to fix anchors into the fence. I used heavy-duty staples but they did not stay in the wood over time. Were I to do this again, I would use eye bolts.
We sold that house and moved to Nebraska. I heard from the next-door neighbor that Leontine continued to be a mid-May delight for a few more years. In that climbing roses are high maintenance creatures, the new owners removed them from the landscape.
Native Californian Ann Bartlett is a master gardener and seriously knows her roses. You can email her at email@example.com.