The War of the Rose (with audio)

Battling for beauty can be tough.

Read by Pat and Becky Stone


A wrist-thick branch drops and smacks my face just below the eye. “Dammit,” I shout in unladylike fashion, disrupting the peaceful afternoon. Blinking, I continue to cut rose branches. A 15-foot section comes loose and wraps around my waist and both legs. I awkwardly waltz across the driveway, trying in vain to unravel its ever-tightening embrace. Thorns scrape my lip, drawing drops of blood, then they spring loose and rip out a small bundle of hair from the side of my head.

Rose branches pile up all around me as I labor to uncover the sturdy arbor beneath. I can prune this. I can’t let this climbing rose take over. I need other things to grow here, too.

The maze of tangled canes requires a genius to decipher; alas, I’m no genius. My efforts with this massive climbing rose could be mistaken for a heroic attempt to renovate a historic planting. In fact, this is simply the pruning routine I go through every Fall so I’ll have enough room to grow something besides one rose on this end of my property.

What sort of poison would I need to pour on its charred stump to keep it from ever coming back?

It has been years since this rose plant came to me, a pathetic little three-inch stick in a paper cupful of dirt. I remember the warnings that came with it, delivered in hushed and ominous tones. “You can’t just plant it and forget it. A rose needs tending—especially pruning every Fall—or you’ll have a monster to deal with,” advised its donor. But seeing only a free rose, I failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. I took the paper cup home and put it on my porch. Nothing happened. The little stick poked up pitifully from the dirt. I finally planted it in the garden, a bare twig at the base of a large arbor. Still nothing happened. “Poor little plant. It doesn’t have a chance,” I chortled. And then I forgot about it.

A year later, it suddenly sprang upward and has never stopped since.

My shoulders tighten into knots. I cut. Streams of sweat trickle down my back. I cut some more. Four canes is all you get to keep, my dear rose. I slice, drag, and untangle, building a huge pile of branches behind the garage. Is this plant dry enough to set on fire? And what sort of poison would I need to pour on its charred stump to keep it from ever coming back? Can I win this battle?

I marvel at my stupidity as I do this every year; it must be the same kind of confused thinking that compels some people to explore the Arctic more than once. Nothing, nothing like this should be done a second time. I finally finish and trudge inside for a belated—and well-deserved—lunch. Every joint throbs, and I look like I just spent the afternoon inside a sackful of cats. I see my foe from the dining table—four ugly, truncated canes clinging to the arbor. I know they will stare at me reproachfully all Winter long.

The canes won’t leaf or branch until Spring, after which they’ll cover themselves with great sprays of tiny buds. Then, for one glorious month, branches, leaves, arbor—all will be buried in a massive explosion of tiny pink roses. My whole yard will smell of rose. Roses will be crammed into vases inside the house. Intoxicated with the fragrant pink profusion of it all, I’ll fall in love with her all over again. I’ll marvel at the memory of that sad, tiny twig. I’ll be captured by the courage, the life force of a stick left for dead in a dry flowerbed. And then I’ll reflect on this dazzling gift of beauty from the tiny plant I once abandoned.

After that, she’ll grow wildly all Summer, and I’ll fight this very same battle next Fall. Once again, the thought of that single breathtaking month will stay my hand, and I’ll leave her those four canes for the next Winter. And for the next Spring, when that glorious fountain of blooms proclaims victory in the War of the Rose.

A victory both the rose and I get to enjoy.

  • Jayne W.

    Wonderful article. Reminds me of people in my garden group, talking about their Peggy Martin roses.

  • Kathryn O.

    I have a rose I bought many years ago now from Heirloom Roses, nearby in Aurora, Oregon, that is just like this! I, unfortunately, once left mine for two (2!) years without pruning — it nearly brought down the entire arbor, climbed up onto my roof, and spread out about 5 feet around the base of its side of the arbor into the front lawn! We measured some of its tallest branches at about 20 feet tall! It has lovely sprays of a dozen or more white, inch-and-a-half-wide single blossoms with a light, sweet scent that also fills the air when it’s fully in bloom, and it starts early and keeps on blooming until several hard frosts finally slow it down. My cousin says it’s “the scent of summer,” for her. In the winter it sports dozens of tiny, bright orange-red clusters of oval hips that the birds help themselves to. It is so full of life that several small, overlooked prunings have rooted in various places around my yard with no help or realization from me until the first flowers opened on the tiny plants! The name on the pot was “Darlow’s Enigma,” and the salesperson said they have no idea where it came from or what its parentage is, but it “grows like a weed.” I didn’t believe her, of course, but now I understand. I love it anyway!


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