Of race and roses

I’ve lived in the Rose Hill neighborhood for over a decade–and the only thing I’ve ever known about it is that it was annexed to the city in the ’30s from property that might have been a plantation named Rose Hill. But plantations, like everything else, are given names for a reason. And this May I’ve discovered a possible one. Rose Hill is just awash in roses.

mysteryrose1-bookerHere’s one I discovered walking down my street in front of an abandoned house. My iPhone simply couldn’t do justice to the color or the texture, which was like a velvet ribbon whose darkest tones were exactly the color of this glass of my love’s favorite temperanillo. It looked to me like an old variety–specifically, it’s looked a lot like a Gallica rose named Alain Blanchard that’s been around since 1839.

Given Charlottesville’s age and the enthusiasm of its gardeners, such a lineage for this beauty is not completely outside the realm of possibility. Since that first sighting, I’ve seen it all over around the neighborhood. Up around Delmar Avenue in Greenleaf Terrace, on Forest Avenue in Rose Hill, on 8th Street N.W. in 10th and Page–three distinct neighborhoods, according to city maps, that are all within . 2 miles of my house.

mysteryrose2-ASGHere it is again, flanked by the exquisite buttery buds of the Alister Stella Grey that grows so happily and rampantly in my front yard.

So that was kind of exciting. And then, about noon of the next day, I was walking out of the home of a longtime friend–and spotted this beauty. From a hundred yards away, it sang to me its siren song…mysteryrose2-8thNW3

Mesmerized, I crossed the street. Climbed a steep stairway. Rang the doorbell. Asked the homeowner (who turned out to be a professor of the literature of the Negritude movement) for permission to take a closer look. Above you see a closeup from that monster plant, seven feet if it’s an inch with a spread of around ten, that shouts its lurid hot pink c’mon from a yard high above 8th Street N.W.


My friend, the across-the-street neighbor in this traditionally African American neighborhood, remembers seeing the plant in bloom when he was a child–so it’s at least half a century old. The size and form of the blooms suggest a hybrid tea–and a magnificent one. What, oh what, I wonder, might be it’s lineage?

Yes, I have a thing for roses. Old roses, to be precise.

Once, after a lecture at Monticello by renowned rose historian Doug Seidel, I spoke so long and rapturously of driving the countryside in search of old rose varieties to save and propagate, that my then-boyfriend–not at all the sentimental sort–marched me without delay to his truck and drove me up and down country roads from Earlysville to Whitehall to Free Union to Batesville for the whole of a damp June day.

We didn’t find anything, but boy we did have fun trying.

What, you might be wondering, is the fascination with old roses? Especially with breeders busily pumping out new varieties in a wild tapestry of colors–bodacious repeat bloomers so reliable in flower as to approach a clockwork level of proficiency.

Well, there are many reasons, but two will suffice for right now.

Old roses have tough genetics. You’ll need to prune them–train them–especially the prolific climbers like Alister Stella Grey, which has to be sternly disciplined every spring to keep it from overleaping the roof! But you won’t toil in the garden battling the foes of the hybrid and trademarked varieties, the fungi and insects whose proliferation earns them a whole expensive and toxic aisle in every hardware, grocery, and building supply store in town. You won’t bring them home, coax them through a season or two, and then watch them just fail and die. Old roses laugh in the face of fungi. They can survive neglect–and Japanese beetles–and keep pumping out blooms and beauty for years and years on end…

The second reason … oh, it’s the sheer romance.

Listen to the music of the names. Give me a bourbon rose–a Souvenir de Malmaison or a Reine Victoria. Give me a China rose–a Eugene de Beauharnais or the fascinating Mutabilis with its constantly changing palette of pastel colors. Above all, give me a noisette–an Alister Stella Grey or a Reve d’Or or, Lord have mercy, a Gloire de Dijon! The romance of the names is only surpassed by the stories.

For example, I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, a city where roses of all ages, lineages, and colors riot in the warmth. But though I went to school with a passel of beige-skinned Noisettes, I was an adult before I realized their connection to the noisette rose. Again, it was Doug Seidel who revealed to me the “back story” of Philippe Noisette, younger son of a family of royal “jardiniers,” who came to Charleston a refugee from Haiti, along with his wife, Celestine, a free woman of color, and their two children.

Through a tangled chain of plant swapping with John Champneys, another rose enthusiast, Philippe began breeding and improving “Champneys’ Pink Cluster,” a “sport,” or somatic mutation, of the ever-blooming China rose Noisette had given to Champneys and the musk rose, a one-season bloomer then the primary variety grown in European (and U.S.) gardens. In 1817, Philippe shared some of his seedlings with his brother, Louis, a noted plantsman who was then-superintendent of the garden at Val-de-Grace in Paris. Louis seems to have known a good thing when he saw it because a perfect storm of rose breeding ensued, and the noisette conquered Paris … and from Paris, the world.

Now, honestly, how could you beat that for sheer human-on-vegetable interest?

The story gets darker though. Philippe was fortunate to find home and community among the aristocratic plantsmen of Charleston, men like Joel Poinsett (who brought the “poinsettia” back from Mexico, little knowing the cyclone of yuletide commerce his innocent enthusiasm was to unleash upon later generations). Philippe was appointed head of the South Carolina Medical Society’s botanical garden. But Celestine, due to the draconian slave codes of the period, was forced to declare herself a slave in order to remain at his side. That’s right. I don’t think I have to repeat the words for you to experience their visceral shock.

When I heard this detail for the first time, nearly a decade ago, I simply stopped breathing. How could she? my thought. And, indeed, reason rebelled, for that meant not just reduction to chattel status for herself. It meant enslaving her free children and any subsequently born of the union–for as any student of history knows, in the United States, slavery followed “the condition of the mother.”

Now, of course, I stop well short of the quick judgment of 10 years ago. I ask myself how well Celestine, likely not a native English speaker, might have understood the law? How well might her “husband” have explained it to her? To what degree might they have decided together that this was the lesser of the situation’s many evils?

Amid the many unknowns, though, are a few facts about race and roses that the historical record and the Noisette family’s sleuthing make plain to us.

First, there were many more children born to the union of Celestine and Philippe Noisette–some sources say seven total, others six. Second, Celestine Noisette and the couple’s children were not required to vacate Philippe’s home and extensive rose nursery on the Charleston “Neck” after Philippe’s death in 1835. Indeed, they continued its operations, building a following among Charleston’s slave-holding elite, delicately negotiating the dance of race as the family grew numerous and successful despite the burdens of enslaved status. Third, Philippe made several efforts to right the wrong and free his family; there’s evidence of attempts to get a bill passed by the legislature–the only legal method of manumission–in the1820s and again shortly before his death. The request was granted by special act of the state legislature, but not until a quarter-century later, in 1859.

Flesh and flower in such ecstatic and unlikely union.

… So this little known–some would argue, actively suppressed story–is one of the things I think about when I ask myself, as I often do, “what does it mean to be black and green?” It means understanding that, in the soil, we are all one, made of the same stuff, the stuff of stars. It’s in the human will to deny these bonds, to erase race from the record and whiten the chain of acclaim and achievement, that beauty and evil become so curiously and hatefully entwined.

If we would be story-keepers, nature-claimers, these are secrets we must unearth, must reclaim if we are ever to heal the hidden wounds borne by the land that is our trust and our one treasure.


It’s CPC time! Champneys’ Pink Cluster busting out all over against the back deck and the greenhouse.





12 comments for “Of race and roses

  1. May 20, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    Since writing this post, I’ve discovered a Jean Blanchard on Avon Street, and several other pink, white, and red varieties worth investigating. Most amazingly, Marc spotted a Rosa Mundi (peppermint striped), first described in 1583, growing in a tub in Roulhac Toledano’s “pink building” on South Street. If you have an old rose you want documented or propagated, don’t hesitate to email me at info@goddessofgumbo.com!

  2. Caroline Polk
    May 20, 2013 at 10:49 pm

    I love your blog! I wish my thumb were as green as yours.

    • May 21, 2013 at 12:08 am

      Silly! Everybody does what they can, when they can. I’m just more obsessed than most folks!

  3. May 21, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Great post. I like the new design! Looking forward more writing…

  4. Colette Dabney
    May 21, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    I love this story. You write so beautifully of the romance of the roses intertwined with the love of a man for his family’s freedom and dignity. I see the power in the symbolism of old roses that cannot be easily destroyed and never die just as real love is not easily destroyed and never dies. This touching history of the Noisette family adds greater depth to the symbol of the rose as a love that endures.

    i think how our ancestores and the generations that follow are so like the varieties of old roses. They are always thriving, always climbing, always clinging, always hoping, always waiting for spring and always revealing new possibilities. When all looks lost, a true rose will lift it’s bloom to remind you softly, “I’m still here and you’re still here. We made it.”

    • May 21, 2013 at 4:02 pm

      Gosh, Colette, you made me tear up. Yes, that’s why I love them. That’s why the stories need to be told.

  5. May 21, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    Y’all! The awesomeness of Facebook! I’m now in touch with the Noisette family historian!

  6. greg
    May 22, 2013 at 12:02 am

    Great story, wonderfully told. Poets are always the best storytellers.

    • May 22, 2013 at 1:05 am

      So good to see you here, Greg. Hugs!

  7. Peggy Clement
    May 22, 2013 at 3:51 am

    Thank you for writing so beautifully the story of my 4th great-grandfather and mother, Philippe and Celestine. My mother, Louise Noisette Merrell, who passed in 1997, was passionate about sharing that story to all who would listen. The internet has made it possible for us to find Noisettes all over the United States, and now France. The French Noisettes took bold steps and attended the 2008 and 2011 Noisette reunions, opening the door for the American Noisettes to unite in France in 2013 with more than forty Noisettes. And again the web was instrumental in uniting the descendants of Philippe’s youngest brother, Louis M. Toussaint Noisette (1792-1855), with both his French family and American family. This new found descendant currently lives in a part of the home that Louis Claude Noisette (1772-1859) lived in in the mid 1800’s in La-Queue-en-Brie, slightly north of Paris. With Philippe having fifteen other siblings, births ranging from 1771-1792, there are sure to be more descendants to come.

  8. May 23, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    beautifully done.
    You pondered aloud about being black and green one year, and I wrote a poem about you. I don’t think I had the nerve to share it at the time. I’m getting braver, though. I should dig it up.

    • May 23, 2013 at 8:01 pm

      There’re actually a whole series of these little things. Sometimes the moment passes and I just don’t think to share them. But I’d love to see the poem.

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