Roses are one of the most popular plants among today’s gardeners, but they also have a long history of importance to international gardeners beginning in the 1700s.
However, modern rose hybrids are quite different from those of yesteryear. When it comes to old roses of the 17th to 19th centuries, Brent C. Dickerson, fiscal coordinator in CSULB’s Mathematics and Statistics Department, is one of the leading experts on their history and characteristics.
Dickerson, who earned his B.A. in creative writing at CSULB in 1977, has been with the campus as an employee since 1979.
“I’ve always been interested in horticulture. My mother was from a family who had farmed for a few generations in Nebraska and I think maybe that’s where I got a love of plants," he said. "The way I finally settled on writing about historical roses was that one point I said, you’ve received your degree in creative writing and if you want to be a published author, what is the best way to go about this? So, I decided to write something practical because at least someone will be able to use it if it’s practical. I knew a little French from high school, so putting it all together, this meant getting into some horticulture that the French were into, and of course, roses immediately came to mind. It was a calculated decision. I’m very much interested in all of horticulture and gardening, but everything seemed to fall into place for pursuing roses and their development as the subject of my research and writing. It was about 1983 when I really became serious about it.”
Dickerson has written more than half a dozen books about roses, some reprinted in second editions, with several third editions planned. “They are in three different categories," he said. "One category is describing the roses and giving hints about their cultivation—the usual things that you’d expect in a garden book. Other books take a broader view and provide a review of where the breeders were going in certain initiatives, telling about how this went and how a particular class of rose changed as the decades went on. It’s less of a descriptive thing and more of a historical overview. The third classification of my books is presentation of data in dictionary form so that other people studying the field can simply have this particular listing at hand and know immediately what the proper spelling of the rose’s name is, when it was really introduced, what parentage it was; that sort of thing. It’s a mass of data for specialists.”
Dickerson recently came upon an interesting historical find to add to his research, an original letter and bill of sale from renowned French rose hybridizer Jean-Pierre Vibert (1777-1866). Dated Feb. 22, 1835, “the document is essentially a receipt. From what we gather from the message, a former customer of his had written to him recalling old times because Vibert responds, in effect, ‘Yes, I remember that. Roses have come so far since those days’—sort of a light reminiscence with apparently an old customer. But the main business of the document is simply to write a receipt—‘Here is a list of the roses you asked for and that I’m supplying, along with a few extras. Here are the prices and the total.’
“That’s what makes it kind of exciting because you feel as if you’re right there,” Dickerson noted. “You’re standing next in line as this famous person in rose history is simply going about his daily business, which was so significant. It had research potential because looking at the list of roses could have helped me date the introduction of a particular rose or other information. As it happened, it didn’t, but it did happen to reinforce the early date that I already had on file for one rose. That was one of the impetuses to buy it, but even aside from that, it’s a very nice thing to have from this great figure. I don’t know of any other example of this sort of document from him, so as a historical curiosity, it’s a wonderful thing to have.
“Once I’m done with it, I’m probably going to donate it to some institution that is going to be able to take care of it, such as the Huntington Library. A person thinks first of the Huntington’s collections of art and printed materials; but of course they have quite a horticultural interest as well,” he said.
Dickerson noted that even back in Vibert’s time, different rose types were given descriptive names for people and places, such as "du Trianon", referring to the palace near Paris, with its gardens, "Féburier", after a horticulturist at Versailles, or "d’Angers", indicating a rose’s origin in the French city of Angers, one of the main French rose hybridization centers of the era. One rose listed on Vibert’s receipt was given the intriguing name "La Mienne", meaning simply “Mine.”
Today’s gardeners with an interest in historical roses can obtain them from specialty growers, but the plants often require different care. “Older roses sometimes were sparser in petallage and sometimes were fuller,” he explained. “Sometimes they would come in clusters, in contrast to today’s hybrid teas, bred to come ideally one per stem. The bushes were different.
“In modern roses, people have particular commercial ideals in mind, so there is a similarity there that isn’t there in the vast field of old roses in which roses were hybridized by people of differing tastes in accord with the differing æsthetics of differing eras,” he continued. “That is, I think, what leads people on when they see what old roses have to offer. There is something for everyone’s taste and something to pique your curiosity about them, even on the basic level of ‘Can I get this to grow?’ Modern roses are bred to be easier to grow. With older roses, sometimes you have to study them a bit to learn what they want and if you give what they expect of you, they will give you what you expect of them.”
Dickerson has a practical knowledge of old roses as well as a research knowledge, growing as he does more than 50 of the old roses in his own garden, some varieties dating back to the 1700s. He has also bred and introduced two roses with “old rose” characteristics, "Charles XII", a robust Bourbon rose, which had the honor of being added to the National Trust old rose collection at Mottisfont Abbey in Great Britain, and the spotted rose "Papa Vibert", which Dickerson named after the writer of the document mentioned above, “a man who very much loved spotted, striped, and vari-colored roses.”
His work led Dickerson to find a broader insight of life. “In 1983, I never thought in 2008 I would be still writing about roses. These plants have a wonderful way of taking over your life," he said. "It’s not a bad thing. It’s a wonderful, enriching thing. The everyday gardener wouldn’t be interested in many of these books and articles of mine simply because they are too focused. But for those who are in the rose field, these are basic materials. The thing about older roses is as you learn to appreciate the different styles and the different ways they grow, ways in which they’re so different from modern roses, it makes you appreciate diversity in a wider way, in society, and it becomes enriching on a much higher plane.”
Meanwhile, Dickerson has expanded his writing interests to exploring the history of Los Angeles. His work can be found on his Web site.