Why would you give space to a plant that you dislike? Which is what I did last year when Thompson and Morgan sent me Rose of the Year, For Your Eyes Only.
Well, there’s a clue there—one of the reasons was that it was free. It also filled a space. The third was that, given its accolade, I thought I really ought to be more open-minded and give it a go. I did, for a moment, offer it to Husband for his father’s garden, but he didn’t want it either.
It’s certainly a rose that elicits strong feeling. “Frankly dreadful” was the uncompromising opinion of one rose-seller I spoke to. I’m not sure if it was the colour he objected to but, visiting The Master’s House* recently in the Temple Inns of Court, I spotted it in the borders. “It’s a bit more salmon-coloured than I expected,” said head gardener Bob McMeekin. “I’m not sure it’ll stay.”
Well, I can tell you now, it’s staying in mine.
Thirty-two years in the breeding
For Your Eyes Only has quite a history. Plant breeding is a waiting game, but it’s a patient man who takes 32 years to reach a goal.
The original Rosa Persica was discovered in Iran and for many years botanists queried whether it even was a rose. The answer turned out to be yes, only one that had adapted to growing in the desert. From the mid-70s Harkness Roses were offering Persica hybrids and for interesting detail on the story up to this point, see Breeding with Hulthemia Persica (Rosa Persica) by Jack Harkness**. It was then they offered plant material to breeders around the world to try to further the research more quickly.
The potential colour markings were what excited breeders, and Chris Warner went on crusade. “The holy grail,” he told me at Hampton Court Flower Show in 2014, when the award was announced, “is a bright red blotch. Out of 1000 seedlings you might get two or three with a blotch.”
Chris gives the impression of a man with equanimity. It’s just as well as one can only guess at the long run of frustration, raised hopes and disappointments. Through the years, he bred hybrids that proved unhealthy, that didn’t produce good offspring. One proved promising. The only (and major) problem was that its blotch was the same colour as the flower. That was bred with others. And finally, thirty-two years after he started, he had a rose that, as he described with some pride, requires only 60% sun, mixes with all other plants, is insect friendly, disease resistant, and repeat flowering.
For Your Eyes Only - my garden test
I planted it in spring 2015. It flowered a little last summer. This year it’s got going. And you know what? This year I’ve changed my mind.
OK, close up, it’s not yet my favourite—I personally don’t think the flowers will ever be described as elegant—but the bush is a lovely shape, being compact and something of a dome; it’s a neat plant that’s just the right size for the front to middle of a border, its leaves are glossy, it looks healthy, the flowers have a gentle scent (though it’s hard to get down to them on the bush to find that out) and it is flowering its little heart out.
Even its colour is growing on me, though, because it’s so changeable – there is a salmon tinge, especially in aging flowers, but the buds begins as a clearer pink. Not only does the colour change with the opening of the flowers, but they seem to take on different pinks depending on the light. The buds themselves very prettily unfurl, in a sort of spiral, and there’s been a good mix of buds and flowers in all stages on the bush at all times.
This is definitely a big plus. It should repeat flower all summer and it’s making a valuable addition to the border.
All in all, I’m glad I persevered with it (and glad that Chris Warner persevered too) and wouldn’t be at all surprised if it becomes quite a pet over the years.
*The Master’s House garden will be open as part of the The Open Garden Squares Weekend, 18-19th June.
** The article is worth looking at for Jack Harkness's observations on the clues the Rosa Persica gave as to how it gets fertilised.