“Roses always go with thorns” sings Pamina in “The Magic Flute” in the midst of her ordeal within a temple somewhere in Egypt. After a weekend spent going through my own trials as I cleared the shrubbery and pruned some 25 rose bushes, I can attest to the malicious damage they can inflict.
Perhaps you have to have the saintly character of a Francis of Assisi to tackle a rose bush and emerge unscathed. On a recent visit to the Porziuncola, the jewel of an oratory where he once prayed and which is now enfolded within the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, I came across the thornless roses named for the Saint. It seems that, as a way to deal with temptations of the flesh, Francis threw himself into a briar bush, whereupon it became thornless. To this day, the gentle roses continue to grow in the courtyard of the church.
But this is not the sort of thing that happens here in New Cairo. And there is nothing edifying about being stabbed and torn by large and unforgiving thorns, even as you reassure the plants that cutting back and feeding are for their own good. Modern cultivars, said to be thornless (or “almost” according to the marketing blurb) do exist, but not here, to my knowledge.
Some old friends emerged during the weekend clear-out of the border: more pots than I remember losing, and a bedraggled bougainvillea still holding on from the first phase of planting back in the summer of 2009. It deserves respect, having survived traumatic transplantation by a former ‘gardener’ and attack by an assortment of puppies. However, as it happens to be in the direct path of Gigi’s look-out post through the front fence, its chances of survival are not high.
One very surprising tip that has come through the email post this week from the nurserymen I deal with in the UK: now is the best time to plant sweet peas. If you sow in October, it seems, you get stronger flowers earlier in the following year, provided you over-winter them in a cold frame. Another tip is to soak them overnight in water before you plant.
Being English, I have to say that, second to roses (which, as you now know, I view with some caution) sweet peas are my favourite summer flowers. Their soft pink, lilac and white colours allied to a gorgeous scent – sweet but not cloying – are heavenly. The fact that they are great climbers is a bonus, for they cover anything from trellises to balcony railings to ageing shrubs. Best of all, the more you cut the flowers for the house, the more they burst into bloom. And they do not have thorns.
That’s the theory. Here in Cairo, it hasn’t worked that way. I have planted them every year for three years, with limited success. They usually get so blasted by the “khamseen”, the terrible dusty winds of April, that they collapse before the flowers have had time to get going properly.
So I’m going to follow the advice, plant them in pots this month (more for the secret garden!) and see what happens. There’s a whole 6 metre trellis to cover in the garden. Over-ambitious? Possibly, so Plan B is to have nasturtiums ready as back-up. They have no scent, but they are robust; and you can add the leaves and flowers to the salad bowl.
Believe it or not, it’s not only the English who have a passion for sweet peas: Tolstoy cherished them too. So we are in excellent company…!
* “Then hath thy orchard fruit, thy garden flowers,
Fresh as the air, and new as are the hours.” Ben Johnson: “To Penshurst”