Since my first days at Belmont in 1999, I have combed through our archives looking for clues to what the buildings, gardens, and grounds looked like when Gari and Corinne Melchers lived and worked here.
It became apparent early on that roses played an important part in the landscape. The archives are filled with photographs, letters, and scraps of paper, all helping me to tease out the names of roses that grew in their garden. The hunt for replacement of the old roses, some of which are very rare, has been very rewarding as well, and has allowed me to meet and correspond with rosarians and rose collectors across the world.
Corinne Melchers was the main force behind the garden, and she planted roses on arbors, trellises and in boxwood edged beds. She purchased the newest hybrids available from nurseries, or traded cuttings from friends, resulting in a wide range of roses in the collection. So far, the archives search has uncovered 33 different varieties, ranging from huge sprawling monster roses to delicate and fragile specimens.
Most of the roses original to the garden were lost over the years. But thanks to Bill and Maxine Chandler, longtime caretakers at Belmont, some of the roses original to the time when Gari and Corinne Melchers lived at Belmont survived. Bill Chandler took cuttings from the old plants growing on the arbors and nurtured them in his own garden. His skill saved Tausendschön, a Hybrid Multiflora, and American Pillar, a rambler, which grew on the arbors at either end of the Long Walk.
Another two survivors from early days is the rose on the fence between the stable and smoke house and the brilliant red rose growing on the spring house arbor. These are both root stock roses, meaning they originally had a more exotic rose grafted to them. The graft died, but the root stock survived. The result is the fragrant and lovely Fun Jwan Lo, and Dr. Heuey, both vigorous roses used as a root stock in the 1920’s. They are not the roses Corinne Melchers chose, but both are so lovely and tough, that I have decided to leave them in place. I purchase only non-grafted stock, also known as own root roses, for the gardens. They take a little more time to get established, but the will come true from the root should cold weather or stray lawnmowers cut them to the ground. Own root roses are available from nurseries specializing in antique or old roses, see links at the end to find great sources.
Most of the named varieties I have found in the archives do not have a reference to where they were planted in the garden, but the roses on the east and west porches are exceptions. Mrs. Melchers noted that she planted Paul’s Scarlet Climber on the east porch and Aviateur Bleriot on the west side of the house. Both are back in place, and the trellises they grow on are made to match the originals, based on archival photographs.
A Town and Country Magazine article from 1928 makes mention of the “rose garden edged in box”. Two boxwood edged beds, flanking the Visitor Center, then carriage house, were re-created by the Garden Club of Virginia in the fall of 2012 as part of the ongoing garden restoration effort. Mrs. Melchers planted these beds with the hybrid tea roses Gruss An Achen, and Radiance, and it is rewarding to see this lovely mix of pink colors blooming once more.
Corinne Melchers did not specialize in one rose category, but planted roses that pleased her esthetic values. Hybrid tea roses became very popular at the turn of the century, and Mrs. Melchers tried many new varieties, such as the single hybrid tea rose Dainty Bess. She also used hybrid perpetual roses, the luscious Paul Neyron is one example which falls in the category of “cabbage” roses, with flower-heads are as big as small cabbages.
All the roses planted in the main garden area are replacements of rose varieties gleaned from the archives. There is one exception to this rule, however; the roses flanking the memorial plaque in the Studio wall. The ashes of both Gari and Corinne Melchers are interred in the wall, and I have planted roses corresponding with the years of their birth and death to mark their final resting place. Roses are associated with love and purity, and have been a common adornment in cemeteries for many centuries. In fact, many old roses have been found and saved by “rose rustlers” who, with permission of course, take cuttings from old roses to propagate and spread the historic plant material across the nation. In fact, a rose thought to be extinct, the Musk Rose, was discovered by group of rustlers growing in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. It is now saved and grows in many gardens.
Gari Melchers was born in 1860, and Corinne Melchers died in 1955. The roses planted in front of their internment site represent almost one hundred years of rose breeding. It is interesting to see the difference in their habit, blooms, and presence, or lack of, scent, rose hips, etc. in the four roses planted there. They reflect the traits rose breeders thought would appeal to the public, and illustrate that what we find desirable in our roses has changed over the years. The roses in this bed range from a finicky, but deeply fragrant tea rose called Mme. Joseph Schwartz, released in 1880, the year of Corinne Melchers birth, to a sturdy, scentless, showy shrub called Dortmund, introduced in 1955.
Depending on the weather, the main rose season starts in April and goes through early June, with some roses putting out flowers all year long.
There are lots of great resources related to old roses. Here are just a few to get you hooked.