Sweet scents of summer

BLACKBIRD, stuffed with blackcurrants, sprawls on a carpet of rose petals, wings spread to the sun and beak agape in a silent…

BLACKBIRD, stuffed with blackcurrants, sprawls on a carpet of rose petals, wings spread to the sun and beak agape in a silent pant of pleasure.

This will do very well as an image of high summer. It is not my favourite season - too many flies and not enough flycatchers - but the roses have been having a jubilee, as if primed by last summer to excel themselves in this one.

It's quite a few years since, lying in a tent in the barrens of Greenland with nothing left to read, I planned a rose bed for the middle of the acre: an island of decadence in the middle of all those earnest vegetables. Old shrub roses, I thought, with posh French names - a great tangled mound of them, wafting their scent on the ocean breeze.

And this, more or less, is what I've got. A few of them, it's true, have lost out in the scramble: Cardinal de Richelieu has surrendered his purple, with Madame Isaac Perriere in tow. But Roserie de l'Hay is flourishing her florid, silky crimson (roses do this to your writing style), and rising supreme and suckering all round is the white rose with the swooniest, sultriest perfume of all, Blanc Double de Coubiere.


All very comme de chateau, I'm sure. But the scent that has filled the house these past few weeks, a honeyed fragrance with none of the spicy sophistication of the French belongs to a rose I had always half hoped was wild. Certainly it acts as if it was sprawling over fences and clawing its way up trees with all the prickly vigour of a briar.

Here we call it "the Leenane rose". That, rather, was how it was known to the lady of the lodge where I helped myself from the gardener's pruning. But to find Rosa filipes in its true wild habitat would need a journey to west China. None of our own wild roses comes near the brief but spectacular blossoming of filipes, piling up in panicles of flowers, creamy, pink flushed, each with a boss of gold stamens.

But our wild species, too, have been putting on a memorable show this summer. In Connemara hedgerows, on the cliffs and dunes, on limestone walls in the Burren, this June and July re established the rose as the elegant royalty of Ireland's wildflowers.

Nearest to our Chinese briar in flower, if not in form, is the lovely burnet rose, which grows in thickets in the Burren and, rather more modestly, hugs the ground on many coastal dunes, cliffs and field banks and the shores of the larger lakes.

This is the longest flowering of our wild roses and used to be called botanically spinosissima, the spiniest rose, to take note of its bristling thorns (pinipinellifolia skips off the tongue a bit better). It sometimes hybridises with our other wild roses, adding to the many liaisons which complicate their study.

Near Louisburgh, for example (where some field hedges already boast ornamental stretches of oriental rugosa roses), the burnet rose has crossed with the deep pink Rosa mollis, the northern variety of the wild downy rose.

The common "dog" rose, R. canina, usually with soft pink flowers, has big, hooked thorns to help haul itself upright in the hedge, while the field rose, R. arvensis, is more of a low, rambling plant, its flowers nearly always white. The sweet briar, R. rubiginosa, is like a weaker growing dog rose, but with deep pink flowers; its leaves, when crushed, smell of apples.

IN the age of the plug in, scented "air freshener", talk of pot pourri may seem impossibly twee, but it was, after all, the aromatherapy of the Irish country house. As our favourite garden roses start to fall, some of the old recipes for potpourri can take on a keen (if ultimately, in most cases, rather glancing) fascination.

There were two ways of doing it, the dry and the moist.

For the dry kind, the rose petals are spread out on paper on the bed in the spare room, together with scented leaves - geranium, lemon verbena, lavender and bay leaves are some of those worth having.

Then, to a large bucketful of petals and leaves (we're talking master bedroom here), add an ounce each of cloves, mace and cinnamon and a quarter ounce each of coriander and allspice. Our elders would have sneaked in some balsam gum and violet powder, which these days might be replaced with an occasional dash of an essential oil from the aromatherapy counter.

The moist sort of pot pourri was really more of a perfumed pickle . . . Gather early in the day, and when perfectly dry, a bucketful of petals, and let them dry out on paper for a day or so, until leathery. Then pack them into large jars between sprinklings of coarse sea salt, ramming them down as you go (as my mother used to preserve runner beans). Layers of torn geranium and other fragrant leaves, and lavender, are alternated with the petals and salted in the same way.

Leave for two or three days and then dig out the contents of the jars, crumble it all up into flakes and mix with the spices. Then ram it quite hard into an earthenware jar or wooden barrel and leave it to mature for six months or a year, rather like a home made wine. Some recipes, indeed, call for a regular moistening of the mixture with brandy, whereupon it will retain its fragrance for up to 50 years, "the covers to be raised only when the perfume is desired in the room".

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author