Rose named after Lady Banks

Last updated 09:42 30/06/2011
Rose trellis

INTRIGUING ROSE: Fence and trellis provide an ideal setting for a rampant banksia, a rose with intriguing associations since its arrival in Western gardens 200 years ago.

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Gardening

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ROSEMARIE SMITH continues her mini-series on hedges encountered in garden travels.

Is it a hedge, is it a fence?

Purists may quibble, but who cares when it provides a beautiful, durable and seasonally interesting street boundary.

There are three levels to this much-admired construction, as shown in the photo – a concrete foundation, a vertical batten fence with a trellis atop.

The casual observer must look carefully to detect the trellis, it's so well covered with the white banksia rose that inspired this story, as this is such a splendid application of that lovely rose's voracious growth habit.

Quite apart from being the solution to having a high but manageable boundary screen, this is how anyone, with even the smallest section, can accommodate a potential monster.

Given a reasonable soil and a sunny situation, it's an easy rose to grow, plus it's disease-resistant, so doesn't need spraying.

But it does grow, a lot.

However, it is thornless, easy to keep in trim, and the freshness of the constant new growth is very attractive.

That's without even considering the bountiful flowering delivering masses of small multi-petalled flowers over several months each spring.

The only thing it lacks is fragrance, though in this case an intermingled jasmine from round the corner more than compensates.

No wonder this – or the yellow form – is frequently mentioned in discussions of the world's favourite roses.

This story may have ended here, but the hunt for background information led down such interesting byways.

Rose lovers probably know the banksian roses are named for Lady Dorothea Banks, wife of the adventurous wealthy amateur naturalist Joseph Banks of Cook 1768-71 expedition fame.

By 1807, when the first of these roses was brought to England from China, (and it was this double white form), Sir Joseph was director of Kew Gardens.

The naming honoured his patronage, but what sort of woman was Dorothea, Lady Banks?

There is information aplenty on Sir Joseph, of course, but only tantalising glimpses of the lady of the rose.

Dorothea was a 21-year-old heiress when Banks – 15 years her senior and a man who had enjoyed many dalliances, and not just his South Seas anthropological experiences – suddenly courted and married her in 1779.

The Bankses never had children, and Banks' older sister Sophia (Sophie) was also part what was apparently an amiable household.

Sophie was unconventional in the way that attracts criticism in women, with descriptions of her always starting with the fact she was tall.

Horrors.

Other accusations included that she was masculine-looking, had a loud voice, was rude and that, while fashionable in her youth, she later "lost the inclination for a specially elegant appearance out of doors".

And that she could drive a four-in-hand, and fish.

In other words she was competent, clever and no fool.

Today, Sophie Banks would have been a scientist in her own right but, given the times, she was lucky to at least be part of her brother's establishment, a veritable private research institute and museum.

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Here she played many support roles, including transposing his near-illegible journals.

So what does it tell us about Lady Banks that she apparently got on very well with such a sister-in-law, in such an environment?

If Miss Banks' most obvious feature to her contemporaries was her problematic tall-ness, Dorothea was invariably described as cheerful, friendly, kind, and a great hostess.

Note no mention of her height, though in later life all three of the Bankses were rather rotund.

But in her youth at least she seems also to have been adventurous, judging by a brother-in-law's description of a cross-country tour of duty where Dorothea and her sister Mary cheerfully coped with staying in miserable accommodation, without maids, attending engagements such as the lively country dance "where Mrs B escaped pretty well as only one bowl of Porter was thrown over her gown".

She also earned the approval of her husband's many scientific visitors, as she and Sophie were usually present when Banks entertained.

The women were most agreeable companions, one of them recorded, while a biographer summarises their role as "Together the two women succeeded in managing the more chaotic side of Banks's social life with great success".

There are also references to the women's interests in the garden at their country house, a garden "celebrated for its high culture and for its curious and beautiful treasures from distant lands".

Woods, ornamental shrubs and flower beds were neatly kept under their joint inspection, (a banksia rose was a treasured feature), they had a pond with goldfish, and Miss Banks guided visitors through the hot-houses and conservatories.

In addition, both women were avid collectors in their own right, Miss Banks of coins, medals, books and of printed and engraved ephemera, now a valuable reference collection in the British Museum.

Lady Banks is described as an ardent and intelligent collector of antique Chinese and Japanese ceramics, which she catalogued and displayed in a former dairy.

Her husband's reference to her being "a little old-china maid" was not disparaging.

A letter to a contact seeking further acquisitions is, in fact, supportive, and he conveys his wife's theories on dating the different wares, which were then astonishing Europe with their technical and artistic quality.

In turn, Dorothea and Sophie were so supportive of Banks' interests they adopted wearing woollen clothes when he was promoting merino sheep.

There were limits, however.

Lady Banks declined to wear her husband's gift of a clump of moss mounted as a brooch, describing it as boring and unsightly.

Banks was most offended, declaring her to be a fool who liked diamonds better, and for being unwilling to wear it "as a botanist's wife certainly ought to do".

So next time you see a banksia rose, think of the ladies Banks, as this popular rose has qualities of both of them: the cheerful Dorothea with her love of fine china, and the long, tall, rampant Sophie.

Both of them with minds of their own.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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