Champneys' Pink Cluster Comes to Monticello

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The history of the rose, the most beloved of flowers and three thousand years in cultivation, is undoubtedly one of the most complex. Over the decades, hundreds of books on old roses have emerged, some more scholarly than others, and often with conflicting or confusing information. The study of a single class can be challenging, even for the experts, but also infinitely rewarding.

While Thomas Jefferson grew a number of roses--including Gallicas, Sweetbriars, and native roses--the Noisettes were not likely among them. His final mention of roses was for his retreat home, Poplar Forest, in which he noted on November 1, 1816: "planted large roses of difft. kinds in the oval bed in the N. front. dwarf roses in the N.E. oval. ..." Jefferson's long life was ending just as this new breed, the Noisette, was emerging on the scene. He did, however, plant the Noisette's parents. In 1791 Jefferson ordered from the famous William Prince Nursery in Flushing Landing, New York, two each of the Monthly rose (Rosa chinensis cv.) and the Musk rose (R. moschata). The China rose, specifically 'Old Blush' or 'Parson's Pink China', was desired for its long blooming season, so unlike the European varieties, which generally offer only one big show in late spring. The European Musk Rose, as described by Parkinson and Gerard, was valued for its later season of bloom (mid to late summer) and its clusters of highly fragrant, white blossoms.

The story of these two parent roses in the hands of Charleston, South Carolina merchant John Champneys is well documented. Champneys grew both in his large plantation garden southwest of Charleston. There the two roses crossed and produced seedlings with very desirable characteristics. Some put this event in 1802 while others maintain it occurred around 1810-11. According to Léonie Bell, "The Champneys rose was noteworthy because it not only repeated from June to November, it did so abundantly. ... The small pink stained flower was no great beauty, nor very double ... but it became a good seed parent." Champneys shared rooted cuttings of his seedling with friends, including William Prince, Jr., who in turn shipped many more from his Long Island nursery to England. In 1818 the Loddiges Nursery near London listed hundred of roses, including one called "champigny."

Champneys shared another batch from his seedling with his neighbor, a Frenchman, named Phillippe Noisette. Both were members of the South Carolina Horticultural Society, of which Champneys was president. According to Léonie Bell, Phillippe Noisette was the son of the head gardener to Louis XVI, and himself an avid horticulturist. He immigrated to the United States to escape the French Revolution, and soon was made superintendent of the South Carolina Medical Society's garden in Charleston. A few years after receiving Champneys rose, Phillippe sent a batch of his own seedlings, which he labeled "blush" rose, to his brother Louis, who had an extensive nursery collection of roses in Paris. Some argue that Champneys was deprived of a certain notoriety once his rose went on to become part of a class called Noisettes. Robert Prince's Manual of Roses, 1846, maintains that notion, stating: "The old Blush Noisette Rose was raised ... by Phillippe Noisette, of Charleston, from seed of the Champney Rose, and this he sent to his brother Louis Noisette of Paris, under the name of the Noisette Rose." Others, including Léonie Bell herself, believe Phillippe Noisette was also experimenting with Champneys' rose, and may have crossed it with a third, repeat-blooming, diploid rose such as "Hume's Blush" Tea-scented China, resulting in his own creation--the 'Blush Noisette'. In any case, once in France and under the expert care of Louis Noisette, dozens of distinct cultivars ensued.

'Champneys Pink Cluster' remained an important ornamental through the nineteenth century. Robert Buist';s 1832 edition of The American Flower Garden Directory praises it by stating: "This celebrated rose has a situation in almost every garden in our city [Philadelphia.], and forms a great ornament, flowering very profusely in immense clusters from May to November ... This rose is at present one of the most abundant in flower, the easiest of culture, (growing in any exposure) and in every respect is highly deserving of attention." But, by the twentieth century 'Champneys' was thought to be lost from cultivation. During the late 1970s Léonie Bell and her student and protégé, Doug Seidel (known simply as "Douglas" in many of her articles), searched for survivors in the Philadelphia area to no avail. Seidel relates that Mrs. Bell finally discovered a reference to 'Champneys' growing in Bermuda, which she came across in Richard Thompson's Old Roses for Modern Gardens, 1959. She was able to secure herbarium specimens and detailed slides of roses that had always been known as 'Champneys Pink Cluster' on the island. Meanwhile, Virginia rose expert Carl Cato, also hot on a trail, located a living plant of 'Champneys' in a private Virginia garden. Léonie Bell was instrumental in returning this plant to the trade when she sent bud wood to Pickering Nursery in Canada.

The more recent story of 'Champneys Pink Cluster' coming to Monticello has its own twists and turns. During the mid-1980s Peter Hatch, Monticello's director of gardens and grounds, and I made a trip some forty miles south of Monticello to Bremo, the magnificent Palladian-style plantation home of General John Hartwell Cocke, in search of figs. Cocke, who lived until the Civil War, was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson and was instrumental in founding the University of Virginia. Records indicate that Jefferson and Cocke exchanged plants during the course of their friendship, including the Marseilles Fig. Peter Hatch was aware that figs still grew in the garden of the Recess, a Jacobean-style residence within the extensive Bremo complex. Our hope was that these figs might prove to be the original plants brought from Monticello.

We spent an afternoon exploring the Recess' badly overgrown garden, and taking cuttings of a variety of interesting plants among the ruins. A lovely pale pink rose caught our eye, growing against a stone wall along the southeast side of the garden, and we took cuttings of it. The cuttings rooted, and we grew a plant behind the production greenhouses at Monticello. John Fitzpatrick, who was hired by Monticello in 1986 to launch the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, quickly took an interest in this fragrant pink rose and gave it the study name "Bremo Pink Cluster." His research ultimately led him to believe that this shrub was most likely a 'Champneys Pink Cluster', a conclusion to which Doug Seidel concurs. Now our question was, how did this rose get to Bremo?

The oral tradition comes to us from Frances Orf, great-great granddaughter of General Cocke, who still lives at the Recess with her husband Raymond. She maintains that the roses were original to General Cocke's garden, dating to the early 1800s. (The house was constructed originally as a Palladian structure between 1807-08, but in 1834-36, was surrounded by a Jacobean-style shell). Mrs. Orf's account of their roses was passed down to her from her grandmother, Frances Grace Cabell (1852-1929), who always "made a fuss" over them, especially the one called the "Musk Cluster."

The Cocke papers at the University of Virginia contain references to plants that General Cocke ordered from the Long Island nursery of Benjamin Prince, son of William Prince, Sr. Benjamin's brother, William, Jr., also had a nursery on Long Island -- The Linnaean Botanic Garden. Of particular interest is a letter from Benjamin Prince to Cocke, dated September 4, 1815, in which we find this reference: " have a great number of very handsome Roses. ... The white musk or cluster rose is very ornamental. It flowers in clusters of Roses all the Fall (till Winter)." Prince's letter was in regard to Cocke's order of "Trees, Shrubs & Plants" to be sent to Bremo in November. A notation by Cocke, dated March 14, 1826, confirms a later receipt of "1 double white Musk Rose 75¢" from Benjamin Prince's brother William's nursery. This written evidence matches Frances Cabell's description of "Musk Cluster," which still grows in the Recess garden and is likely one of the oldest living specimens of the Double White Musk Rose. [In October 1998, Doug Seidel, Diane Lowe, and I went to Bremo Recess while the large "Musk Cluster" rose was blooming and positively identified it as Rosa moschata plena. We now have rooted cuttings at CHP. Sadly, however, Bremo's -€˜Champneys Pink Cluster' has disappeared.]

Our -€˜Champneys Pink Cluster' still remains a mystery. Could Benjamin Prince also have sent an early Noisette from his father's or brother's nursery? Although their nursery lists are nearly identical, we do know there were rivalries between them. These connections are intriguing, but what would be even more significant is if the pink rose at Bremo Recess was from the tub of rose cuttings sent to William Prince, Jr. by John Champneys himself. Although this link might be a stretch, further research could indeed unfold more answers to our questions.

As fate would have it, the figs at Bremo turned out to be a later planting of Brown Turkey, rather than the hoped for Marseilles. The serendipitous roses, however, have became a treasured part of our collections both at Monticello and Tufton Farm-€“another thread in the web of history these garden veterans weave.

Peggy Cornett, Director
Thomas Jefferson Center
for Historic Plants
January 1999

Please view some of our heirloom plant collections located at Tufton Farm, including our Rose Border, and the newly installed Leonie Bell Rose garden.

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