As part of its mission to educate the public about garden history in America, Monticello’s Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants established the Léonie Bell Rose Garden at Jefferson’s Tufton Farm in 1998 with an endowment from Louis Bell, in honor of his wife, a noted botanical illustrator, who became the center of the American rose rustling movement from the late 1960s through the ‘80s. The rose garden – a study of the history of rose breeding in North America –along with Léonie Bell’s legacy of collecting, preserving, identifying, and disseminating antique plants, represents the best in horticulture and the focus of the Center for Historic Plants. Like the garden value of heirloom flora, Bell’s role at the center of rose history demands reevaluation.
On October 9, 1956, Bell, already known for her precise floral illustrations, wrote to Graham Stuart Thomas, an eminent botanist and nurseryman who was soon to be the world’s foremost expert on roses. She started with business – she needed every fragrant rose Thomas could ship to Pennsylvania from Britain as part of what would be 12 years of research for her book The Fragrant Year. She ended by giving Thomas her original scholarship on the true Musk Rose and the imposter that had usurped its place in the nursery trade – the foundation for Thomas’ signature achievement.
“Dear Mr. Thomas, Since I needed an extra copy of the notes on the Musk Rose, I typed it on a separate sheet. I do not know what you will think, from the various references quoted as to the blooming time of the ancient Musk Rose, but I feel certain that what you have called ‘Moschata autumnalis’ is Parkinson’s ‘Moschata multiplex’ [now known as ‘Nastarana’]. Never having seen any reference to August bloom [repeat bloom] of Musk roses in any modern books, you can imagine my astonishment to find it repeatedly in these old books … I cannot help wondering what is sold these days for Moschata. In this country, Rosa Brunoni is the musk rose, and far too vigorous for small gardens.”
Thomas responded: “First let me say how delighted I was to get your letter… I am most interested to have your findings on the Musk Rose. I think you have undoubtedly found the answer. Over here at Kew and elsewhere we have undoubtedly again the true old musk; the Kew plant was planted so far as my memory goes in 1780 … but don’t rely on me yet regarding moschatas! I will try to check your careful description next summer…”
Following Bell’s letter, Thomas rejected the once-blooming “Musk” at Kew, and in 1963 found what is regarded as the true Musk – the most celebrated rose find of the last 100 years. Thomas acknowledged Bell in1965, in the first edition of his Climbing Roses Old and New, which features a seminal chapter on the Musk inspired by her correspondence.
Two years later, after 12 years of work with her co-author Helen Van Pelt Wilson, Bell published The Fragrant Year, many of the featured plants exported to her by Thomas. Thomas reviewed the book for the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, weaving praise with opprobrium and ignoring her personal note to him explaining some of the dilemmas she faced with rose names and classification. Bell did not take the review well.
On July 9, 1968, she sent a copy of the review to her precocious 19-year-old protégé Douglas Seidel, along with a letter.
“Dear Douglas – … As for Fantin Latour and Du Maitre d’Ecole, they are precisely where I wanted them, following an explanation of the Hybrid China classification. I thought this rather snide of him, but had to smile when he stated that both are “well documented roses” – HIS documentation! He doesn’t realize I do my own, and that he has CROSSED SWORDS. I do not consider him to be a botanist.”
While Bell immediately tempered her letter to read “much of a botanist” and recognized Thomas’ eminence and mentorship, the rest of her relationship with him was in acrimonious printed debate. Further editions of Thomas’ work no longer mentioned Bell, erasing her from the story of the rediscovery of the Musk Rose.
According to Seidel, the end of Bell’s discipleship under Thomas spurred her to become more independent, authoritative, and self-deprecating. Her 1969 article “A Recipe for Roast Crow” poked fun at her misidentification in The Fragrant Year of the rose she had by then become the first to correctly identify as the Damask ‘Bella Donna’ (Thomas and most other experts knew it as ‘Queen of the Centifolias’). With the help of fellow rose rustler Carl Cato, co-founder of the Heritage Roses Group, Bell also located and identified ‘Champneys’ Pink Cluster,’ the first Noisette and the first notable American rose hybrid, which had been close to extinction in North America and mixed up in the foreign nursery trade.
In 1975, Bell’s status as head of the American rose rustling movement solidified when she became editor of a series of republications of classic rose texts, which she wrote new introductions for and illustrated. Then, in 1988, four years before the cerebral aneurysm that left her in a dream-like state until her death in 1996, the garden writer Thomas Christopher asked her to be the core of a book he was researching called In Search of Lost Roses. The result, after three days of interviews, was a chapter titled “The Soul of a Lioness.”
“I would have been a part of her chapter – but she wouldn’t let him publish it,” said Seidel, who has his own section in the book, along with Graham Thomas and his triumph with the Musk Rose. “I think [Christopher] called her a lioness, not just because it was a play on her name, but because she would grab a hold of something and she wouldn’t let it go until she found a solution – and she was good at hunting. Rose hunting – she could look at an area from 200 yards away and tell if there was anything worth rustling.”
The Léonie Bell Rose Garden, established in Bell’s memory at Monticello’s Thomas Jefferson Center of Historic Plants, under the directorship of Peggy Cornett in 1998, features the planting schemes of her protégé Seidel and the octagonal, Jeffersonian designs of landscape architect C. Allan Brown. Many of the roses are associated with Bell’s work, among them ‘Nastarana,’ ‘Champneys’ Pink Cluster,’ and a clone of the ‘Double Musk Rose’ called ‘Bremo Double Musk,’ propagated from what is believed to be the oldest documented living rose in North America found at the nearby plantation of Jefferson’s friend John Hartwell Cocke. The “Double Musk” and many of the other Bell Garden roses were popular in Jefferson’s time and also grow in the flower beds around Monticello, where ‘Bella Donna’ is planted -- the rose at the center of one of Bell’s controversies with Thomas and the subject of one of her drawings, praised by Thomas as “the best I have seen for many a year, if indeed [it has] ever been surpassed for exquisite botanical detail combined with consummate artistry.”
The Center for Historic Plants holds several open houses a year, with plant sales, guest lectures, and tours, often featuring the Rev. Douglas T. Seidel in May. Roses and a wide selection of antique plants and seeds are sold through CHP at the Visitor Center Museum Shop, or through Monticello’s online catalog at www.monticello.org/shop. If you would like to schedule a tour of CHP’s extensive gardens designed with historical plant varieties and full of inspiring combinations useful to any gardener – including effective ways of mixing flowers, herbs, shrubs and vegetables, email email@example.com or call (434)984-9819. CHP is located by Monticello on Jefferson’s Tufton Farm.
The unpublished letters of Léonie Bell and Graham Thomas and photograph of Léonie Bell are courtesy of the Rev. Douglas T. Seidel. Additional thanks to Stephen Scanniello, Dr. Malcolm Manners, and Jane Baber White. Rose photographs by Lily Fox-Bruguiére, CHP Garden and Outreach Coordinator.