Stop and smell the roses

Nonagenerian has knack for creating beautiful roses

PINK MINIATURE ROSES have been a fixture in Lena Davis' garden. The roses have grown in her garden since the late 1950s, when Davis, 98, sent in a 25-cent coupon from a Post Toasties cereal box.

If you live long enough, you get to rub shoulders with some important figures like Queen Elizabeth and Lady Baltimore. At 98, Lena Davis easily makes that claim.

Actually, she has not met those people. Instead, she has grown the Queen Elizabeth rose in her Lawrence garden. The regal grandiflora rose has dark green leaves and a delightfully pink double flower. Lady Baltimore is a small white rose with a pink tinge.

Davis has grown roses throughout her Lawrence yard — in the side garden, next to the house and along the fence in the back. Every one is beautiful and full of flowers.

“I’m a flower person,” she said.

She clearly knows her roses, how to start them and how to care for them, a talent she learned from her mother and grandmother. She can tell you the history of most of the roses she has grown in her garden even though she may not know all their names.

LENA DAVIS HAS EXCHANGED many roses from friends to start may roses, like the one at left.

“I can’t remember that to save my soul,” she said of a 7-foot tall beauty.

Some of the roses are very old.

“That white miniature rose came from my grandmother’s garden in Missouri,” she said. “I have no idea what it is called.”

A full beautiful pink miniature rose blooms in the side garden. Davis was not sure of its name, but told the story of its origin more than 40 years ago.

“On a breakfast cereal box there was a coupon for 25 cents for the rose,” she said.

She sent in the coupon along with a quarter. An 8-inch slip of rose stem was returned to her in an envelope and she rooted it. It has been growing ever since.

Talk about a green thumb. Davis claimed to have roses in her garden she never planted. A climbing rose with deep red flowers grows along a fence post off the back porch.

“I guess the birds planted it,” she said. “It came up on that post and I just left it there.” That was 22 years ago.

Davis has rooted many of the roses in her garden from slips. She has exchanged cuttings from friends and started many roses for others from slips she has taken from her own roses. She carefully demonstrated the proper place to make the cuts on the growing stem and described the rooting process.

“The best time to start them is in September,” she said, suggesting the slip be placed under an ordinary glass jar. “Leave it under till spring. Don’t take it off to take a peek. If you do, you’ll spoil the routine.”

With so many roses, you’d expect to find a diseased leaf here or there. But, this was not the case. I didn’t see anything but beautiful roses. Davis said she didn’t even fertilize her plants. She has dusted the roses with sulfur powder “to keep the little nits off.”

Although roses are her specialty, she also has grown flowering almond, hostas, miniature irises, yellow coreopsis, spirea and three tomato plants to keep her in sliced tomatoes all summer.

“I guess that’s pretty good,” she said.

Davis began gardening as a youngster.

“My folks homesteaded in eastern Colorado,” she told me. “When I was 10 years old, my father gave me a little plot. I raised vegetables. My mother thought if she didn’t have 100 to 150 quarts of stuff we’d starve to death by spring. We never went to the grocery, except for staples like sugar.”

Over the years, she had managed her garden by herself, accepting some help from her granddaughter Donna and some neighbors for heavier chores, like mowing the lawn.

This dedicated rosarian has foregone vacations until a neighbor volunteered to water the garden in her absence. Nowadays, Davis is satisfied with big bouquets of her roses.

— Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital and home and garden writer for the Journal-World.