A little while ago Jesse bought me a few classics–some I had already enjoyed but wanted for our library and a couple that I couldn’t believe I’d walked decades on this earth without having read yet; one of those was Little Women. I knew I would enjoy it (I recall my older sister Christin saying it was her favorite book when we were children), but I had no idea how much. I’ve “laughed, cried, and gone through all the changes” as Christin would say, read and re-read certain passages and marveled at the amazing gift for storytelling and characterization Alcott had. But you know all that already about her because surely I am the last female on earth to be reading this novel for the first time. One particular passage really intrigued me–not surprisingly–as it describes a rose growing at Orchard House and in full bloom on the day of Meg’s wedding to Mr. Brooke:
“The June roses over the porch were awake bright and early on that morning, rejoicing with all their hearts in the cloudless sunshine, like friendly little neighbors, as they were. Quite flushed with excitement were their ruddy faces, as they swung in the wind, whispering to one another what they had seen; for some peeped in at the dining-room windows, where the feast was spread, some climbed up to nod and smile at the sisters as they dressed the bride, others waved a welcome to those who came and went on various errands in garden, porch and hall, and all, from the rosiest full-blown flower to the palest, baby-bud offered their tribute of beauty and fragrance to the gentle mistress who had loved and tended them so long.”
I love a good rose mystery so I set out to doing a little research: assuming that this description was drawn from some memory Alcott had of their garden in Concord, which rose(s) could it have possibly been? (I ask that knowing that it could be completely fictionalized or drawn from bits of memories gathered at other events in her life.) Alcott specifically describes a “ruddy” rose which calls to mind something of a red hue (perhaps even dark pink?) so that limited my search. Additionally, we’d be looking for a rose that could ramble/climb if it was going to be able to “peep in” any of the windows and climb up to “nod and smile” at the sisters who I am assuming were on the 2nd story. Narrowing the search further would be the cold winters that region of New England would experience and the fact that Alcott wrote this story in the late 1800′s so the rose’s introduction date must at least precede 1868 although most likely much earlier since the rose was clearly in cultivation for many years based on the description of it’s size in their garden.
Based on these criteria was this mystery rose a climbing Bourbon? Research told me not many dark pink/red Bourbons were introduced earlier than 1868 so I thought better move on. How about a Boursault? Could Alcott’s “ruddy rose” been Rosa pendulina ’Amadis’ otherwise known as ‘Crimson Boursault’? At that point I had been searching for a little while and realized I could do this all day and never come close to the answer (especially if this rose was drawn purely from Alcott’s imagination and/or a collection of roses, not one singly.) So I deferred to my gut which told me it was probably some sort of Hybrid Multiflora. Could it have been R. multiflora ‘Rubra’? Maybe.
But if I had to choose I would say my best guess is Alcott’s ruddy rose which greeted her family on that bright June morning was based on Rosa multiflora f. platyphylla better known as ‘Seven Sisters’, 1817.
In case you’re wondering, the information on the landscape restoration through the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association couldn’t tell me anything about specific roses that may have grown at Orchard House, but that’s not to say that information isn’t out there and/or I just missed it somehow. (They’re doing great work, by the way, and are accepting donations.)
Have you ever visited Orchard House? I’d love to hear your experiences and if you happened to spy any roses growing there when you visited!
Images top to bottom: Orchard House via Smithsonian Magazine, May Alcott’s watercolor of Orchard House Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association, Mr. Alcott’s School of Philosophy and the West side of Orchard House, ca. 1880 Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association, Rosa multiflora platyphylla by Pierre-Joseph Redouté from Les Roses 1817-1824.