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CCU Atheneum: The 'Rose of Paestum' is an ancient rose that is mentioned by Horace and Virgil. Nance, a Renaissance scholar, is a connoisseur of old roses.
The 'Rose of Paestum' is an ancient rose that is mentioned by Horace and Virgil. Nance, a Renaissance scholar, is a connoisseur of old roses.

By Any Other Name: This CCU historian knows his roses

by Doug Bell
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Every rose has a story, says Brian Nance. Behind the house that he and fellow CCU history professor Eliza Glaze share with their two greyhounds, Gipper and Dusty, on Elm Street in Conway, there are flowerbeds containing about 50 roses they have collected over the past 15 years. Nance, an ardent amateur rosarian, has multiple stories about each one. Several were birthday or anniversary presents given to one another.

“This one,” he says, pointing to a single-flowered white pillar rose, “is called ‘Kathleen.’ I first saw this type at the Villa d’Este, the famous Italian garden outside of Rome. I was really taken by this rose when we toured the garden, even getting down on my hands and knees for a closer look, when I saw a tag on it from Jackson & Perkins! So here I am in Rome admiring this extraordinary rose with Eliza, who was a Mellon fellow at the American Academy in Rome that year, only to find that the Villa d’Este gardeners had purchased it from an American mail-order rose company!”

As a historian specializing in the Renaissance, Nance is a connoisseur of old roses. He tells about the Rose of Paestum, mentioned by Virgil and Horace, the only type of ancient rose outside of China that bloomed more than once a year.

“Before 1800 there were five major types of roses in Europe, true old roses like the moss roses, damasks and gallicas, with varieties like ‘Henri Martin’ and ‘Cardinal Richelieu.’ They almost always have extraordinary scents, but they bloom only once annually. I love these old roses, but we are now spoiled by the botanical influence of the China roses, and we expect to have roses blooming for most of the year.”

But Nance is also fond of later hybrids, like the densely-petalled and odiferous pink Bourbon rose ‘Madame Isaac Pereiere,’ the creamy white climber ‘Sombreuil’ and the flat-surfaced ‘Darlow’s Enigma,’ which is a “found rose” — roses that were once cultivated and then abandoned and rediscovered.

Scent is an important element in the composition of this Conway rose garden. “I could have approached it like a history nerd and planted the roses in a chronological layout,” he says, “but instead I did it aesthetically, with the best scents out in front.”

‘Madame Isaac Pereiere,’ a French Bourbon, is often cited as as the most fragrant of roses, but, if he had to choose one rose for scent, he would pick ‘Sombreuil.’ “I found that, day in and day out, rain or shine, Sombreuil overwhelms you; I was later gratified to learn that William Welch, author of the classic Antique Roses for the South, puts Sombreuil at the top of his list of fragrant Southern roses.”

Nance says roses need full sun, a little fertilizer, good air circulation and regular water—in dry weather he uses a soaker hose that snakes under the mulch. And he only uses beneficial insects and a sesame oil spray to control any problems. “I search for roses that are disease resistant, especially to black spot, the chief bane of roses in our warm climate.” Nance prunes his plants in late winter, preferably after the last hard freeze. May and June are the peak blooming months.

Nance’s roses are divided into two beds at the back of the house, which is surrounded by many other plants reflecting the gardening tastes of both Nance and Glaze. Their yard offers everything from massive camellias, azaleas, oakleaf hydrangeas, four o’clocks, irises, lilies and daylilies, to pots of tomatoes, chard and basil, as well as a plot of young apple trees and pole beans. Hanging in a magnolia tree is an exotic, air-rooted, plum-colored Vanda orchid from southeast Asia.

A specialist in the history of premodern science and medicine, including pharmacy, Glaze has been interested in botany and horticulture since being introduced to plants and flowers by her grandmother as a child. She recently completed an article for the journal Early Science and Medicine that documents the earliest uses of distilled rose oil, sugar and other exotic ingredients first introduced from Arabia into European pharmacy during the 11th century.

Nance and Glaze have lived at their present address for about three years. Nance reports that “Eliza came here on an open house while I was out of town at a conference. She phoned me from the backyard and said ‘You have to see these camellias, they’re 20 feet tall and at least 50 years old; the azaleas are almost as large. And the house is great, too.' ” The place was deeply overgrown with trees and vines, but after a major clear-out, they transplanted many of their roses and other plants when they moved from their previous house on 11th Avenue.

Looking on from Elm Street, no one would suspect how deep their yard is. Beyond the backyard lawn and garden area is a copse of large trees and shrubs that reaches all the way to the rear of an apartment complex on Pine Street. Nance and Glaze have allowed the farthest area to remain in a wilderness state, with paths that wind under towering old water oaks and sweetgum trees, as well as some very large camellias—“ ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’ is our favorite,” says Glaze.

The Noisettes
One of Nance’s favorite class of roses is the Noisettes, which have a story that has become a source of scholarly interest to the couple. Philippe Noisette (c. 1773-1835) was a Paris-born botanist who settled in Charleston after a stay in Haiti where he married a local woman of color. Working with his brother Louis in France and fellow Charleston botanist John Champneys, he bred the repeat-blooming, heat-tolerant variety that bears his name. It was produced about 1815 by crossing the European musk rose and one of the newly introduced pink Chinese roses that Champneys had acquired from Noisette. Philippe Noisette shared the new rose with his brother Louis, and the new class of roses spread rapidly throughout Europe. Noisettes are now known the world over, and, as is fitting for a rose bred in Charleston, they do particularly well in warm climates.

“Philippe’s brother Louis became so famous across Europe for the Noisette rose that he was invited to design the gardens of Prince Nicolas II Esterhazy, patron of composer Joseph Haydn,” says Nance.

The Noisette saga is compelling on several different levels and cries out for academic treatment, the couple believes. In addition to its relevance to the botanical history of Charleston and South Carolina, the story offers an uncommon glimpse into the social codes pertaining to interracial marriage in early 19th century Charleston.

“Marriages between people of European and African descent were not legally recognized in early America,” says Glaze. “After leaving Haiti and settling in South Carolina, Noisettte was forced to declare his wife and children legally his slaves. He pursued an active legal campaign to have this family recognized as free persons of color. After his death, his wife and children were legally emancipated. Even so, surviving documents show that the children were required to acquire legal notices in order to travel beyond the borders of the state where they resided.”

Every several years, the Noisettes gather in Charleston for a family reunion that draws descendants from across France, Haiti and North America.

Nance is naturally proud of his Noisette roses. He currently grows three, including the original ‘Champneys' Pink Cluster,’ as well as ‘Secret Garden Noisette,’ and ‘Secret Garden Musk.’ The last two are found roses that were rediscovered in the Pacific Northwest after decades of thriving in the wild. As a historian, Nance like to think that good things lost in the past will come around again. Like many Noisettes, they can be grown as climbers, and he has each of them planted within an iron trellis.

“The Noisette story brings human history and the history of science into crisp focus,” Nance says, “allowing us to present a better version of history in the round. We see the history of humans, institutions and ideas in clearer context.”


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