Winter’s Heart: A Sex in the Garden Essay

voluptuous rose drawingIn the heart of winter, I contemplate my winter’s heart. Frigid days bring sinking into slush puddles against the icy wind, starting the day with cold feet, jumping into a dark car only to join the cattle call of the highway. I have to refuse this heart. My heart is elsewhere. I am consumed by the memory of a rose.

Take a rose petal in your hand. Stroke it. Lift it to your cheek. Are you transported to Juliet’s attempt at scooping with her tongue the last drops of poison from the bottle lying atop her still warm Romeo’s body? Do you float somewhere between the trilled and gasping aria in Rigoletto? Are you reminded of a warning not to pursue someone because they’d destroy your life—à la a Thomas Hardy novel character?

My education on rose sensuality began at the mall. “Grasse, France, the perfume capital of the world” began a video clip educating the masses on how enticing and special are David Austin roses and the perfumeries distilling their elegant nectars. The woman in the video had a husky British voice and her words about petals unfolding scent transported me from my slushy snow world. I returned to the Northern California spring I danced in as a child. I was in love. It wasn’t the fickle love of first dates, that front seat cranked down and tongue going in all directions, the kind of love I had experienced too much of in my youth. My love for the English rose bloomed into a full-on obsession. I didn’t just need this perfume, or to get my hands on this rose—I needed the rose to need me.

That next spring, the smell of apricots, as if each petal were dipped in elixir, quivered and released in the air around me when I found the David Austin ‘Evelyn’ rosebush at a local nursery. Instead of the shaft of light that translates good souls up to heaven, a deep tunnel opened in the earth on the way to my carnal thoughts. I fingered a petal and shrunk away. With an investment of forty dollars and a bloom so tiny, so delicate, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Could my obsession be lust? Could I be that simpleton who will never get far with the rose?

Before this day, my only encounters with roses had been rough at best. I remembered a feud roses had caused in my youth when my father had the sprinkler going at top speed and our hunched over, cardigan-clad neighbor, Mimi, knocked arthritically, “Tell your father that he’s mildewing my roses.”  (I pictured powdered and petulant pink ladies, wilting in the rain.)

Years later, another rose encounter—a rental where my entire front porch was covered with a faded pink not found in a crayon box. These roses were big, floppy-headed, and full of feminine folds. Their scent escaped in tiny rivulets of daintiness. Greedy, I cut them all and floated their tops whole in a bath, felt my skin turn to velvet. I thought I’d get a second chance when the roses re-bloomed. That day never came, the bush being the cottage rose variety, blooming once per summer. I was Alice in Wonderland‘s Red Queen, who had clipped the floppy heads into extinction. I tried to vindicate myself by purchasing a small thorny and lonely-looking bush which I promptly stuck in a hard-to-dig hole. Thinking I had some inherent rose knowledge, I watered it every day, sprinkled what I thought it needed, coffee grounds and bone meal. Instead of growing up and out, it shriveled and shrunk into the ground.

I was undeserving of the Rose’s love, a burly slut to its very delicate nature. I left ‘Evelyn’ at the altar and made for the library. There I took out books on roses, to get past my realization of simple lust. Obsessed with the thought of growing a David Austin rose, I studied, discovering that they are tea roses bred to be hearty, but that they still needed delicate cajoling. On the website I read, “In the 1940s . . . The Old Roses—that is the Gallicas, Damasks, Albas, etc.—had all but died out . . . . His [David Austin’s] objective being to create new roses in the style of Old Roses, thus combining the unique charm and fragrance of Old Roses with the wide colour range and repeat-flowering qualities of Modern Roses.” I began to understand; although they claimed a hearty history, they still needed some one-on-one time. My sloppy first attempt was the equivalent of that first groping date. If I wanted quality, I’d have to spend some time and money, wine and dine. Roses needed my romance.

I learned that gently soaking the bare root-rose (many roses are offered through catalogues in this state) before planting will improve its chances for commitment to soil. I don’t mind saying that a little Barry White, moonlight, a good Chianti, and a Black Forest torte might also help. Next, make sure your soil is loose with desire, and loose enough to drain throughout the seasons. You can overwater and come on too strong. Their dusky natures need six hours of sun, at the very least, says the AARS (All American Rose Society). On a forum discussing roses, one San Franciscan commented, “Roses often have a reputation of being fussy, but I think that’s only true if you are fussy over them. They’re actually pretty easy to grow and are one of the few things that have really taken root in my sandy garden. Just buy a bunch of lady bugs to keep the aphids off and you’ll be fine.”  Wha? What about those of us who have to cover our tomatoes near the end of fall because hail will rip anything left off a Colorado vine? The time to think about lady bugs is after winning the rose’s heart. I still needed to order my bush.

Catalogues galore and the David Austin website open, I decided that I was ready to commit. The day I ordered my rosebush was the worst snow storm a January could offer. As the storm battered my winter’s heart, I read up on a ‘Jude the Obscure’ rose, promising to be “A very strong, unusual and delicious fragrance with a fruity note reminiscent of guava and sweet white wine. Pleasing medium yellow on the inside of the petals and a paler yellow on the outside.” I had studied that Hardy novel for its characters’ poor choices, because in the writing world we have to push our characters into peril, so that when and if they are saved, it is so sweet to the reader. (By the way, you need a strong constitution to read this book, or just hide the knives, as it is Hardy’s most dark and tragic.)

On a happy spring day when the morning doves started to coo on my front porch, Jude was delivered. I dug a big enough hole, sifting compost and my sandy earth together, and then helped him down. That summer, I learned the art of pruning, taking care of root drainage, and that watering is a delicate science. When sunflowers took over my garden is when Jude opened up; at first pink-colored, then after a full day of sun, bleaching out to a light pinky-white fat and foldy face.

Now that I’ve planted a ‘Sir Thomas Lipton’(one stem of the creamy-white blossoms will perfume an entire room), a day-glow orange rose bush called ‘Treasure Orange’ that snagged my scan at a garden center, and Hardy’s most tragic Austin, ‘Jude,’ I know what it is like to love deeply, after lust recedes. Roses will honor us with their giving natures, but only if we give them what they need. They hold all the petals, like answers, close to their hearts.


Austin, D. (2011). History of David Austin Roses.  Retrieved on 9.15.2011.

Apartment Therapy.  (2008).  Roseslaw comment. Retrieved on 9.15.2011.  www.

Illustration: “Voluptuous Rose” drawing by Rachael Davis.


Elisabeth Kinsey Photo

Elisabeth Kinsey teaches writing online, lives in Denver, and pines away for Half Moon Bay. She has been published in The Denver Post and various journals, including Greenwoman, where this essay first appeared. Her hands are imminently dirty. She may or may not be related to the late Dr. Alfred Kinsey.