A ‘red, red rose’ springs to mind with Burns Night approaching and Valentine’s Day hot on its heels.

But for Burns the rose was a romantic symbol, not a sign of his burning botanical interest. His rose was actually pink, not the scarlet red we now associate with roses.

The red China rose wasn’t introduced to the UK till a few years after he penned those famous words.

There’s so much more to roses than the romance of poetry and the allure of a florist’s shop.

They are central to my garden, reflecting its beauty and the peaceful relaxation and hope for the future that only a garden can bring.

One of my principal gardening joys is interacting with my roses, working to show them at their gorgeous best.

Delving deeper, I found this appreciation of roses in unexpected places. A little over a century ago, an American activist, Helen Todd, campaigning for women’s rights and votes hit on the concept of ‘bread and roses’, a slogan that soon took centre stage in this and other campaigns and marches for women’s and workers’ rights.

Todd realised that bread fed the body, but that roses fed so much more: our need for culture, art, music, education and nature. She was convinced both should be legal rights.

This idea persisted throughout the 20th Century and I was astonished to read in Rebecca Solnit’s “Orwell’s Roses” that George Orwell made “bread and roses” acentral part of his political thinking.

Even more surprisingly, he was a keen gardener who grew roses together with fruit, veg and other flowers and shrubs.

For Orwell, one of the most satisfying parts of gardening was committing to the future: “the planting of a tree is a gift to posterity. … and it will far outlive the visible effects of any of your other activities.”

Roses featured in his garden at Wallington in Hertfordshire and, almost like a good Scot, he was delighted that his plants were so cheap.

He bought 5 fruit trees, 7 roses, and 2 gooseberries for 12 shillings and 6 pence. [62.5p]

Then the plants “never even received any manure, except what I occasionally collected in a bucket when one of the farm horses happened to halt outside the gate.”

Orwell developed this idea in a Tribune article in 1944 where he wrote “in praise of the Woolworth’s Rose”.

“One that I bought as a Dorothy Perkins turned out to be a beautiful little white rose with a yellow heart, one of the finest ramblers I have ever seen. A polyantha rose labelled yellow turned out to be deep red…..” He was thrilled that roses bought for 2.5p each grew so well. Years after leaving his cottage, he saw the little white rose “no bigger than a boy’s catapult when I put it in, had grown into a huge vigorous bush.” It sounds very similar to my “Rambling Rector.”

When he moved to Barnhill in Jura in 1946, Orwell was very ill and lived there till his death in 1950. But up to the end, he continued gardening and I like to think his investment in the future gave solace and hope. He sowed vegetable seed in June, a selection of flowers, including primroses, tulips and, of course, roses.

Sadly, his garden no longer survives. Since there was no garden fence, deer and wild goats consumed the lot.

Two years ago, the present owner of Barnhill, Damaris Fletcher, told Solnit: “Actually the Great Man was a tad romantic about what he might grow on the boggy, peaty soil with a very short growing season”. Perhaps some of my Highland readers will sympathise.

Gardening and rose growing inspired Orwell to plan for the future against all the odds.

Plant of the week

Rosa canina, the Dog-rose is the mostly likely candidate for Burns’ “red, red rose”. The flower colour varies from white to deep pink and the tips of the petals, furled in the buds, can look quite red.

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