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On the trail of a forgotten rose

Stephen Scanniello, New Jersey

as published in Winter 2005 Heritage Rose Foundation newsletter


Introduction.  Imagine a rose so enchanting that four horticultural journals featured it with full color illustrations; that the doyennes of high society and their gardeners grew it to compete for the highest honors at major horticultural exhibitions; and rose scholars argued over its correct classification.  You might expect a rose this sensational would be in cultivation for a very long time.  But the truth is that ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’ was instead a mere flash in the history of roses.  Today, all that remains of this 19th Century beauty are a handful of written testimonies hidden away in journals and the rarely seen illustrations.


For several years I immersed myself in rose books, nursery catalogs, and horticultural journals from the nineteenth Century looking for clues to piece together the life of this elusive yellow rose in the gardens of 19th Century America.  The result is this tale of a rose that is a part of our garden heritage and which deserves to be restored to the lore.  This is the story of ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’.


1832 — The Introduction of ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’


I wasn’t looking for this rose when I turned the pages of the 1833-34 volume of Annales de Flores et de Pomone, a French horticultural journal, to see a full page color plate of an odd yellow rose.  Looking more like a camellia than a rose, I immediately wanted to know more about this beauty identified as ‘Rosier Noisette Jaune de Smith’.  The author of the text, M. Jacquin, wrote that he received this new rose from England during June of 1832.  Contrary to the belief of his peers, he felt that it was not another China rose, but indeed a new Noisette rose.  (Hmm, already a controversy, how could I resist?  So I continued reading...) Even though the plate only shows one fully opened bloom and one closed flower bud, he claimed that it had produced clusters of blooms in his garden.  Jacquin kept this new rose in the greenhouse for the first winter under lock and key — out of site from visitors.  The author claimed he wasn’t sure whether his specimen would survive the Paris winter or not. He also added that his “invaluable” acquisition would doubtless pique the curiosity of amateur and professional gardeners, alike.  I couldn’t help but wonder if he was protecting it from poaching by his competitors as well as from the frost?  An everblooming yellow rose in 1833 was a rarity, worthy of protection in a locked greenhouse.  Certainly, my curiosity was piqued. This was enough of a tease to send me on a trek through dusty journals and garden books of the 19th Century.


No, there’s no funny sex, no improper business deals, not even a simple murder in this story.  However, I did find more illustrations of this specimen.  Pre-dating the illustration of M. Jacquin’s discovery is an equally detailed, colored illustration titled ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette Rose’, drawn in 1832.  Intended originally for Robert Sweet’s journal, The British Flower Garden, this plate and text were actually first published in Belgium in 1832 in L’Horticulture Belge, in French translation.  Sweet published it subsequently, in his journal, in 1838, in English. The illustration shows one fully opened, many petalled yellow rose, surrounded by three buds in various stages of development — definitely more Noisette–like than the plate from Annales de Flore et de Pomone.  In his text, Sweet credits a Mr. Smith of Coombe Wood, England as the creator of this rose.  Gardener to the Earl of Liverpool, William Smith was also an amateur plant breeder.  In 1830, Smith had already gained notoriety for his successful rhododendron cultivars, Rhododendron ‘Smithii’ and Rhododendrum ‘Smith’s Aureum’.  It’s no surprise that he was dabbling with roses. Robert Sweet made the following claims on the parentage of this rose:


A hybrid production [‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’], fromthe Noisette Rose, fertilized by the pollen of the yellow China Rose.”  It’s quite possible that the “Noisette” Smith used was ‘Champneys Pink Cluster’ and the “yellow China rose” was ‘Park’s Yellow Tea-Scented Rose’, as both were plentiful in Smith’s England.  If this is true, then Smith’s cluster-flowered, everblooming yellow shrub was perhaps one of the first Tea-Noisettes.  It’s interesting to note that both of Smith’s rhododendron cultivars (introduced into American gardens during the 1830’s) are still grown today in National collections in North America, Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his yellow rose.


The last illustration of this rose to be released was in 1854 in a British journal titled The Ornamental Garden and Shrubbery.  This journal was edited by the noted English botanist John Lindley and was simply a re-issue of Robert Sweet’s work from The British Flower Garden.  The plate and text for ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’ was identical to that published by Sweet in 1838.


Sweet described ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’ as having ten to twenty-two blooms per cluster; the flowers are about the size of the double-yellow China, but a deeper yellow; vigorous in growth; perfectly hardy; readily increased by cuttings; and highly fragrant.  These were all the right things to say to launch this new yellow rose to a public that was hungry for novelties.  Rosarians on both sides of the ocean received ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’ with great enthusiasm and high expectations.


‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’ in America


Within two years of its debut in France and Belgium, a “yellow fever” of the rose variety had infected gardeners from Boston to Washington, Mississippi.  News of this new yellow rose spread quickly, and it wasn’t long before ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’ was at the top of the list for new imports.  Offered under several different names — including ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’, Rosa Smithii, ‘Smithii’, ‘Yellow Noisette’, ‘Noisette Jaune’, and ‘Lutea Smithii’ — this new hybrid went quickly from the nursery catalogs to the exhibition tables of the major horticultural societies of North America, and some pretty important rosarians were enraptured by this rose.


The trail in America starts in Baltimore.  On May 30, 1835 Samuel Feast entered the same yellow rose as both Rosa Smithii and ‘Yellow Noisette’ in the monthly competition of the Maryland Horticultural Society.  He obviously had high hopes for his entry; it was the only rose he exhibited in May.  Losing that competition he sent in his brother for the big show in June.  On June 3-5, of that same year, the Horticultural Society held its third annual exhibition.  John Feast exhibited ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’ (note the use of a new name!) in an effort to win the premium of the show. He was bested by Samuel who won the $3.00 award with his collection of Tea roses. This may seem like ruthless fraternal rivalry, but together, the brothers had just started their florist and nursery business in downtown Baltimore.  No doubt they saw these exhibitions as opportunities to gain publicity as well as show off their newest roses, ‘Yellow Noisette’ was indeed among them.  Meanwhile, up in New York, Prince’s Nursery in Flushing, New York (today a part of New York City), in their 1835-1836 catalog, had listed the cultivar simply as ‘Yellow Noisette’, priced at $1.00.  They noted that their new rose was able to survive a New York winter and recommended it as a climbing rose. (Ah, a sales pitch reminiscent of modern day rose catalogs!)


It’s in 1836 that accounts of the rose’s performance in gardens begin to appear in American journals and sales were apparently on the rise.  C.M. Hovey’s The American Gardener’s Magazine and Register of Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Horticulture and Rural Affairs was a highly respected journal for amateurs and professionals.  A regular feature of this monthly journal was a column titled “Calls at Gardens and Nurseries.” Here, Hovey would comment on the state of the various gardens and nurseries he visited that month. Apparently he had a habit of making the owners and gardeners quite nervous; his visits were unannounced  and he held back nothing in his reviews.  In August of 1836, Hovey wrote of a strong plant of the new Noisette Smith’s Yellow’ growing in the gardens of Belmont, the estate of J.P. Cushing, a wealthy citizen of Boston.  The rose had bloomed well the previous season but had been killed to the ground during one of Boston’s typical winters.  On August 14, there were new shoots already reaching past three feet in length, all loaded with many clusters of yellow blooms.  All was going well for Mr. Cushing, until his gardener, Mr. Haggerston, cornered Hovey as he was leaving the gardens.  Haggerston was quick to point out to Hovey that the blooms of this rose did not open easily, in fact hardly any opened on their own. (Oh, be nice to your gardener!)  Hovey lamented over this issue:


“We are sorry to see that this exceedingly fine variety is likely to show a defect which will prevent its being generally grown. We hope some of our amateur florists will try to discover the cause of this, and, if possible means to render the flowers perfect.”  The “dirty little secret” of ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’ was now national news and manygardeners answered the challenge, experimenting with different growing techniques to improve the quality of this rose.  Most effective was the work conducted by J.W. Russell, the superintendent of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, then a country suburb of Boston.  Russell grew the yellow Noisette and was very familiar with its tendency not to open.  In a paper presented to the horticultural society on March 20, 1837, Russel1 claimed that the best way to grow ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’ was to bud it onto a rootstock; he recommended Boursault, Greville, or Multiflora roses.  He assured the gardeners that if grown in this fashion, the yellow Noisette would indeed bloom with perfect flowers.  Other gardeners in :Boston offered advice as well, soon the ‘Four Seasons Rose’ and Adélaide d’Orléans’ were added to the approved rootstock list.


Mr. Russell continued his research on the roses to serve as rootstock for tender roses, and in 1840 he announced that the best rootstock for the ‘Yellow Noisette’ and other tender roses was Rosa rubifolia [sic] (today known as R. setigera), our native ‘Prairie Rose'.


In Philadelphia, gardeners felt they could grow ‘Smith’s YellowNoisette’ much better than Boston gardeners ever could. They weren’t deterred by the balling nature of the yellow Noisette.  In 1837, Robert Buist, owner of Robert Buist’s Exotic Nursery, and Mr. A. Dryburgh, owner of Dryburgh & Sherwood Nursery kept large quantities of ‘Smith’s Yellow’ (as they called it) budded onto the Boursault rose, and grew them directly in open ground for all to see. (Take that, Boston!)


The enthusiasm for this hybrid as a unique greenhouse plant and exhibition-quality rose eclipsed any problems it may havehad in the garden. This rose was selling faster than hot cakes and scandal sheets. Society matrons and sweaty gardeners competed side by side for the cherished Best of Show award, otherwise known as the Premium.  The Philadelphia Horticultural Society held its first monthly exhibition in 1838. Included in the competition for the premium for best collection of Tea and China roses were potted plants of the ‘Yellow Noisette’, in full bloom. The amateurs didn’t stand a chance — both Dryburgh and Buist were also competing for this top prize.  Robert Buist entered, along with the ‘Yellow Noisette’, the following Tea roses: ‘Triomphe de Luxembourg’, ‘Madam Desprez’, ‘Lilacina’, and ‘Juane Panaché’.  But the premium was awarded to Andrew Dryburgh.  In addition to the ‘Yellow Noisette’, his prize winning entries included: another Noisette ‘Amie Vibert’ (as it was spelled), and several Tea roses: ‘Madam Desprez’, ‘Yellow Tea’, ‘Triomphe de Luxembourg’, ‘Palavicina’, ‘Admiral de Perrie’, Charles Desprez’, and ‘Faustine’.


Exhibitions weren’t the only venue for this rose. In 1839, everblooming yellow roses in the summer border were a rarity, and highly sought after. Even as far north as Boston, where gardeners were still battling the effects of harsh winters and humid summers, this Noisette and other tender roses were popular summer bedding plants. Those with manpower and means would dig up ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’ and other tender roses and store them in outdoor pits for the winter. Hovey, despite his negative reviews of the rose, was making a good business of selling standards of the ‘Yellow Noisette’ from his nursery in Cambridge, in 1840. Around the same time, about two hours north of New York City along the Hudson River, Charles Downing, the brother of the celebrated landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, sold ‘Smith’s Yellow’ and other tender roses in their Newburgh, New York nursery. They recommended using them as summer annuals. In his book Cottage Residences Andrew recommended using ‘Smith’s Yellow’ planted in circular beds with trailing petunias and verbena for a cottage villa design. He kept this rose on his lists as late as 1853. There was a strong push for the yellow Noisette as a garden plant from Buist in Philadelphia, as well. In his book, The Rose Manual (1844), Buist was at least honest about the horticultural limitations of this rose.


“Lutea, or Smithii, is a great favorite through the southern states, growing freely, and opening in great perfection, except in time of rain; the colour is of a pale lemon-yellow before the sun destroys it, and is delightfully fragrant, though entirely too tender for the open air of Pennsylvania; it makes a splendid rose for forcing if kept in a high and rather dry atmosphere, but if syringed with water before theflowers are expanded, it glues the petals together and they perish before opening. When I first introduced this rose I could not supply all the demands for the first year, at five dollars each plant.”


Noisettes grow very easily in the south, so it’s not surprising to fine accounts of ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’ in southern gardens. However, the southerners were not as excited about it as the gardeners up north. In 1847, Jas. Waddell, a rosarian affiliated with the University of Georgia in Athens, reported on the performance of ‘Smith’s Yellow’ and ‘La Reine’. He referred to both of these roses as “hard headed,” meaning they opened badly or not at all. But, a few years later, when he was asked by Downing to submit a list of recommended roses for the south to be published in The Horticulturist, Waddell included ‘Smithii’ at the top of the list. Robert Nelson, a Macon gardener and established nurseryman recommended it, as well — but not without reservations. Nelson stated:


“Smithii, or Smith’s Yellow — it is a beautiful yellow rose when grown to perfection; in order, however, to show its full beauty, it might [need] to be grafted and planted in a rich and deep situation; not a very good bloomer, and rather dwarfish.”


Thomas Affleck included ‘Smithii’ in his catalogues while he was based in Washington, Mississippi. No doubt he sold it to gardeners from Natchez to New Orleans, as it appeared on many lists he generated of roses recommended for southern gardens. Affleck dropped this rose when he moved his operation to Texas, in 1853.


There was always some question as to the true class of this rose. The French thought it was a China.  However, Mr. Smith introduced it as a Noisette, claiming that it bloomed in clusters. CM. Saxton, in his book The American Rose Culturist seems to be the only American who challenged whether ‘Smith’s Yellow’ belonged to the Noisette class. In a section about Noisette roses (p. 23), he makes the following statement:


“But here we have Lamarque, which is anything hut a Noisette; it does not flower in bunches, unless every rose which has two or three flowers on a stem is to be called a Noisette; and Smith’s Yellow Noisette is about as much entitled to the name of Lamarque. But they are not alone; too many which have no claim on the family have nevertheless been forced on them.”


I would like to leave you with a quote from the The American Flower-Garden Directory by Robert Buist (sixth edition, 1865). In a the section for Noisettes, Buist writes:


“Lutea, or Smithii — Pale yellow, large double flowers, but does not open well in moist weather; it is a superb article when perfect, and is quite a dwarf having very little of the Noisette character, but delightfully scented.”


Hmm, to me this seems like Buist saying to the rose world “I told you so”. Did Buist, whose comment is the last reference I’ve come across in the 19th Century to this rose, know we would be wondering about this rose today?


For now, the tale of ‘Smith’s Yellow Noisette’ has come to a pause. However, this is a story without an end, the research continues, the speculation will go on.


During our 2005 annual meeting of the Heritage Rose Foundation this spring in El Cerrito, California, members of the Foundation will have a an opportunity to visit gardens rich with the rose heritage of California. Perhaps within the inventories of these collections are further clues to the existence of this rose. Or maybe, in the gardens of the deep south, along the Gulf coast, or somewhere in a protected garden of Baltimore, Philadelphia, or even Boston — grows a forgotten yellow Noisette.




Sweet's 1854 illustration in the journal The Ornamental Garden and Shrubbery.

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