Although I know this will win me no popularity, I must confess that there were certain aspects of the June heat wave that pleased me. On our farm in Canale-Monterano near Lake Bracciano northwest of Rome the temperature was perhaps two degrees cooler than in the city, but it was still hotter than hell. Most of our roses fried like potato chips as soon as they opened, and even the cicadas couldnt muster the strength to rub their legs together to make their characteristic zinging noise.
But the heat was not the only unusual feature of this June; in the late afternoons the spell was temporarily broken by the mother-of-all-thunderstorms, complete with jet-black clouds and typhoon-like winds. When the rain came it was not nice, gentle, spring-like rain that pattered on the petals, but hard bullets that came drilling down as if shot by a gun, completely destroying every flower in the garden and punching holes in all the ripening fruit.
Despite this, there were compensations. These repeated monsoons made a huge difference to our hay meadows. Usually by late June the hay has been cut, baled and taken to the barn, and our fields are customarily reduced to burned-out stubble. If it gets too dry, a tractor ploughs a big, wide furrow to serve as a fire-line. This year, however, there was no stubble. Aided by the out-of-season rains, our grass was growing happily and, more marvellous yet, the fields came alive with thousands of yellow meadow flowers. These wild flowers were quite different from those of the spring and autumn. In the spring we get pretty pink orchids and blue lupins, followed by creeping sage and the blue daisy of flowering chicory. In autumn we get lots of Queen Anns Lace and other umbels, including flowering fennel, which we cut and dry to flavour fish.
This June there were plenty of yellow daisies, but the real beauties were hundreds of yellow larkspurs, a plant so elegant it deserves a place in any formal border. A book of botanical drawings entitled The Favourite Flowers of the Duchess of Marlborough features it under the name of Ghost.
The boiling sun, which made outdoor work impossible, also encouraged much quiet sitting in rocking chairs, nursing lemonade and contemplating the state of the garden roses, for instance.
I always thought that the rose season was a rather short one, with most roses blooming in mid-June and dwindling quickly, only to return (less enthusiastically) in the autumn. Nursery catalogues blithely refer to a good number of roses as continuous flowering, when in fact many of them appear for a week and then disappear for the year.
There is one rather homely little rose that offers a key to this problem of repeat blooming. The obscure Chinese rose mutabilis (changeable) caused a sensation when it was introduced in Europe around 1800 because it never stopped blooming. In addition, it produced yellow flowers, a colour previously unknown in western roses. European experts wasted no time in hybridising this modest five-petal wall flower, and today every yellow rose and every rose that blooms repeatedly can claim mutabilis as its ancestor.
Mediterranean gardeners are now taking a second look at the original Chinese rose and deciding that it deserves to be used more widely. The first Italian gardener to take the plunge was the Marchesa Lavinia Taverna, who studied the mutabilis closely for a few months and then decided to plant 400 of them in her garden at the La Landriana estate to the south of Rome. Taverna gave me a pot of home-grown mutabilis, which looked like any other modest wild rose, but I soon realised that the flowers changed colour as they developed. The buds first appeared bright orange, but as soon as they opened they turned a pale shrimp colour, then went on to brightest pink and ended life a deep mahogany red. Changeable indeed.
I planted the little bush in the mixed border leading to our house, where it just sat glumly, never growing, and sending out only a few modest flowers now and then. But when a space became free on a south-facing wall, it triumphed. The little bush loved its toasty stone wall and began to send out sturdy red stalks. These soon turned into new rose branches full of flowers, and by early spring it was four feet tall. By the end of the summer, the bush had grown to a monumental six feet, and was so covered with multicoloured flowers that it could be seen from all corners of the garden. Today the temperature is hovering in the mid-30s, and there are still flowers on the ever-blooming Chinese rose bush.
Joan Cook has written two books under the name Joan Marble: Notes from an Italian garden and Notes from a Roman terrace,
both published by Transworld Publishers.
Picture: The mutabilis is the ancestor of every yellow rose and every rose that blooms repeatedly.