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Drenched floral dreams

In Boston, dreary days dim roses’ bloom

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By David Abel
Globe Staff / July 4, 2009
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Once a year, in a secluded, shrub-guarded nook of the city, there’s a show unlike anywhere else in Boston.

Behind the tall hedges, there are silent, slow-burning explosions of magenta, crimson, scarlet - a profusion of color and aromas that rivals fireworks and perfumes for the gaudiness of their beauty.

But the annual bloom this year at the Kelleher Rose Garden in the Fenway - a horticultural pageant that lasts only a few weeks from mid-June to early July - has lost nearly all its luster in the past month’s repeated rain.

A hot pink variety named Winsome looks maudlin. Much of the Rouge Royale’s brilliance has been drowned into a sodden brown. The remains of most of the Angel Face’s decapitated lavender buds now mix with mud in the moss-covered planting beds.

“They’ve been hammered,’’ said Jim Sheehan, general superintendent of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “In 30 years looking after the garden, this is the worst I’ve ever seen it. It’s been a tough month.’’

He and other gardeners said the number of roses reaching full bloom appears to be about 30 percent of what they normally would see in the serene 79-year-old garden behind the Museum of Fine Arts.

“Every plant has damage to it,’’ said Sheehan, who oversees the planting of all the city’s gardens, an elaborate effort that has been rolled out more slowly this summer.

The rain has drenched and destroyed many of the petunias, impatiens, and other plants at the city’s 400 gardens and flower beds, but, Sheehan said, the roses are suffering the most.

“Roses don’t like to be damp,’’ he said, noting that the temperamental flowers need only about 10 minutes of water a week.

The work of fighting the wilt at the Kelleher falls on Winfield Clarke, who for the past six seasons has spent 40 hours a week pruning, irrigating, raking, and loving the more than 200 varieties of roses that bloom from nearly 1,500 plants arrayed along the manicured grounds.

“The roses are like my babies,’’ Clarke said. “They require a lot of attention.’’

On a recent morning, the 44-year-old native of Barbados swept up many of the rotten buds and explained the problem. He pointed to one trellis - many of which are denuded of flowers - and plucked a white bud from a plant that looked like it had been hit by a hurricane.

He peeled its moribund petals, showing how they had stuck to each other, then pulled the undeveloped bud from the stem and pointed at a small cloud of dust.

“Unfortunately, too much rain kills them,’’ Clarke said. “It disturbs their growth. We need sunlight to absorb the water. The problem is that without the sun, the bud gets sticky and can’t open.’’

As he walked around the garden, past the now inaptly named Love Potion, Cherry Parfait, and Scentimental roses, he explained how the city spends all year preparing for this moment, a time when the fragrant enclosure hosts weddings, parties, and visits from people who come to contemplate the lush spectacle.

Their work begins as winter approaches, when Clarke and other city gardeners prepare for the first freeze by cutting the rose bushes down to 18 inches and covering them in manure, compost, and woodchips. When spring arrives, they clear the coverings to give the dormant plants room to grow again. In April, when the first red leaves emerge, they apply a solution of nitrogen, phosphates, and potassium, which run through a new irrigation system the city completed last year with a host of other renovations at the garden.

By the end of May, the buds are visible and Clarke spends time raking the beds to help them breathe, pulling weeds, and cutting stems that lack buds. Within a few weeks, depending on the temperature, the roses usually begin blooming in all their glory.

“When there’s more sun and you come through the door, it’s like working in a perfume factory,’’ Clarke said. “With the bright sunlight, everything looks so bright and beautiful.’’

But this year, too many of the flowers look like dull, pallid ghosts of what they could be under the right conditions, and even first-time visitors have taken notice.

“We were smelling them and noticed they didn’t have much of a smell,’’ said Ben Abeles, 84, who was visiting from New Jersey.

As a fine drizzle fell from the gray sky, he sat on a covered bench with his companion, Helen Pearson, 49, from Britain, who added: “It’s a real shame. The rain has spoiled the show.’’

Scott Hall shook his head as he looked at a variety named Cherish. “They look like they’re in distress,’’ said Hall, 45, who was visiting from North Carolina. “I’m sure the gardener has his hands full.’’

The first bloom - the most florid - may be lost, but Clarke hasn’t given up on his roses. Over the past week, he has removed hundreds of dead buds and plans to continue deadheading to allow for additional blooms as the season wears on.

“Roses are uniquely beautiful,’’ he said. “They can be hard to cultivate, but you don’t give up.’’

He pointed to his favorites - Fragrant Cloud, which he says smells the best; Oranges N’ Lemons, which he calls the most exotic; and Fourth of July, which he thinks is the most beautiful because of its red and white stripes.

For now, he prays for sun and tries to ward off water-borne fungi and other diseases that could further imperil the plants, which should bloom with diminishing grandeur through the summer.

“All we can do is our best,’’ Clarke said. “Not many people have the opportunity to take care of the earth - and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m lucky to have this job.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.