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Review: Macoboy’s Roses – Stirling Macoboy, (ed. Tommy Cairns)

Liz Chappell

Liz Chappell

November 3, 2016

Most committed rose growers will already have at least one hefty reference tome in their collection. This revised International Edition of Stirling Macoboy’s 1993 work, however, fills a special role in providing amusing and informative rose vignettes as well as supplying an updated reference of rose cultivars and concise, practical advice on their cultivation.

Macoboy's Roses

Macoboy’s Roses: Stirling Macoboy, Tommy Cairns ed. (New Holland Publishers) $49.99RRP


Reference manuals do not usually make entertaining reading but this is an exception. The pithy descriptions with extensive historical and other quirky details are interspersed with some longer articles on rose related topics.

Over 1500 roses are listed in sections devoted to wild roses, old garden roses, modern roses (the hybrid teas and floribundas most popularly grown in Australian gardens) and, added for this edition, a section on miniatures and mini-floras, reflecting the apparent growing popularity of downsized roses for smaller gardens.

Macoboy's Roses pp66-67

Macoboy’s Roses pp66-67


The delineation between old and modern roses is drawn at 1867, with the introduction of the first hybrid tea rose, ‘La France’. Dividing the rose groups thus, with a handy classification chart and brief outline of the evolution and breeding of roses over centuries of cultivation gives a broad guide to the different types. Each rose listing is accompanied by a photograph, very welcome for the reader who is often frustrated by just the rose one is curious about not being illustrated in some less comprehensive rose books.

The editor of this edition, Tommy Cairns, is a noted USA rosarian. This perhaps accounts for the inclusion of a large number of American bred roses not available in Australia. Still, with over 10,000 roses listed by nurseries worldwide, it would be an impossibility to produce an international reference book that met all requests.

Australian and New Zealand rose breeders feature in one of the 15 general interest articles scattered through the book, under the rather quaint title ‘The rose in the Antipodes.’ Alister Clark is there of course with ‘Nancy Hayward’ and ‘Lorraine Lee’, Frank Riethmuller with his famous ‘Titian’. Notably absent is Olive Fitzhardinge. Her best known rose, ‘Warrawee’, named after the Sydney suburb where she lived, is in the general listing, with the breeder named as Mrs Hardinge Fitzhardinge, which was definitely not how she registered her roses.

Macoboy's Roses pp414-415

Macoboy’s Roses pp414-415


Other appealing short reads include a precis of the prolific English Rose breeder David Austin and examples of ‘The Rose in Poetry’ from a variety of authors including Shakespeare to Dorothy Parker. The latter, described as ‘a world weary city girl and no gardener’ bemoaned:

Why is it no one every sent me yet
One perfect limousine do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

Macoboy's Roses pp130-131

Macoboy’s Roses pp130-131


Each of the rose descriptions contain the expected information on size, special growing requirements, fragrance and breeding history. These are sprinkled with some little known facts and amusing trivia. For instance, the beautiful white floribunda ‘Margaret Merrill’, more popular in Britain than Australia because of its preference for cooler climates, is named after the fictitious beauty advisor at Oil of Ulan (skincare products).

I’m sure General Jacqueminot would be pleased with his description as

‘one of the all-time studs of the rose world …….It would be interesting to know of M. Jacqueminot himself, a veteran of Napoleon’s wars had so large a progeny.’

It is such morsels of information that make this a delightful book to dip into.

Macoboy's Roses p244

Macoboy’s Roses p244


Australian entries are equally laced with information. Did you know that the beautiful pale pink and emotively named ‘Mother’s Love’ was bred in the France but is sold only in Australia? Or that Ian Thorpe (the rose not the swimmer) was bred in the Netherlands and Mary McKillop in the USA? Unfortunately, the updating for this edition missed that fact that Mary McKillop was canonised as Australia’s first saint in 2010.

Climate information on the growing conditions for each rose listed is based on the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) zones of minimum temperatures. These zones are increasingly used in both Australia and Britain. For roses, this is not a big issue as most fall in the range of zones 5 – 9. Nowhere in Australia is colder than Zone 7 (to minus 18⁰ C) and only the Top End is rated Zone 10 which excludes some but not all roses.

Macoboy's Roses p309

Macoboy’s Roses p309


The book includes a handy chart of suggested roses for special purposes: fragrance, winter, early flowering and hedges. I would have appreciated similar lists for roses tolerant of humidity; drought hardy or suitable for windy sites. The advice to ‘choose varieties that flourish in your climate’ requires a more thorough explanation for most gardeners in a climate as variable as Australia’s. There is a world of difference between the rose cultivars that thrive in Brisbane or Broken Hill or Braidwood. A difference as great as between the lush, saucer-sized flowers of the Tea roses growing in hot and arid Spain to the sturdy little Scots roses grown as much for their fiery autumn foliage and decorative hips as their tiny tight blooms in late spring.

The ten rules given for cultivation of roses are by necessity concise. The book is already 488 pages long and in very small print. They deliver good common sense such as ‘pruning is not compulsory’ or ‘If a rose does prove unwilling to perform for you, discard it.

Macoboy's Roses p262

Macoboy’s Roses p262


General advice covers planting, pruning and propagating plus a useful glossary of rose terms. If the extent of information given here is not enough to satisfy, the bibliography lists almost every rose book known to the English speaking world.

Stirling Macoboy took his own photographs for the first edition of this book. Obviously since this revised edition was published 11 years after his demise, other photographers have contributed the additional entries. In the main, images are of high quality. Red flowers are notoriously difficult to photograph well because their intense colour causes over saturation and a loss of definition. This is an issue with some of the red roses included here, a pity they weren’t replaced as modern digital cameras and post-photograph manipulation software can correct these flaws.

However, this isn’t a major detraction from this handsome book. At R.R.P. of $49.99 it would make a welcome gift for gardeners of a traditional style and a suitable coffee table accessory, appealing to browse for entertaining snippets of rose knowledge, or peruse the armchair travel guide to great rose gardens of the world.

Macoboy’s Roses: Stirling Macoboy, Tommy Cairns ed.
Hard cover. 488pp. New Holland Publishers (2016) RRP $49.99


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7 years ago

A great and detailed review. A good example of the value of GardenDrum where you get the unvarnished truth from an expert, rather than the cut-and-paste from a gushing media release.

7 years ago

Most excellent review. I shall buy it. My go-to rose ref. book is Roger Manns “Yates Roses” put out by Yates. He writes beautifully and is no slouch in the personality department.

Sharon Whitbourn
Sharon Whitbourn
7 years ago

I have been trying to locate a grower of Rosa Mutabilis, so far without success. I live in Sydney. Any help would be much appreciated

Catherine Stewart
7 years ago

I’ve sent out some inquiries Sharon – will let you know if I find a Rosa mutabilis in/near Sydney for you.

Catherine Stewart
7 years ago

Hi Sharon – I’ve had suggestions to try Green E Roses at Galston, or Benefields Roses at Halfway Creek for your Rosa mutabilis

Jeff Koelewyn
Jeff Koelewyn
3 years ago

Trademarks like Ian Thorpe and Mothers Love have ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with the identity of these 2 roses . They are not the variety names.The farcical use of trademarks in horticulture is out of control. How many of you realise that Iceberg began as a trademark and through huge misuse eventually became an accepted variety name. You may say who cares but so called trademarks are monopolised by the trademark holders and virtually monopolise varieties with no protection and make us all pay a lot more than we should for these plants