The subject was roses.
Not cauliflower, root vegetables, the euphoria of a fresh garden carrot, the acidic smell of a home-grown tomato, lilacs, moon-faced Dahlias or sunflowers as big as the sky.
It was about one of America’s-best kept secrets.
Our national flower . . . or, most specifically, “Our National Floral Emblem.”
“Sadly, no one seems to know the great honor our country has bestowed on the rose,” said the man in my backyard I had been calling my humble gardener.
“Everybody knows the bald eagle is the national bird,” he said.
“But the rose seems to have been forgotten. People look at you like you are crazy when you ask them [to name our national flower],” he said.
The subject of roses began at a cocktail party where good manners are de rigueur; liquor is served in expensive glasses; the lake is a living room view, and the napkins are linen.
A discussion of politics was verboten in this tony enclave, so naturally we talked about gardening and how roses can grow abundantly with the right kind of help. (Money and mulch, specifically.)
Anyhow, a picture was presented of someone’s abundant rose bush and I yelped, “Good grief, Matilda!”
What was the secret to this miraculous sprouting?
Who was responsible for this grandiose mound of pink perfection in this woman’s backyard?
“Rosarians,” she said.
“Catholics?” (I thought.)
“Might you be thinking Rosicrucians?” a friend chirped.
“For heaven’s sake, what are Rosarians?” I asked. (For that matter, what’s a Rosicrucian?)
“The rose people,” she said, looking at me as if I were an alien from a city garden plot.
“Rose experts, people who take care of our roses,” she said while adjusting her heavy gold charm bracelet.
MY roses were a tangle of thorns climbing over a black-wrought iron arbor being chewed to smithereens by humps of shiny black Japanese beetles. I had sprayed, prayed, pruned and plucked the buggers to no avail.
“May I have a contact number, please?” I asked.
Two weeks later, I spotted a man in my garden and wound up with a rosarian in my life. Don Ballin, 86, a man accompanied by buckets and ladders and sprayers, transformed my pathetic rose arbor into a stairway to heaven.
Known simply as the “Rose Man” in the rose world, Ballin “is quite simply a legend,” said Tim Stockdale, who is in charge of roses at Mariani Landscape and hired Ballin two years ago when the owner of the legendary Rose Acre Farms, Don Inman, retired.
“We bought the business, but the true rose was Don Ballin. He’s an inspiration. A force of nature,” said Stockdale.
And here’s the kicker.
Little did I know that Ballin, known only to me as this quiet, humble “Rosarian” who had been in my backyard for years, played a major role in making the rose the nation’s number one flower.
President of the American Rose Society when powerful former Illinois U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen was fighting to have the Marigold become America’s number one, Ballin’s rose brigade lobbied every senator and congressman and armed them with vases of roses.
In 1986 Ballin stood in the Oval Office at the White House wearing a rose on his lapel and watched President Ronald Reagan officially sign legislation naming the rose the “National Floral Emblem.”
“Ronald Reagan may have signed it into law, but from there it seems to have gotten lost in everyone’s memory,” he said.
“I was a city dweller and when we got married and moved into our first house, my wife, Paula, wanted roses. All I wanted to do outdoors was cut grass and play golf. So I planted a yellow and a white rose bush, and one day cutting grass I took pride of ownership. That was the beginning. Then we filled out the color spectrum. And at one time there were 450 plants in that backyard and one hundred were in pots.”
Ballin is responsible for hybridizing eight, the first named after his first grandson, Scott Caldwell. When Ballin’s wife died recently, he moved in with his daughter and her family — and many of his roses were transported to Stockdale’s backyard.
“Don loves visiting his roses in my backyard; you should see the smile on his face,” said Stockdale.
“Walking into a room can be stressful, but walking into a rose garden you are instantly at peace,” he said. “Thank God our owner, Frank Mariani, had the foresight to switch me from turf grass to roses several years ago. It’s changed my view of the world.
“I learned a lot about life through the lens of a rose,” said Ballin.
“In fact, a rose can be ugly depending on your viewpoint. The ‘Green Rose’ looks like a medieval weapon with a ball of infinite spikes.
“It can be an ‘Ugh’ or an ‘Ahh’ to someone.
“But the rose will always be an “Ahh” to America,” Ballin said.
Sneedlings . . .
Saturday’s birthdays: Lori Loughlin, 54, and Manu Ginobili, 41. . . . Sunday’s birthdays: Dak Prescott, 25; Tim Gunn, 65; and Martina McBride, 52.