Roses for a warming world: this book by the Viraraghavans, eminent rosarians, is an encyclopaedia on rose breeding and growing

‘Roses in the Fire of Spring’ is presented as “part-travelogue and memoir” and celebrates diversity, variability, and naturalness

Updated - August 17, 2023 06:04 pm IST

Published - August 17, 2023 12:29 pm IST

M.S. Viraraghavan (left) and Girija Viraraghavan in Belgium, June 2023.

M.S. Viraraghavan (left) and Girija Viraraghavan in Belgium, June 2023. | Photo Credit: Sushil Prakash

An interesting way of entering the world of the Viraraghavans, authors of this uplifting book that revolves round the world’s favourite flower, celebrated in poetry and song, is to go straight to chapter 22, ‘In the Shadow of Anamudi: Our Garden in the Hills’. 

You are taken by the hand and led up the various paths of their garden, “about two acres on its own little hill”, which when they started out here in 1980 was a “near-vertical wilderness”, looking like “the last place on earth” where a garden could be created. “Most of the soil had been washed away in the monsoon rains, leaving the rocks exposed, and there was an unruly growth of exotic aggressive species… Luckily, there were some patches of soil amidst the almost omnipresent surface rock, where plants could possibly be grown.” 

Today, Hillview in Kodaikanal, situated on the Palani Hills, an eastern offshoot of the Western Ghats, at an altitude of 2,000-plus metres above sea level, is an enchanted garden. It teems with a variety of flowering plants and foliage contrasts, chief among them the rose hybrids and rhododendron collections representing more than half a century of dedicated work by India’s leading rosarians.

M.S. ‘Viru’ Viraraghavan comes in the long tradition of the administrator- scholar-scientist in the Indian civil services, and ranks among the best. He is India’s most creative and productive rose breeder. Viru’s approach is that of the quintessential scientist, with his family background in agriculture and horticulture and his education in chemistry giving him an edge in figuring out the essentials, the intricacies, and the nuances of rose hybridising. 

Lifelong project

Girija Viraraghavan is a full partner in this lifelong project, her humanities background, interests, practical sense, and readiness to stay the course and push ahead contributing an important dimension to Viru’s scientific and technical expertise. Together, they have released 118 roses, with more seedlings about to be released and yet more being tested. The labour and grunt work behind this can be imagined, considering that it can take seven to eight years to grow, test, and release a rose. 

These flowers sport an eclectic collection of names, each name having a story to tell, with the beautiful “medium-dark yellow” hybrid named for E.K. Janaki Ammal telling a particularly poignant tale about the distinguished woman scientist. (The 45-page Appendix 1, with its alphabetical listing of the roses and concise notes, is a handy guide for rosarians and plant breeders in India and around the world.)

Viru’s lifelong interest in roses — encouraged by his father, an ICS officer who was “a farmer at heart” and a pioneer in organic farming — began in his early teens. In college, he naturally wanted to major in botany but, in deference to practical considerations, read chemistry, several branches of which, he came to realise, “had a quite close relationship to the scientific background of botany”. His chemistry background led him to take a special interest in subjects such as plant pigments and the use and abuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. 

Some of the roses bred by the Viraraghavans (in numerical order): Chantal’s Kolam, Ahimsa, E. K. Janaki Ammal, Takako-Tradition’s Torch, M.S. Swaminathan, Meghamala, Stephen’s Dream, Sheenagh Harris and Kindly Light.

Some of the roses bred by the Viraraghavans (in numerical order): Chantal’s Kolam, Ahimsa, E. K. Janaki Ammal, Takako-Tradition’s Torch, M.S. Swaminathan, Meghamala, Stephen’s Dream, Sheenagh Harris and Kindly Light.

Fittingly, Viru’s entry into the Indian Administrative Service has a rose story attached to it, but readers must find out about this themselves. How Girija, the granddaughter of a philosopher- statesman who became President of India, and had grown up in a family of big readers, with academic and political interests, “who never ventured out to see the beauty around them in the trees and plants… [and] never gave Nature a thought, or wondered how plants grew”, came to be an equal partner in creating “better roses for a warming world” is an affecting story in itself.

Together, through Viru’s civil service career lasting two decades, the couple began the work for which they are internationally acclaimed, the “lifelong search for better roses for the warmer parts of India and, for that matter, the warmer parts of the world”. This work took on an intense focus and a transformative character after 1980, when Viru took early retirement and the couple moved to what became their garden in the hills. 

Celebrating diversity

A lay review of this kind cannot possibly do justice to a book that, although presented as “part-travelogue and memoir”, is encyclopaedic in scope when it comes to rose breeding and growing. What I can do is draw the reader’s attention to the internationalist scientific spirit, the creativity, the integrity, and, above all, the generosity that underlie the story told in this book. As rose hybridisers, the Viraraghavans have given full credit to rosarians, starting with India’s pioneering rose breeder, B.S. Bhatcharji, and rose growers who came before them or who they met and learnt from during their explorations and travels. 

Their success in finding fresh genetic material in the shape of Rosa clinophylla, “perhaps the world’s only tropical rose species, once abundant in the Bengal plains and many other parts of India”, and Rosa gigantea, “the ‘Queen, the Empress of wild roses’, which adorns the mountains of northeast India”, and their international collaborations do represent a breakthrough in creating better roses for a warming world and finding other plants to complement the blooms. Turning their back on commercialising their love of roses, the Viraraghavans have freely made available the hybrids they have created over the decades to friends, acquaintances, and nurseries.

And they have a clear-sighted “philosophy of rose breeding”, which is presented in the final part of the book. This celebrates diversity, variability, and naturalness. It appeals to breeders to abjure the creation of “more roses of the conventional type, in the hope that they would conform to current fashion, and therefore sell well”. Instead, the focus must be creating new roses featuring “every possible variation of colour, form, size, and plant habit”. After all, “the rose has a natural talent for diversity and beauty” and only needs to be helped on its way.

Roses in the Fire of Spring
M.S. Viraraghavan and Girija Viraraghavan
Running Head Books
₹2,499

nram@thehindu.co.in

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