The Language of Flowers
It’s easy to get lost down the myriad of country roads surrounding the idyllic Hampshire village of Hinton Ampner. It’s late August and the countryside is bathed in the sandy hue of freshly ploughed fields, hinting that summer is lazily succumbing to autumn. I’m on my way to visit the talented horticulturist, Rosebie Morton, at her flower farm nestled deep in the South Downs.
At last I find the Flower Packing Shed, comfortably tucked down a winding rural lane. A botanical paradise sits before me, and I’m greeted, not only by a friendly little Jack Russell called Bif, but by the hypnotic, almost nostalgic, scent of English flowers.
Fortuitously, I’ve timed my visit with the season’s second flush and the packing shed is a hive of activity. Roses of every form and shade are being brought in from the fields, while candy-coloured dahlias and hydrangeas add to the rich tapestry of colour.
I eventually find a cheerful Rosebie counting crate upon crate of Evelyn, Margaret Merril and Pure Poetry; ready for their happy journey to traders, florists and markets across the country. Spotting me, she leaves her task in the hands of her trusted team, and we set off on a tour of the impressive 11-acre flower paddock.
Rosebie has dedicated nearly 25 years to growing an outstanding variety of scented roses, flowers, herbs and foliage. The concept was born from her own frustration with the average commercially grown bouquet, which can often be scentless and dull, bearing little resemblance to the flowers she remembers from her childhood. Growing up in an army family meant constant moving, yet somehow her talented mother was able to create a garden wherever they went. English roses and flowers flourished in unlikely locations, offering perfumed reminders of home.
In 1995, incensed by the dearth of scented roses in flower shops and inspired by the gardens of her youth, Rosebie began experimenting with forgotten English varieties at her husband’s family farm. It was her mission to grow scented roses and flowers as nature intended, that were beautiful and boasted an exquisite variety of scents. Commercially grown flowers have often had their scent gene removed to increase longevity and durability; but their scent is the language used to attract bees and insects for pollination, crucial to their survival in the wild. Rosebie was determined to restore the all-important scent gene and celebrate roses for their imperfections and individuality.
Starting a cut-flower farm in an industry that imports the majority of its flowers from Holland was a bold move. One expert told her she wouldn’t last more than a year. Despite the naysayers, a determined Rosebie started selling from the back of her Land Rover at the Covent Garden flower market. She quickly garnered a loyal following of traders impressed by the natural charm and quality of her ‘real’ flowers.
Nearly 25 years later and her thriving flower farm has expanded to an 11-acre Eden of meticulously maintained polytunnels and beds. She’s opened a florist in Chelsea, acquired a sweet pea farm near Chichester, and she’s also partnered with a sister farm, Tambuzi in Nanyuki, Kenya, that supplies flowers when the British season ends.
It hasn’t come without the odd bump in the road. In the early years, Rosebie was asked to supply 800 Margaret Merril roses for a florist’s wedding. Unfortunately, the roses were damaged by rain just before the event. Luckily, she managed to find a breeder to supply the stems, but it was very hot and he sprayed them with water, which damaged them. After this, Rosebie decided to grow all her roses under polytunnels.
Provenance has always been central to Rosebie’s ethos. She tells me that “currently only 10% of the cut flowers sold in the UK are grown here. We want to shake up the cut flower market by challenging people to think about where the flowers they’re buying come from and how they’ve been grown”. She compares the flower industry to the food industry, which is in the grip of the ever-evolving ‘slow food movement’ as people become more conscious of sourcing ethical, seasonal and local produce. The flower industry is beginning to follow suit, as provenance becomes increasingly important to the consumer. Rosebie’s philosophy has always been strictly what she calls ‘field to vase’ so in many ways she was ahead of the trend and saw an opportunity when others didn’t. She says “In today’s fast moving, throw away culture, provenance endorses authenticity and quality and gives people confidence in knowing that they are buying something which can be trusted”.
After only a few minutes with Rosebie its obvious her passion for horticulture is irrepressible. Every so often she pauses to inhale the scent of a rose or rub a leaf between her fingers. Indeed, if flowers have a language, then Rosebie is fluent. She confesses to being “besotted with plants” and tells me that the garden is an extension of herself, where she can unwind and indulge her plant addiction. She describes it as “a place to nurture and encourage a symbiosis and ever-evolving, ever-changing landscape of forgiving impermanence.”
It must be with pride that she now surveys her paddock, heaving with 30,000 roses across 17 varieties, around 150 species of English flowers, annuals, wildflowers, herbs and foliage. You might come across the odd guinea fowl or bantam wayfaring amidst the beds, while butterflies and bees weave between the exotic textures and colours. Rosebie has managed to build a flourishing farm and business, underpinned by her insatiable passion for plants and the classic English rose.
As I’m leaving, Rosebie hands me an elegantly arranged bouquet of her favourite Margaret Merril rose. It’s exquisite and the scent at once transports me to my own mother’s garden. It strikes me how each bud, as well as being beautiful, tells a unique and evocative story. The scent is simultaneously understated, yet luxurious and all the while crucial to its very survival.
After a morning chatting to Rosebie its impossible not to come away feeling inspired. Her enthusiasm for nature is contagious, but her entrepreneurial prowess and determination in building a business against the odds is something to be lauded. She is testament to the claim if you give all, you get all and her work is a true celebration of the evocative language of flowers.