RANTOWLES — On the south bank of Wallace Creek where John Champneys cultivated one of the world's best-known roses, there exists today only one specimen of Champneys' Pink Cluster. In a roundabout testament to the rose's worldwide reach, this particular bush had to be imported from Texas.
After two centuries of historical neglect, Champneys' name is mostly forgotten. Rosarians have largely given credit for Champneys' botanical feat to another Charlestonian, the gardener Philippe Noisette, whose name was almost immediately attached to the rose after he sent a few clippings to his brother in France: Rosa Noisettiana, the Noisette rose.
Historical evidence now suggests that Champneys, not Noisette, was the first American to cross a Chinese Rosa chinensis and an English Rosa moschata to create the hybrid, hardy rose that blooms almost year-round, even in the languid Lowcountry heat.
The family living on Champneys' land today would like to correct the record. They keep his name alive with an (admittedly misspelled) homage: Their sign along U.S. Highway 17 labels their land as Champney's Blueberry Farm.
"For us, it's almost like our heritage. Even though we're not John Champneys' descendants, we're caretakers of his land," said Leslie Tumbleston, 55, seated on the front porch overlooking the lone hardscrabble rose bush in her yard.
The great rose caper
Since purchasing Champneys' former pleasure garden in 1902, Tumbleston's family has adapted the land to more utilitarian pursuits: A pick-it-yourself blueberry farm, pastures for horses, and a chicken coop that Tumbleston's daughter Emery started tending as a young girl. The rose bush juts out above a sea of chest-high rye grass, grown to feed the horses.
Tumbleston and her mother, Rosie Dukes, 79, contend that Champneys was robbed of glory by the poseur Noisette. After years of researching the history of the land where they live and work, they may have found a smoking gun.
"The Rose," an 1882 work of history and botany by the New York nurseryman Henry B. Ellwanger, includes the following history of the "Noisette or Champney Rose":
"From the seed of the White Musk Rose fertilized by the Blush China (Bengal), John Champney [sic], of Charleston, South Carolina, raised a variety which was called Champney's Pink Cluster.
"A few years after, Philippe Noisette, a florist, also of Charleston, raised from the seed of Champney's Pink Cluster a blush variety, which he sent to his brother, Louis Noisette, of Paris, France, under the name of Noisette Rose, not giving credit to Mr. Champney, as the originator of the class, which has ever since borne the wrong title of Noisette Rose."
The rose, in other words, should be called by another name.
The Champneys' Pink Cluster — known in later variations as the Noisette Rose — got its start in Rantowles on land John Champneys once cultivat…
'Sufferings and Persecution'
Part of the difficulty in preserving Champneys' legacy may be that his name was tarnished in the early days of American history. The well-heeled son of a royal colonial official, he wanted his family "to become new gentry in America," according to the Charleston Horticultural Society's 2009 book, "Noisette Roses: 19th Century Charleston's Gift to the World."
In 1776, Champneys refused to take an oath to the newly formed state of South Carolina and was convicted and imprisoned as a Loyalist. He fled the country with his wife, two children and a black servant in 1777.
Champneys wrote the litany of his woes on the cover of a 20-page pamphlet he published while living in exile in London in 1778: "An Account of the Sufferings and Persecution of John Champneys: A Native of Charles-Town, South-Carolina; Inflicted by Order of Congress, for His Refusal to Take Up Arms in Defence of the Arbitrary Proceedings Carried on by the Rulers of Said Place. Together With His Protest, &C." The title told most of the story.
Returning to Charleston after his exile in 1790, he found moderate success as a gentleman botanist. In 1796, he bought a plantation from William Wiliamson in Rantowles near Charleston and set about cultivating a 10-acre pleasure garden and nursery. It was there on the banks of Wallace Creek that he made his fateful cross.
While Champneys found his way back into the good graces of high society Charleston, including a stint as president of the local Agricultural Society, he never ascended the ranks of the dilettantish planters.
"Although his banishment had been expunged, he was branded a traitor and never achieved the success of the pre-war period," historian John Meffert wrote in a chapter of "Noisette Roses."
Ellwanger's version of the story, giving credit to Champneys, was not widely known or agreed upon. For nearly two centuries, historians and botanists tended to give credit to Noisette, particularly after the famous flower painter Joseph Redouté depicted the rose with the caption "Rosier de Philippe Noisette."
The earliest accounts, predating Ellwanger's book, tended to credit Noisette. The British nurseryman William Paul wrote in his 1848 book "The Rose Garden" that the original hybrid remontant rose was "due probably to the accidental fertilization of the Chinese with the Musk Rose" and was "obtained by M. Philippe Noisette, in North America, and sent to Paris in 1817."
Still another rosarian, the American S.B. Parsons, advanced yet another theory in his 1847 book "The Rose: Its History, Poetry, Culture, and Classification." Parsons wrote that the rose was originally cultivated on Long Island and sent to Rouen, France, some time before Noisette made his own discovery. Parsons cites "an English writer" as his only source.
But while Ellwanger's book is now difficult to find (a 1906 revised edition is held by the Charleston Library Society), his expertise was well-known in his time. A 1924 book, "Roses for All American Climates" by George C. Thomas Jr., states that "Ellwanger knew the Hybrid Perpetual as no one knows it now."
Champneys got his due in several rose books of the 20th century. The German author August Jäger's 1936 work "Rosenlexikon" identified the Champneys' Pink Cluster as "mother of Noisette-roses."
In 1999, the Monticello in Virginia hosted an exhibit of Champneys' Pink Cluster, and accompanying literature on the Monticello website gave a balanced account of the Champneys-Noisette naming controversy. According to Peggy Cornett, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, Champneys shared root cuttings and seedlings freely with his friends, including Noisette.
"Some argue that Champneys was deprived of a certain notoriety once his rose went on to become part of a class called Noisettes," Cornett wrote. "Others, including Léonie Bell herself, believe Philippe Noisette was also experimenting with Champneys' rose, and may have crossed it with a third, repeat-blooming, diploid rose such as 'Hume's Blush' Tea-scented China, resulting in his own creation — the 'Blush Noisette.'"
Whoever grew it first, the Noisette name has stood the test of time.
Beloved by the world
The low-maintenance, delicately fragrant blooms of the Noisette rose sparked a home gardening craze in the United States and abroad, supplanting popular, older varieties that only bloomed once a year.
Today, the Noisette is a staple of the rose-gardening world, known for its resilience and its sweet-but-not-cloying fragrance. In the Charleston area, rose fans can find exemplars in bloom almost year-round, from historic Hampton Park to the trellises of suburban homes.
The Noisettes have been crossed and developed into countless forms: the apricot-hued Crepuscule, the soft golden Bouquet d'Or, the whitish Madame Alfred Carriere. Some of the names honor the aristocratic families who championed the rose's propagation in the home gardens of Europe and North America. Champneys' Pink Cluster is officially classified as a subset of the class Noisette.
In "Noisette Roses," the French rosarian Odile Masquelier writes a short appreciation for her favorite variety, the Blush Noisette:
"In the park of Schloss Arenenberg (Arenenberg Castle) overlooking Switzerland's Lake Constance, I have seen a long pergola entirely covered with 'Blush Noisette.' On a very warm day in early June, we were visiting the Schloss, the final home of Empress Josephine's daughter Queen Hortense, but walking under this pergola was deliciously fresh and moving."
But the romance of the rose-fancying world is tied up with the brutality of American history. Records suggest that Champneys depended on enslaved laborers to work his land: On July 25, 1807, Champneys and a man named William Price took out an advertisement seeking "Two Field Negro Men and one Woman ... to hire for a year, for the Agricultural Farm."
According to Tumbleston, someone in her family once found a Champneys' Pink Cluster bush growing near a former slave house on the property — a possible link to the Noisette rose's earliest roots. They relocated the plant beside a swimming pool, but it died at some point in the 1980s, possibly due to neglect by a gardener.
Emery, now 18 and studying at Trident Technical College, said she grew up with a deep knowledge of the history that surrounded her. She recalls finding musket balls and Native American arrowheads as a young girl. And she learned at an early age who deserves credit for the original Noisette rose.
"I've always known the story of this land since I could remember anything," she said.
Emery's mother takes the matter of plant lineage seriously, from 200-year-old rose quarrels to present-day blueberry farming.
"I can tell you, as far as these blueberries go, that if I get one of the patented blueberries from UGA or a place like that, I cannot propagate my own bushes and sell the blueberries," Tumbleston said.
Today, Philippe Noisette's remains are buried in an unmarked grave at St. Mary of the Annunciation Catholic church in Charleston. Champneys' pleasure garden in Rantowles is gone without a historical marker, just a street sign: Champneys Lane, which intersects with Rose Drive near a row of the extended Tumbleston family's homes.
Rosie Dukes still bristles when she hears the rose called by the name Noisette.
"He stole a cutting and took it to Paris, France," Dukes said. "This was a Champneys, and when he used a cutting, it was still a Champneys. But he named it for him, Philippe Noisette."