Around the Island

Gardening with Galligan: The flower that went to war

COURTESY PHOTO | Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in the 1942 film ‘Mrs. Miniver’ with the elusive rose.
COURTESY PHOTO | Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in the 1942 film ‘Mrs. Miniver’ with the elusive same-named rose.

If you’re my age, you remember World War II — the day it began and the day it ended. But we also know that our memories are not entirely reliable. So I’ve researched the story I want to tell you as carefully as I could, but if any of you remember or know some more sources, do get in touch — call me, I’m in the book. And I’ll try to distinguish between what I think I remember and what the literature says.

The flower called the “Mrs. Miniver Rose” had a starring role in the 1942 American war drama, “Mrs. Miniver,” starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. Recounting the lives of a “typical” British family during the early days of WWI, the film won six academy awards, including best picture, actress, supporting actress and director and exceeded all financial expectations. (I bought it on Amazon for very little, less than $10, if I remember correctly.)

Although it’s a war film without a single battle scene, it was enormously successful as propaganda. President Franklin Roosevelt had the final scene — a sermon by the village vicar — translated into many languages and printed on leaflets, which were dropped all over occupied Europe.

The plot includes a village flower show in which the humble station master, a breeder of roses, requests permission from Mrs. Miniver, a local woman he both likes and respects, to name his entry after her. She agrees.

His main competition is the local grande dame Lady Beldon of the Manor (played by Dame May Whitty — remember her?) who has always won in previous years. (Just a little British class warfare here for fun). Then in a gesture of noblesse oblige she cedes her place and the Mrs. Miniver Rose wins the contest. And indeed, in fact, there were pictures of it everywhere.

Now, as I remember the story (and I haven’t been able to confirm this) the flower was never released for sale to the public back then, but was “evacuated” to a place of “safe keeping” for the duration. It was to be released on the day that peace was declared. I fully expected to find scenes of that celebration. There were none. If that was indeed the plan, it was forgotten in the years of war that were yet to come.

Fast forward to the current day and enter gardener Orlando Murrin, 59, who, when he realized that the Mrs. Miniver rose seemed to have disappeared, set himself the task of saving the dying breed, which had vanished from flower catalogs years before.

“My only hope,” he said in an interview, “was that perhaps some English housewife, in her cottage garden, had kept the rose going. I set myself the challenge of tracking it down.”

And track it down he did. After years of unsuccessful searches and correspondence around the world, he eventually was able to secure a cutting, which is now under his exclusive supervision on the roof deck of his home in Exeter, England where it is expected to bloom this summer.

Quoted recently, Mr. Murrin said, “We have one large, healthy bud under constant supervision.”

They plan an enormous party when it blooms.

An Exeter nursery has been engaged to propagate more plants and, Mr. Murrin said, happily, “In a couple of years, we hope to have roses to spare for the Mrs. Miniver Fan Club.”

As gardeners everywhere know, where there’s a will …