ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
When Clarence Rhodes came into the studio today for an interview, he brought along some friends.
Mr. CLARENCE RHODES (Competitive Rose Gardener): I brought a rose, white rose called Tineke and I brought a deep pink rose called Hot Princess. I brought another rose called Cesar E. Chavez. And another rose that's probably the best rose that I have brought today is called Joyfulness. All of these roses have great fragrances.
BLOCK: Trouble is, Clarence Rhodes was in a studio in Portland, Maine. I'm in Washington, D.C., so I couldn't smell or see his roses. But I could practically taste his enthusiasm for them.
He is one of the many obsessive competitive rose gardeners described in a new book by Aurelia C. Scott. It's titled "Otherwise Normal People." These are gardeners who turn over their lives to roses and drive or fly around the country, entering their prized specimens in competitions.
Aurelia C. Scott joined Clarence Rhodes in the Portland studio. She's got eight rose bushes now. He's got 250.
Mr. RHODES: It's one of these things that you just keep expanding and expanding and expanding because you just can't get enough of these roses.
Ms. AURELIA C. SCOTT (Author, "Otherwise Normal People"): It's called the vanishing lawn syndrome, Melissa. And it happens to everyone. Of course it happens to all kinds of gardeners, but I think it happens to rose nuts in particular.
BLOCK: Aurelia, you described - in this world of competitive rose gardening, you described a real ruthlessness among growers that if they have a rose that is underperforming, out it goes. And you even talk about a guy who will sort of plant a shovel next to a bush that's not doing too well as a little bit of a warning that that bush is on probation.
Ms. SCOTT: Yes, that is true. That is Bob Martin, actually, who is a wonderful prize-winning rosarian. But he treats his roses firmly, I guess, I would say, as if they might be misbehaving children. And when he has an underperforming rose, he just lays the shovel there. And, you know, Bob swears that roses perk up right away.
BLOCK: Clarence, have you tried it?
Mr. RHODES: No, but I know some people that actually move them to a probation garden. So sometimes they will perk up, and I have seen them, you know, really become alive and then gets moved back to their main garden.
BLOCK: You think it works?
Mr. RHODES: I think it does.
Ms. SCOTT: Roses are sensitive creatures, Melissa. You know, they've been around for so long, 34 million years and counting.
BLOCK: There are fossilized roses that go back that far?
Ms. SCOTT: There are and they are gorgeous. What's wonderful about it is when you see a picture of a fossilized rose - which you can see, by the way, on the National Park Service Web site - it really looks like a rose bud. It's just amazing. It makes you understand part of the lure. We've been having head over heels in love with them ever since we were around.
BLOCK: I'm curious. In this world of competitive rose gardening, Clarence, when you have a rose or a rose bush that you think is a winner, can you really tell just by looking at it as it comes along?
Mr. RHODES: Well, you have a good idea and you always think, oh, this is a winner, until you get it to the rose show. And then depending on the mood of the judges and sometimes they will last until they get to the show, sometimes they open up too soon, sometimes you can't get them open. These are all the techniques that are really is described in this book of what these people do from 3 a.m. to nine-thirty or whatever.
BLOCK: Yeah, the dog groomers from "Best in Show" have nothing on you, guys. I was…
Mr. RHODES: Right.
BLOCK: …stunned to read about this, all the tools. Aurelia, why don't you describe what people do to prepare a rose for judging.
Ms. SCOTT: Oh, it's amazing. First, we should bear in mind that all of these people have cut their roses days ahead of a show. And the goal is to have that blossom look absolutely perfect when the judge walks by. So you're cutting the rose before it's really open at all, and that's part of the amazing skills of these folks. But then, once you get there - with this relatively unopened blossom in a freezing cold room, by the way, so that the rose doesn't open too fast - you separate the petals quite often with Q-Tips. That's the rose exhibitors' favorite tool. Clarence is laughing now. And he's laughing because the sight of a gorgeous rose, just chockfull of Q-Tips is really very funny. But the goal is to separate the petals and have the blossom appear one-half to three quarters open in a perfect spiral.
BLOCK: Well, you know, there's so much manicuring going on at these competitions. I mean, you're describing people with decal edge scissors and they're shaving off little bits of brown along the edge of a leaf. How far can you go? What can't you do?
Ms. SCOTT: Ah, you may not add anything to what you have. So you can take anything off, dried edges, which you just referred to, Melissa, and petals that don't work. You can rock them very carefully off. But the rule is that you may not add anything, no gloss, no extra petals, no wire inserted in a cane to make the rose stand up straighter.
I was struck, too, to read how much cooperation there is sometimes among you growers. When you get to a competition, you help each other out.
Mr. RHODES: Well, that's one of the important things about rose growing and being with these people. Rose people are really, really nice people and they like to be with each other and they'll help each other and they talk about roses until it comes to entering your roses in a rose show. That's when they draw the line and…
Ms. SCOTT: You know, Melissa, some of the people in the book will only grow roses in order to compete with roses, which I think is fascinating. It is their form of competition just as if they might play tennis or they might do something else. But they grow roses. But most of the people in the book, they're crazy about roses and they love to compete. And they've managed to combine both obsessions.
BLOCK: Yeah, but there are those people for whom it's nothing really about a love for the flowers, it's about the love for winning.
Ms. SCOTT: That is true and they are - I heard of one couple who when they left Southern California and moved, they pulled out their rose garden. And now they grow no roses because they decided they didn't want to compete in roses anymore.
Mr. RHODES: The other thing is if you have ever seen a most perfect rose, it'd be the most gorgeous thing you ever want to look at in your life.
Ms SCOTT: That is true. You know, I would agree. When I started this book, I admired roses and I thought they were interesting. But that was really about it. Other than being a gardener, that's where my interest lay. And I have to admit, I am crazy about roses now. I have fallen in love with them.
BLOCK: So, Clarence, as many roses as you have grown and have seen, you can still look at one and it'll still maybe take your breath away, it sounds like.
Mr. RHODES: Well, that's true because the rose has its most perfect moment. It does start, you know, from a bud and it opens, it opens, it opens, and then finally it will reach one point where it's at its most perfect beauty, and then it starts going downhill again. And this most perfect point may only last for an hour or two or three. So you have to look at them all the time to see it at its most perfect beauty.
BLOCK: Well, Clarence Rhodes and Aurelia Scott, it's been great talking with you. Thanks so much.
Ms. SCOTT: Oh, thank you.
Mr. RHODES: Thank you very much.
BLOCK: Clarence Rhodes and Aurelia C. Scott, both of Portland, Maine. Her book is titled "Otherwise Normal People: Inside the Thorny World of Competitive Rose Gardening." You can read more about Clarence Rhodes' passion for roses and see a photo of the flowers he brought into the studio at npr.org.