Zèpherine Drouhin for the Defense

Rosa Zepherine Drouhin image

Kathleen Hale, Historic Rose Section Leader

Western Reserve Herb Society

Old Garden Roses, or Historic Roses, can have as much to tell us about Mystery as History.  Sometimes their origins can only be guessed at.  And, since Historic Roses retain some of the Wild Rose’s promiscuity in coming up with their own genetic combinations, the Roses themselves may have been their own originators.

But, in at least one case, a much loved specimen in the WRHS Historic Rose Garden was itself a vital clue in a mystery novel by Agatha Christie herself.

It is well known how the young Agatha Christie became a student of poisons during her training as a pharmacy assistant during the First World War.  And common “garden variety” poisons show up throughout her work, from nightshade (Aptropa belladonna, in A Caribbean Mystery (1963)), and yew (Taxus in the marmalade, A Pocketful of Rye (1953), to hemlock (Conium masculatumFive Little Pigs (1942).

But in Sad Cypress (1947),  when Hercule Poirot is called in to unravel the poisoning deaths of wealthy, elderly Laura Welman and her recent protégée, Mary Gerrard, it is his familiarity with Rosa Zepherine Drouhin that cracks the case. He provides the information to the Defense Counsel of the innocent Elinor Carlisle, leading to the following exchange in the Old Bailey:

            “You are a rose grower and live at Emsworth, Herts?
            “Did you on October 20th go to Maidenhead and examine a rose tree growing at the 
            Lodge at Hunterbury Hall?”
            “I did.”
            “Will you describe this tree?”
            “It was a climbing rose- Zephyrine Drouhin. It bears a sweetly scented pink flower. It has 
            no thorns..”
            “It would be impossible to prick oneself on a rose tree of this description?”
            “It would be quite impossible.  It is a thornless tree.”
            No cross examination


The dastardly murderer, Nurse Hopkins, is therefore lying about that scratch on her arm.  And also about poisoning the tea.

The Bourbon Class rose, Zépherine Drouhin, the “Rose Without a Thorn”, originated in Bizot, France in 1868. Our specimen can be found in the Northwest corner of the WRHS Historic Rose Garden, and, like Poirot’s fictional rose, is grown as a climber. It is not included in the original planting map of 1969, when the Historic Rose Garden was installed.  But has been present long enough to have grown to a prodigious size.  Without much exaggeration, it might be said to be roughly the size of a bus.

Zépherine blooms heavily in the spring , usually starting in the last week of May.  Visitors to the Garden are often starstruck to see her in all her glory, and it is the favorite of many. Sporadic blooms will be produced through the summer, and the cooler weeks in the fall will lead to another period of heavy bloom.  The “sweet scent” mentioned in that London courtroom is most often compared to raspberries.  The foliage is a lush, bronzy green, and is resistant to fungus and disease.

Plus, she makes a fantastic witness for the defense.