Text by Max Eber for the July/August 2016 issue of Horticulture.
Roses come in a bevy of shapes and forms, and some look so different from the classic florist-ready hybrid teas, floribundas and grandifloras that they have been neglected for use in gardens. While there are still many garden-worthy members of the showiest classes, and more are being bred for better disease resistance, most gardeners today are seeking even eco-friendlier and lower maintenance plants. It turns out those forgotten old favorites and species can be perfect for today’s gardens, requiring little upkeep, no spraying, no amending of soil and, in some cases, little water. They just don’t look, and sometimes behave, like the rose you may be used to.
Those who garden by the sea may be well familiar with beach roses, or Rosa rugosa (USDA Zones 3–8), a hardy group of free-blooming, crinkle-leaved roses from Japan that tolerate poor, sandy soils and salt spray. Introduced to North America in the 1700s, they have naturalized along our coastlines. The suckering shrubs shake off usual rose diseases, detest a lot of pruning and cannot be sprayed by chemicals. White, pink or wine-purple flowers nod on short stems from spring to fall, and they can yeild heavy crops of orange-red hips. Old cultivars ‘Hansa’ and ‘Roseraie de l’Haÿ’ are superb classics, each reaching five to six feet tall and wide, with rich purple-fuchsia double flowers giving off a heady rose-clove fragrance. ‘Belle Poitevine’, a slightly more compact and shrubby version at four feet, offers a lighter color with its lilac-pink flowers. ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’ is similar in size and color but features single flowers reminiscent of the straight species. All provide excellent little-care shrubs to tuck into rugged borders or use as hedging. Prune them back by a third in winter.
Another old no-fuss classic is ‘Stanwell Perpetual’ (Zones 3b–9), dating to the 1830s and thought to be a hybrid between the Scots rose, R. spinosissima, and an autumn damask rose. From the latter it gained the ability to repeat its bloom of heavily fragrant, three-inch double flowers on and off from spring to fall. Their color fades from shell pink to white, and the autumn hips extend the shrub’s interest. This rose tolerates sandy or slightly chalky soils and a little shade. Growing two to five feet tall and four to eight feet wide, it makes a perfect focal point in the midst of perennials for a cottage or woodland garden effect, providing support for nearby plants and texture with its small fern-like leaves. To encourage bushiness from ‘Stanwell Perpetual, prune it by a third every winter.
For four seasons of interest, seek out the roses known as early yellows. This includes Father Hugo’s rose (R. hugonis; Zones 4b–9), the similar incense rose (R. primula; Zones 4b–9) and their handful of cultivars, such as R. cantabrigiensis ‘Canary Bird’ (Zones 5–9). A great replacement for forsythia, they welcome spring with two-inch, light to medium yellow single blossoms scented with honey and linseed. The palest of the group, R. primula has the added interest of scented foliage. All the early yellows show decorative maroon new growth, canes and thorns. Late summer and fall bring vivid bronzy-orange, purple and yellow hues to the disease-resistant, ferny leaves. All produce a bounty of small hips. They grow with an upright, arching fountain-like habit, reaching around nine feet tall and six feet wide unpruned. These roses make perfect shrubs for woodland and cottage garden borders, tolerate poor soil and some shade and lend themselves to screening and hedging, all without spraying. Prune them after they flower for shape and to maintain a smaller size.
For a naturally small rose, one can turn to the species foliolosa (Zones 5–9) and nitida (Zones 4–9). The former, which hails from North America’s western prairies, is a charming three-foot-tall and -wide suckering shrub that creates a tidy thicket. It blooms once, in late spring to early summer, with single flowers ranging from white to pink; its appeal really lies in its small, shiny, willowy foliage. New nearly thornless growth and foliage can take on hues of purple and red maturing to a bright green during summer. It offers vivid foliage color and profuse round, red hips in fall.
Rosa nitida, or shining rose, is an East Coast–native counterpart that can tolerate wetter, acidic and generally poor soils. It grows to a slightly taller 15 inches to four feet tall with a similar width, suckering to make a thicket of decorative thorny, cinnamon-red canes and small, glossy, dark green foliage. It blooms once, with light to medium pink single blossoms, and the leaves take on brilliant hues of purple, orange, red, and yellow in fall. It offers displays of profuse red hips similar to R. foliolosa. Both species can be tucked into naturalistic woodland, wildflower and prairie-style plantings or used as larger groundcover specimens in rock gardens.
In a rain garden, try R. palustris var. scandens (Zones 5b–9), a repeat-blooming variety of the East Coast swamp rose. Growing three to six feet tall and wide, it’s right at home on the banks of rivers, streams, ponds and wet gardens, but it can also tolerate more moderate moisture and clay. Bright single to semi-double magenta flowers with light rose-black pepper scent bloom on and off through summer until frost, giving off a light rose–black pepper scent. The almost thornless canes bear thin, no-spray foliage that gives a graceful willowy or bamboo-like effect. The new growth is plum red.
These are just a taste of the unexpected treasures the rose world has to offer. There are many others to explore, and breeders are just starting to use species like R. hugonis to create new exciting varieties. Despite constraints in the gardens of today and the future, roses can remain staples—they just might look a little different.