A Riot of Roses

An expert guides the way to finding beautiful roses for the garden.

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by Lindsay Bond Totten, SHNS

The new landscape roses for today's gardens won't win top honors at the annual rose roundup. Fancy, fussy hybrid teas, perfect both in petal and poise, always nab the blue ribbons.

Most gardeners don't care about prizes, however, or competing in rose shows. They want plants that bloom and perform well in the garden without extraordinary care.

A rose judge I'm not, but I'm a harsh critic of the roses in my own garden. I believe landscape roses should do their thing without constant fertilizing or pesticide sprays. And they should bloom more than once during the season, or be so beautiful of leaf that it doesn't matter.

I'd definitely be considered a "hanging judge." Over the years, I've culled almost as many roses as I've planted.

'Bonica', so reliable elsewhere, got blackspot in my garden. It's gone. 'Iceberg' hangs on by a root hair. The only one of the Meidilands that measured up was 'Red Meidiland', a remarkable, tall, ground-covering shrub. White, Scarlet and Pearl Meidiland were all sentenced to the compost heap.

Best-of-Show in my garden goes to an unlikely contestant, Rosa glauca (formerly Rosa rubrifolia; why the recent name change after all these centuries, I cannot fathom).

"Unlikely" because this handsome old species rose is grown as much for its foliage as its flowers.

The leaves blush burgundy when they unfold, then soon mature to a soft iridescent gray. Small, single pink blooms, sparingly proffered, provide a pleasant diversion in late spring, followed by large orange-red hips that cling till season's end.

Rosa glauca is a magnificent long-lived shrub rose, requiring only occasional pruning. A firm hand with the shears keeps it bushy, but I prefer a larger, looser format. Bare stems provide the opportunity to layer bulbs and groundcovers at its feet.

Long before there were rose shows, sturdy Rosa rugosa bushes were naturalizing themselves throughout New England. Exceptionally winter-hardy and resistant to both salt and wind, they proved to be as rugged as the settlers who planted them.

Breeders have borrowed the genes of Rosa rugosa to expand color choices and improve the rugosa line for modern gardeners. Dozens of varieties now share its strong constitution.

Outstanding among them are rugosa hybrid 'Fru Dagmar Hastrup', with single pale pink blossoms; 'Hansa', a frilly fuchsia, similar in color to its parent, and 'Blanc Double de Coubert', a magnificent white.

Other noteworthy members of the rugosa clan include 'Jens Munk' (pale pink); 'Henry Hudson' (pure white); and 'Topaz Jewel' (yellow). All share the vigorous habit and handsome quilted foliage of the original Rosa rugosa.

Anticipating demand for low-maintenance roses in the 21st century, Canadian breeders launched the Explorer series in the 1980s. Though not widely distributed yet in the U.S., gardeners here who try one (search mail-order suppliers) are assured of an exceptionally hardy rose with excellent disease resistance.

'Captain Samuel Holland' (crimson); 'Morden Blush' (creamy white with a pale pink blush); 'Champlain' (deep red) and 'Therese Bugnet' (dark cherry pink) are all small-to-medium-sized shrub roses with strong repeat bloom. 'John Cabot', a bright fuchsia-pink climber, has been called by some professional horticulturists the best climbing rose for northern gardens.

The Carefree series of shrub roses ('Carefree Beauty', 'Carefree Wonder' and 'Carefree Delight') are about as close to a sure thing as roses get. The color choice is limited to pink --Carefree Beauty and Carefree Wonder are an identical bright pink, Carefree Delight a bit softer--but the bushes are all handsome and virtually indestructible.

The sisters Carefree bloom almost nonstop from early summer through frost, though it's not unusual for the canes to take a short breather after an especially heavy flush. Glossy green leaves shed fungus spores.

Great for hedging or naturalizing in dappled shade is an underappreciated shrub rose called Nearly Wild. Plants stay small, as do the petite single pink blossoms, so it's not a showstopper. But massed in the right place, with a groundcover to support it, 'Nearly Wild' splashes the landscape with its cheerful color.

No mention has been made of insect resistance. That's not an oversight. Depending on what part of the country you garden in, even the post low-maintenance roses will attract an occasional bug.

Here in Western Pennsylvania, Japanese beetles and aphids can be a nuisance. Cane borers, leaf skeletonizers, loopers, thrips, weevils, mites and assorted caterpillars may visit as well, but they're rarely serious on the varieties I've mentioned. A quick spray of Pyrethrum is a modest price to pay for all-summer beauty.

Lindsay Bond Totten, a horticulturist, writes about gardening for Scripps Howard News Service.

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