Rugosas -- Prickly perfection: Antique Roses, Part 1

Rugosas -- Prickly perfection: Antique Roses, Part 1

by Carol Wallace

When my neighbor retired he announced that he was going to spend his new freedom growing roses. This puzzled me. He had freed up at least 40 hours a week. How could he possibly fill that with roses, in his very small suburban yard?

I soon knew. Between the deadheading, the spraying, the careful pruning, the constant war on Japanese beetles, the fertilizing, the grooming -- he was one busy man. And he had 15 rose bushes. All hybrid teas.

I have 40. They take me about an hour a week, if I feel like deadheading. But most of mine are heirloom roses, and most of those are rugosas. Practically care free.

When I first became aware of the distinctions between classes of roses, I was surprised to discover how many of mine belonged to the rugosa family, until I remembered how I got them. I have a friend who loves to raise roses from seeds and cuttings,and most of mine came from her. She lives north of me, in zone 4, and gardens in sandy soil. Not ideal conditions for most roses, but rugosas grow very well for her. They are tolerant of a wide range of conditions that sound unfavorable for your average rose. But rugosas are not your average rose. If you drive along the Massachussetts shore you'll see rugosas growing wild, oblivious to neglect, sand, and salty sea air.

So, they're hardy and tolerant of unfavorable growing conditions. Mine, in fact, have survived this latest drought without even drooping -- and they are in a a part of the garden where the hose won't reach.

Rugosas are nice, bushy shrubs, and one of their nicest traits is that they flower repeatedly. Not only that -- they don't mind if you skip the deadheading. They'll continue to flower, and also produce a nice crop of red hips. Unfortunately, the hips tend to reddish orange, and unless you have a white rugosa, the flowers tend to a purple-pink -- which clashes rather badly.

OK --let's get the rest of its flaws out of the way. Rugosas tend to sucker. This is bad if you're trying to grow them with perennials and shrubs that resent intrusion. It's good if you want an easy source of more rugosas. The individual flowers don't last too long -- not well at all in a vase, and in hot weather maybe only a day or two on the bush. But it repeats, which means a fairly steady supply of flowers in the garden setting.

And thorns! This one repels small dogs and children, and you'd be warned to invest in a pair of gauntlets before you do anything drastic to it. Which makes it absolutely perfect as a hedge at the back of the property line where apartment dwellers used to tresspass with impunity.

And then there are the other good points,besides extraordinary hardiness and repeat flowering. It has hips, which add color and food for birds (or people -- rose hips are rich in vitamins.). It also has autumn color, so you get an extra Fall display. It comes in a variety of colors and styles, from ramblers to groundcovers. It is fragrant. Best of all, it knows very few diseases or problems. The Japanese beetles ignore mine entirely, while munching happily on an English rose right next to it.

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A few of my favorites? Hands down I'd nominate 'Fimbriata", which is the rose pictured at the start of this article; a pale pink rugosa with flower petals that are "pinked" like a carnation. Many rugosas have this pinking tendency, but Fimbriata really shows it!

'Blanc Double de Coubert' has pure white semi-double blooms lightly tinted blush pink when in bud; it is probably the best known rugosa. 'Rose a Parfum de l'Hay' is probably the best of the bunch, with a rich, purple-red colored bloom and dense, luxuriant foliage.

'Hansa' is my latest acquisition, and one of the final pieces of my colorful, fragrant and thorny barrier hedge. As you can see from the picture, it covers a lot of territory.

Most of the popular, hardy and carefree shrub roses so popular today claim ruugosas as a strong part of their heritage. But why pay a premium when rugosas are so easy to propagate? They are the easiest rose to start from seed, and also the easiest to root from cuttings. And if you grow rugosas instead of the more fragile varieties on the market, you'll have plenty of time to experiment, both with propagating and with other garden flowers.

About the Author Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.

About this Author