The Rugged Roses

Rugosa rose

Suzanne Verrier grew up with rugosa roses along the Maine coast. When you see them in their natural habitat," she explains, "you have to be impressed. You'll be out in the islands, way out there, and you'll see this rocky outcrop where nothing grows but the rugosas. And they flourish. It's so impressive because you know at times those shrubs are completely under salt water."

So Suzanne Verrier knows that rugosa roses are tough. But she learned something else about them during her childhood. Her mother grew hybrid rugosas that were beautiful in a more refined way. These crosses between the wild rugosa (Rosa rugosa) and a wide range of garden roses retained the wild ancestor's toughness (they could shrug off a Maine winter or the hottest, driest summer) and yet bore blooms of a beauty as delicate as any flower in the garden.

In 1983 Suzanne started her own nursery, Forevergreen Farm, in North Yarmouth, Maine, in large part simply to promote these favorite roses. In 1991, she published Rosa rugosa (Capability's Books, Deer Park, WI). She has since sold the nursery because it wasn't leaving her enough time to garden.

She realized that American gardeners needed an alternative to the hybrid teas that can be so difficult in many parts of the country. As our time and space grow ever more precious, few of us can afford to give roses a private plot of their own or cater to fastidious plants with weekly spraying. If roses are going to have a place in our foundation plantings, hedges or flower borders, then roses need to be as easy to grow as any other flowering shrub. Rugosas, Verrier realized, are well equipped to do that.

As landscape shrubs, rugosa roses have a lot going for them. They are attractive from spring through fall. Whereas most hardy rose species bloom just once each season, typically in early summer, the rugosas and the best of their hybrids blond rebloom until frost. After the flowers fade, they produce large orange or red hips that may reach an inch across. These make quite a show all season too, but especially in autumn when the foliage turns orange or yellow before dropping to reveal the lightly branched upright canes, covered so thickly with fine needle-like prickles that they look almost hairy.

As garden design books stress repeatedly, the best landscape plants have beautiful leaves as well as beautiful flowers. This is where rugosas really shine. Typically, their foliage is a dark and glossy green unmarked by black spot or mildew, for rugosas are among the most disease resistant of all roses. They are "the ultimate organic-gardening subject," in Verrier's words. The leaf texture is quilted, or rugose, because the veins are depressed below the surface.

Fragrant Flowers

The blossoms of the rugosa rose are sweet scented, with a hint of clove, and as Verrier says, they "throw" their perfume. To savor a rugosa you don't have to stick your nose in the flower -- it assaults you as you walk by.

If rugosas have a single weakness it is that they are not especially good as cut flowers. Rugosas carry their medium to large blossoms in clusters with very short individual stems. To get enough stem to put in a vase, you must cut the whole cluster. But the buds open one at a time, and the individual flowers unfurl quickly and last only a day. In the garden, rugosas can be covered with fresh flowers daily. In the vase, their fragile beauty passes too quickly.

Rugosa blossoms vary in form, especially among the hybrids, which inherit floral characteristics from their non-rugosa parents. For the most part these flowers are open and saucer-shaped -- airy assemblages of large petals that seem fashioned out of silk crepe. The colors tend toward complex shades of rose or wine red, though there are pure white rugosas and true scarlets, and even a couple o yellow-flowering hybrids.

Which Varieties Are For You?

There are a fair number of old hybrid rugosas that date from the turn of the century and earlier, back before the time when the hybrid tea drove nearly every other type of rose out of the garden. And there is a modest explosion of new hybrids now.

The best of the older rugosas build on the natural strengths of this species. They tend to be big, bold shrubs, well adapted to use as a flowering hedge or windbreak, or for planting at the back of a flower border. Rosa rugosa rubra, for example, a red-flowered form of the wild species that dates back at least to the 18th century, makes a six-foot-tall mound of foliage and single (five-petalled) blossoms. The white form alba is of similar size, but has denser growth.

During the settling of the midwestern states and Canadian provinces, rugosa hardiness was recognized as potentially valuable to gardeners. Pioneers among North American rugosa hybridizers were Professor N.E. Hansen of South Dakota and Frank Skinner of Manitoba. But as their elegant Gallic names suggest, most of the older hybrid rugosas came from France. 'Roseraie de l'Hay' (1901) and 'Blanc Double de Coubert' (1892) are examples.

Old-time American hybrids of note include 'Sir Thomas Lipton' (1900), a six-foot-tall shrub that performs better in the South than in the North, and 'Sarah Van Fleet' (1926). 'Delicata', an American hybrid of 1898, foretold a move to somewhat smaller rugosas.

'Max Graf' rises only to two feet if left to itself -- it's a creeper. Its long canes will spread over an area of eight feet or more, rooting where they touch the ground, so it's most often used as a groundcover. It bears yellow-centered, bright pink blossoms in one long flush in early summer. But 'Max Graf' can also be trained up a trellis or over an arbor -- as can 'Conrad Ferdinand Meyer', a vigorous lanky shrub of 1899 that bears pink, hybrid-tea-type blossoms. Its flowers are unusual, but it has retained the wrinkled, healthy rugosa fond so has its white-flowered sport (a spontaneous mutation), 'Nova Zembla'.

For modern breeders, the challenge has been to transform Rosa rugosa into a more compact shrub. Canadian breeders have led the way in this, for their harsher climate forced them to take a serious interest in hardy roses very early. In 1963 Georges Bugnet of Alberta released 'Marie Bugnet', a compact three-foot shrub with white, camellia-like flowers.

"The Canadian Explorer Series" of hardy roses bred by the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa includes a lot of rugosa in its bloodlines. 'Henry Hudson' (1976) for example, offers classic rugosa foliage on a spreading, three-foot-tall shrub. The semi-double, clove-scented flowers are white and recur through the summer. 'Jens Munk' (1974) is something of a throwback, a brawny rugosa five feet tall and wide, but with its startlingly pink, spiced blossoms and handsome, mounded pattern of growth, it is too good to pass over.

The most exciting of the new rugosas, however, are coming out of Germany -- the series of "Pavement Roses" are now available at some rose nurseries. The unattractive name refers to their suitability for streetside plantings; rugosas are particularly good near roads because they tolerate high levels of salt, whether from sea spray or snow removal.

Laissez-Faire Rose Culture

My own experience suggests that a moderate dressing of aged manure in late autumn is all the feeding rugosa roses need. Verrier prefers horse manure. As their adaptation to the Maine coast suggests, rugosas prefer sandy, well-drained soils, though I have grown them most successfully in the compacted rubble at the edge of a parking lot. I dug big planting holes, though, and mixed large amounts of compost into the backfill. Verrier notes that even a heavy clay soil won't seriously harm rugosas. It only slows the development of their full beauty.

Rugosa roses are troubled by few insects than Japanese beetles, and beetle damage, though temporarily disfiguring, isn't serious. Rose stem girdler beetles and mossy rose gall wasps occasionally attack rugosas -- the symptom is a sudden wilting of a healthy cane. The treatment is simple: prune affected branches back to below the insect's point of attack, and destroy the prunings. A healthy shrub will recover quickly. Don't spray rugosas with pesticides. Most will burn the leaves, causing more damage than the pest.

Wild rugosas and some of the more primitive cultivars such as rubra have a tendency to sucker, and the gardener must remove these new shoots or neighboring plantings will be overrun. Other than that, the only pruning required is the removal of winter-damaged canes (and these are few, as these roses are cold-hardy to -40 degrees F.) and perhaps a minor thinning and shaping in early spring to encourage compact growth. These are roses that can take care of themselves -- so step back and enjoy.

Where They'll Grow

Rugosas give new meaning to the word hardiness. Wild specimens overwinter successfully in zone 2. And rugosas tolerate not only extreme cold but also heat, drought and intense sunlight. Rugosas are exceptional in this respect, and so are suited to many regions where traditional garden roses do not flourish.

A study of shrub roses conducted by Edward R. Hasselkus and Jeffrey Epping from 1987 through 1988 in botanical gardens and arboreta throughout the upper Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio) found the rugosas to be clearly the best adapted to that climate. Not all rugosas proved equal: Sir Thomas Lipton, for example, died back to the snow line in winter and got black spot in the summer. But many cultivars like 'Fru Dagmar Hastrup', 'Belle Poitevine' and 'Blanc Double de Coubert' came through with high marks.

Rugosas are a good bet throughout the Rocky Mountain states and the prairie provinces of Canada, though they do require irrigation in dry climates. Unfortunately, however, they are not for every region. Clair Martin, rosarian at The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California, notes that rugosas are outstandingly disease resistant in his garden, but are not as vigorous as in the North. A rose that reaches six to seven feet in Toronto might make 18 inches in Los Angeles. However many hybrids are more tolerant, though Martin adds that all prefer afternoon shade, especially in hotter, inland valleys.

For southern Californians, the best of the rugosas are two hybrids created by Ralph Moore in Visalia, California. These are: 'Linda Campbell' (bears bright crimson blossoms in large clusters) and 'Topaz Jewel' (a semi-double, pale yellow rose that does not perform well in northern regions).

In the East, the southern limit of the rugosa roses range is normally zone 7, though they grow reasonably well at the higher elevations of zone 8. William Welch, a horticultural extension specialist at Texas A&M University and a leading authority on roses for the South, warns that rugosas do not perform well in truly hot and humid areas such as the Gulf Coast. On the plain immediately inland, rugosas may grow for a while but are generally short-lived. Welch notes that alkaline soils cause chlorosis in rugosas, yellowing their normally deep green foliage. There are limits, apparently, to even rugosa hardiness.

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