Romancing the Roses

By Jack Ruttle, August 2, 2017

This article originally appeared in print form in the January 1989 issue of National Gardening magazine.

I’ve been an avid gardener for decades, but whenever the subject was roses, I always had more questions than answers. I needed a guide to lead me through the maze of varieties and classes. When I began talking with rosarians around the country, one name kept coming up: Bev Dobson.


Bev Dobson has spent a lifetime getting to know roses.
Last fall I had the pleasure of meeting Bev at her home in Irvington, New York, where we spent a whole day talking roses. Bev’s knowledge of roses goes far beyond the boundaries of her own garden. She grew hybrid teas on the West Coast, first as a child helping with her mother’s large collection and for another 10 years in her own garden near San Francisco. When she and husband Stu moved to the suburbs of New York 20 years ago, they had to relearn roses to get growing again.

Bev currently grows about 300 roses. She was an American Rose Society judge at shows for about 10 years, and she’s also contributed to and edited several books on roses in addition to publishing Bev Dobsons Rose Letter and the annual Combined Rose List. There’s no question: Bev knows roses.

Bev, what is it about the rose that makes it so popular?

Roses can be in bloom longer than any other flower you can name, and that probably has something to do with it. But their long flowering season is a recent development, one that’s come about in the last hundred years or so. Most of the old roses only bloomed once. Of course the flower is so very beautiful. And it’s wonderfully fragrant.

What about its reputation for being hard to grow?

That’s another recent development. The roses of a hundred years ago were not hard to grow. Problems arise when people try to grow the roses they find in garden centers — modern hybrid teas and floribundas — in situations that aren’t ideal for them. After a cold winter these plants have many black canes, and must be pruned almost to the ground. You’re lucky if you don’t have to replace some of them. The ones that do survive have to make a lot of new growth in order to bloom.

Part of that reputation also comes from books that make rose growing sound harder than it needs to be. That perception has gotten out pretty widely, and I think it’s a pity. Any text that recommends a strict routine of winter protection, complex pruning and regular spraying is coming from a person who grows roses, generally hybrid teas, for exhibition. But you don’t have to grow roses that way.

What sort of roses should people grow then, the old roses?

That’s too simple. I love the old garden roses myself and grow a lot of them. But some roses that people today call “old roses” can be pretty tender, and some hybrid teas are hardy and disease resistant.

Gardeners who would rather not have to coddle their roses should match the varieties they grow to their climate. In general, across the South and in milder parts of the West, you don’t have to be an expert gardener to be able to grow all kinds of roses well. In severe winter climates, tender roses will suffer varying degrees of winter-kill, but most of the old garden roses will be very, very hardy Among the modern roses — hybrid teas, floribundas and grandifloras — some will be hardier than others. Some are very tender, others will stand a pretty severe winter. Books and catalogs will tell you which roses are hardy and which aren’t.

I’m getting confused by terminology - floribunda, hybrid tea, shrub rose. Would you explain what the various kinds of roses are?

Don’t feel bad. The terminology of roses is always confusing when you start out. Think of roses as falling into eight different classes. There are species roses, old garden roses, hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras, climbers, shrub roses and miniatures. Within these classes are subgroups.


Peace, a high-centered hybrid tea, is the most popular rose of the 20th century.
The classification is not always logical, though. For example, some old garden roses could be considered climbers, and nearly all roses could be thought of as shrubs, since that’s the shape they grow into. But once the experts assign a rose to one class, it isn’t included in any others.

Could we go through the classes one by one? Species roses — am I right in assuming they’re basically wild roses?

That’s right. If you cross a species rose with itself, it should come true from seed. There are 200 or so wild rose species. All rose varieties are crosses that ultimately trace back to pure species roses. And a few of the species are good, hardy plants for the garden. The most popular is Father Hugo’s rose, Rosa hugonis. It’s a big shrub producing bright yellow flowers very early in the season. It prefers poor soil. I’ve killed several plants by getting fertilizer too near them. Rosa rubiginosa is a wonderful rose, too. Its pink five-petaled flowers become very shiny orange-red hips in autumn. The foliage has an apple-like fragrance. This one is hard to use in small gardens, though, because it makes a huge, thorny bush.

A small, neat species rose that I love is Rosa nitida. Its foliage turns bright yellow in fall and the stems in winter are so thickly covered with prickles they actually look furry. If you need a ground cover, Rosa wichuraiana is one that stays low. The species rugosas are stately plants and are the only hardy species roses that bloom all through the season.

What about the old garden roses?

They are the ones grown in Europe before hybridization with China roses and tea roses became widespread. The advent of the modern rose is assigned to 1867 when the first hybrid tea was introduced. But people often include roses introduced later than that in the “old” class, as long as they are true to the older types. True tea roses and China roses are also included in this class because they were cultivated in the Orient from ancient times.

The old roses can be further divided into various groups such as the gallicas, damasks, alba and centifolia roses, all of which are very old roses. Some old roses are crosses between these groups. The moss roses are a cross between alba and centifolia roses; Bourbons are a cross between damasks and Chinas. The hybrid perpettials are the next step toward modern roses. Portland roses are crosses between damasks, gallicas and China roses. There are many wonderful varieties of old roses — it’s a large group. They bloom only once a year, but the bushes just cover themselves with flowers.

Are all old roses hardy?

Well, no, the Chinas and teas are tender, and so are any that have a lot of those two in their parentage. The Bourbons, Noisettes and hybrid perpetuals will be tender in the North. But the older European roses — the gallicas, damasks, centifolias, albas and moss roses — are all quite hardy and will thrive where winters are severe.

I’ve found old roses to be less susceptible to diseases in my garden, although I’ve seen a little mildew on one of my gallicas.

How do you define a hybrid tea rose?

In the beginning hybrid teas were roses bred from a hybrid perpetual and a tea rose. But by now they have become so extensively interbred that it’s very hard to figure out their heritage. The typical hybrid tea has a long stem and large flower, with long central petals. All the petals unfurl evenly from a high, pointed center. The hybrid tea is the latest development in the history of the rose. And it’s the most popular rose by far today and has been since the end of the last century.

The big thing about hybrid teas is that they repeat bloom. But a lot of that has to do with the way you grow them. If you want good repeat bloom on any of the roses that are capable of it, you’re going to have to fertilize and water heavily. If you do a little judicious pruning, keep the spray program going and do anything else you can to keep that plant at optimum health, it will bloom. You can see how some people really can go overboard on this kind of stuff.

Some varieties of hybrid teas are less demanding and easier to grow than others. But it’s so hard to pin this down. What’s true in one site won’t necessarily be true in another.

What about floribundas?


Bahia has the clustered hybrid tea- shaped flowers typical of many modern floribundas, and is a good bloomer.
The floribunda was created in the early 1930s. Svend Poulsen in Denmark wanted to create a rose that was both hardy and repeat blooming — what most breeders have been looking for for nearly two hundred years. He crossed a polyantha (one of the modern bush forms of the shrub roses) that was repeat-blooming like crazy with a hybrid tea, and he got roses that bore clusters of flowers with one, two or three rows of petals. They were very cold hardy, but not as hardy as old garden roses.

Some had big flowers and others had tiny flowers in clusters. Since then breeders have worked to get the flower more like the hybrid tea type. But the early floribundas are a lot hardier than current releases. The modern floribunda is a smaller, more spreading bush than a hybrid tea, with hybrid tea-shaped flowers in small clusters or single stems.

Are floribundas easier to grow than hybrid teas?

They’re supposed to be a little bit hardier and they’re supposed to bloom a lot more. But it depends on the variety

And what is a grandiflora?

It’s really a “grandibush.” A breeder was trying for the same thing every— body else was — repeat bloom on a hardy plant — and he got something quite different. He recognized it as something really exceptional, named the rose Queen Elizabeth and created the class grandiflora for it. Then other breeders tried to breed more roses to fit the class. For a long time they didn’t succeed at all, and you could argue about whether they have succeeded yet today. In England, the grandiflora isn’t recognized as a separate class.

Queen Elizabeth is a bush that is bigger than the hybrid tea with a smaller flower of the hybrid tea shape. It is a gorgeous and distinctive rose.

Is it a more garden-worthy plant in any way?

Yes, I think so, in some ways. Queen Elizabeth is larger and bushier and doesn’t fit in with anything else in its class, the same way that Peace, a larger plant than the average hybrid tea, doesn’t fit in with others in its class. Queen Elizabeth is used a lot for hedges in England. It is probably the second most famous rose of the century, Peace being the first. And I don’t see any other roses coming along in the next 10 years to change that.

What about climbers? Are they fairly easy to grow?

Not all of them are cold hardy. In this area (the southern edge of zone 6) and northward, when people ask me to recommend a repeat blooming climber, it’s very hard to have to tell them that there’s nothing that will be satisfactory. The climbers that repeat bloom are the ones that will winter-kill.

There are exceptions to this. There’s a friend in my garden club who has Climbing Peace, a hybrid tea, on the south wall of her house, and it is gorgeous and very big. It just loves it there, and when it blooms it’s a sight.

So there are hybrid teas that are climbers? I thought climbers were a class to themselves

They are a class to themselves. But as I mentioned earlier, climbers come from several of the other groups. There are climbers that are sports of bush hybrid teas and floribundas. And there are climbers that are older. Some of the older climbers are extremely hardy but they only bloom once. The wichuriana hybrid climbers will cover the side of a building and have beautiful glossy foliage that never gets anything wrong with it.


Climbers, though a class to themselves, include many blossom types.
Many climbers really aren’t very tall. They’ll form a better freestanding bush. Or train them to a pillar or post or on a low fence. They just don’t throw canes that are very long. Climbers flower better if you train the canes into a more horizontal position. By the way, roses don’t really climb by themselves. They have nothing to hold on with. You’ve got to tie them to make them go where you want.

Hybrid tea climbers have very stiff canes. The floribundas aren’t quite so stiff, but their canes are shorter and they won’t cover so much space. The climbing roses called ramblers have very lax canes and will cover 12 to 15 feet easily Ramblers generally have large clusters of tiny flowers. They come into flower later than other roses and are once-blooming.

What are the shrub roses?

A rose gets assigned to this class because people don’t know where else to put it. A shrub rose could originate when a hybridizer crosses a modern rose back to a species to work some of the species traits back into the line. Shrub roses are modern roses that are not many steps away from a species rose.

There are all different kinds of shrubs. Some are two and a half to three feet high and rounded. Others can be five to seven feet high and just as wide. Some of them form dense bushes; others throw long, rangy canes. Some people plant two or three of the rangy types together to give a more compact bush.

The hybrid rugosas are shrub roses and so are the hybrid musks and hybrid eglantines. Polyantha roses are repeat-blooming bush forms of some of the early once-blooming ramblers. They are late‘to bloom, but once they start they keep blooming until winter. They are being overshadowed by the miniatures, but they shouldn’t be forgotten. They are neat rounded little

WHICH ROSES TO GROW

Bedding and formal borders: floribundas, hybrid teas Hedges: shrub roses, old garden roses, grandifloras

Perennial and shrub borders: shrub roses, old garden roses, grandifloras, species roses Edging and low borders: miniatures, small shrub roses, especially polyanthas

Formal rose garden: all classes Cutting: all roses in arrangements; hybrid teas for long stems

Fragrance: most old garden roses, certain hybrid teas Walls or trellises: tall climbers Low fences: short climbers Low-care gardens: old garden roses, shrub roses, species roses (especially rugosas)

Long flowering: hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras, shrub roses, most miniatures plants that make excellent low hedges

Didn’t you say earlier that shrub roses were some of the best for people who don’t plan to fuss over their plants?

Yes, and there are some very good shrub roses. Breeder Griffith Buck, a professor at Iowa State before he retired, has been developing roses that are very hardy and will repeat bloom. He got some that were three to four feet tall with a very modern-looking flower. One of his that’s widely praised is Carefree Beauty Felicitas Svejda in Ontario, Canada, was working toward the same goal. She was breeding China roses into hybrid rugosas, and I’ve been hearing good things about them. She named the roses after Canadian explorers. I’m trying Henry Hudson.

Is this a trend? Will we be seeing more hardy shrub roses?

I think so. We’ve been seeing some so-called landscape roses imported from Europe, and there are a lot more shrub roses in catalogs. The idea is that you can plant these roses in difficult situations — rough areas, steep banks, along railway beds and roadsides — and they won’t need much attention and will still be beautiful. They are repeat bloomers.

Some people call them ground cover roses, but they are classed as shrub roses. They tend to hug the ground and some tip-root, but they are taller than you’d imagine a ground cover. Some of them are three to four feet tall. Only wichuriana, a species rose, really creeps over the ground, and it will be one of the best ground covers. I think weeds will be able to grow up through these shrub roses, though, unless you use a really good mulch. They may take some care, but I like the idea. What flower can you name that doesn’t take some care?

Do you see any other trends?

Miniature roses have been booming for some time and there’s no sign of that slowing down. People can’t resist buying them. They’re very easy to hybridize, so breeders are coming out with new ones all the time.

These tiny roses are exact duplicates of bigger roses, miniaturized in every respect. The miniaturizing gene is dominant. Cross a mini with a climber and you get a whole bunch of minis. The reason we didn’t have minis a lot sooner is that in the old days if nurserymen saw a small plant, something that didn’t look vigorous, they rogued it out.

Are minis easy to grow?


Miniature roses, such as Razzmatazz, are especially attractive in borders.
They can be, but they are really outdoor plants, not houseplants. Only certain varieties are well suited to growing in containers or indoors. They need lots of light. You must grow them under lights if you want them to bloom indoors over winter. If miniroses are ever allowed to dry out they will die. They are sold in full bloom. You should put the plant into a bigger pot, keep it watered and plant it outside just as soon as you can. Once they’re in the ground, the roots will go down to China and they’ll be fine.

Miniroses are generally hardier than hybrid teas or floribundas. But they can easily be overgrown by other plants. They are good around patios, for low borders and in rock gardens. And because they’re small they can be quickly defoliated by insects or disease.

I think I’m beginning to understand bow roses break down into groups What should be my next step for tracking down roses for my garden?

Read more, and talk to other people — as many as you can. You’ll hear a lot of conflicting things, but that’s inevitable. Don’t worry about it. It will all be interesting, and you’ll get to the point where things jell and you will be able to pick out what applies to your own situation.

Once you’ve identified the varieties that will really perform where you live, you’ll have to get mail-order plants. It’s the only way, unless you live near a specialist rose nursery.

You can’t just walk into your local garden center and pick out what you like. It’s a rare nurseryman who really knows enough about roses to give you good guidance. Garden centers and retail nurseries often sell varieties they shouldn’t. Around here they are selling climbing First Prize, and I spoke to a lady who put a whole row of it along a fence. First Prize is so tender that knowledgeable rose growers who raise the bush form dig it up and bury it every winter to protect it from the cold!

Do you have any other advice for a beginner?

Plant your roses in a well-drained, sunny situation. That’s the first rule. Roses need lots of water but they don’t like wet feet. They can survive in shade but need at least four to six hours of full sun each day to bloom.

And I always say, grow whatever you like, but first find out what it is you really like. Do your homework. Use the library, study nursery catalogs. There are rose gardens all over the US. and Canada, and I strongly recommend people visit as many of those as they can. And go to local rose shows. Most people won’t want to grow exhibition roses, but I guarantee you nobody will be disappointed at a rose show A good rose show has a place on the schedule for every kind of rose. Hybrid teas and floribundas will predominate, but you’ll see all kinds there. Everything will be labeled. And you’ll get a chance to meet people who know roses and who can point you to others who can help you with the kinds of roses you are interested in.

The more you learn about roses, the more you really appreciate them. And there is no better way to learn about them than by watching them grow in the garden.

 
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