For truly carefree roses, look to North America’s own flinty natives.
The accepted wisdom on roses is forbidding: The Queen of Flowers requires royal treatment. She needs the richest soil, drip irrigation, and a bed of her own. She has expensive chemical dependencies. She must be pruned at a 45-degree angle as precise as the turning of a cup in a Zen tea ceremony. If the ritual isn’t done just right — poof! The luxurious shrub with its delicately poised flowers turns into a single spindly cane.
But North America’s native wild roses require no such pedestal. You can burn them, weed-whack them, step on them, and eat them, and they’ll continue to grow. They’re as at home growing by train tracks, on the edges of swamps, or in the frozen tundra as they are in the most effete garden. They’re so tough that the U.S. Department of Soil Conservation once tested some species for use in highway medians, finding that they could stop a car. And despite their bearishness, some of them possess the qualities that have made us obsess over the rose for the past several millennia — edible hips with eight times the concentration of vitamin C found in citrus, the ability to flower multiple times a year, and the distinctive perfume of Damask roses (Rosa x damascena), a scent so complex and tuned to our senses that it can be no more effectively recreated in a laboratory than chocolate or coffee can.
The crucial element to bringing native roses back into the limelight seems to come specifically from their more than 35 million years in an evolutionary arms race against another North American native: rose rosette disease. Unlike most cultivated roses derived from European and Asian stock, America’s natives may be immune to the mite-borne disease — a quality rosarians hope to incorporate into future generations of roses.
The following North American species roses are of particular value to a gardener, whether because of their tolerance of conditions that would make hybrid roses curl up their roots, their exuberant growth habits, or the sheer beauty and scent of their flowers.
Native from Quebec to Florida, and westward to Missouri and Texas.
French botanist and explorer André Michaux described Rosa setigera on a plant-collecting expedition to North America sponsored by King Louis XVI in 1785. This imposing native rose is one of the most unusual in the world. According to legend, its bright-pink trusses of Damask-scented flowers inspired President George Washington to use it to create the first rose hybrids in America. Both the species and the hybrids bloom in clusters of more than a dozen 2- to 3-inch flowers, ranging in color from bubblegum-pink to white.
Its unique traits make it easy to identify. ‘Climbing Prairie Rose’ is both the only native climbing rose in North America and the only one with fused styles — the stalks that bear a flower’s stigmata, or pollen receptors. It’s further distinguished by blackberry-like leaves with three leaflets. Hopeful hybridizers discovered that, unlike any other rose species, R. setigera is dioecious: It has distinct male and female plants. Female plants produce rich red fruits, while male plants have larger flowers.
Cold-hardy to at least Zone 4, this is a rose that provides immediate gratification when situated where its extraordinarily rampant growth is welcome. In one season, it can go from a quart-sized plant to covering a wall or fence up to about 15 feet. Like all North American species, it’s highly variable, ranging from richly fragrant to almost scentless, from white to crimson, and from thornless to vicious. Thornless cultivars ‘Inermis’ and ‘Serena’ are perhaps best for high-traffic areas, while pricklier forms will prevent any Romeos from climbing a balcony. Despite its name, ‘Climbing Prairie Rose’ can also be grown as a large, arching shrub or trailing ground cover, where it will layer itself into a large patch.
Native from Alaska to California, and eastward into the Rocky Mountains.
Named for Vancouver’s Nootka Sound, this West Coast native has long been a favorite of rosarians and hybridizers because it produces the largest flowers (up to 3 1/2 inches across) and fruits of any native North American roses. Like ‘Pasture Rose,’ it has long sepals that produce a charming effect by projecting beyond the open flower, like the English heraldic rose. It also sports relatively thornless brown stems and dense gray-green leaves that turn a golden brown in fall. The ‘Nootka Rose’ grows from 2 to 10 feet tall and can sucker outward indefinitely, forming a thicket.
Gardeners considering adding ‘Nootka Rose’ should be aware that the species is highly variable, so plants should be carefully selected for the desired traits. It’s tolerant of wet conditions as well as dry woodland settings with partial shade. It’s also a superb choice for growing in a pot, where its size can be most easily controlled, much like mint in a garden.
For the historically minded, ‘Nootka Rose’ has one of the best-documented histories of use by Native Americans, who used it as food, medicine, and for ceremonial purposes.
‘Pasture Rose’ (Rosa carolina)
Native from Quebec to Florida, and westward to Texas.
Early explorers to New England noted wild, richly perfumed roses reminiscent of the European ‘Sweet Briar Rose’ (R. rubiginosa) planted among the vegetable gardens of Native American settlements. Colonists quickly adopted the sturdy native R. carolina as an ornament and a fence around their own vegetable gardens. Later, the French Empress Josephine Bonaparte grew it, and her fellow countrymen used it in hybridizing. During the 20th century, rosarian Richard Thomson called it the most interesting rose in his garden.
But ‘Pasture Rose’ requires no historical pedigree to turn heads. One of the first roses to flower each spring, it bears large, fragrant, single flowers ranging from pink to white. It has a striking dwarf habit — often remaining under 3 feet tall — with upright, minimally branched stems, which form a dense spreading mound over time. In the most favorable cultivation, it can reach up to 6 feet in height.
R. carolina var. plena, a double-flowered, repeat-blooming form, is perhaps the most valuable native North American rose for old rose collectors and more traditional rose gardens. Its flowers are similar to the old cabbage roses (R. x centifolia), and its fragrance is superb Damask. For recipes requiring rose petals, this may also be the most useful choice.
Native from Quebec to Georgia, and westward to Missouri.
Extremely similar to ‘Pasture Rose’ in distribution and growth habit, ‘Virginia Rose’ has sometimes been considered a larger variety of ‘Pasture Rose,’ but is now accepted as a separate species. If fall foliage is a priority for a gardener, this may be the best choice — its golden fall leaves are widely ranked as the most glorious in the entire genus.
Native from Quebec to Florida, and westward to Missouri.
Despite the name, ‘Swamp Rose’ can adapt to almost any soil type, from slightly submerged areas on the edge of water features to loose sandy soils. While it has a lengthy history, more recent developments prove the value of continued plant exploration and research — historically, this has been a once-blooming rose limited to plantings in watery soil where few other roses would do as well. In more recent years, a repeat-blooming form was discovered in Florida, which has made R. palustris one of the most valuable species roses for gardeners. Its habit is similar to the related ‘Pasture Rose’ and ‘Virginia Rose,’ though it can be readily distinguished by the rolled stipules at the base of its leaf stalks.
Another unique form elevates ‘Swamp Rose’ to its own elite niche in the genus. Pierre-Joseph Redouté illustrated a specimen of the ‘Cascading Swamp Rose’ (R. palustris var. scandens) from Empress Josephine Bonaparte’s Château de Malmaison garden in the early 1800s, but the cultivar only re-emerged in the 1980s, when Texas rose rustler William Welch found it growing in Louisiana and reintroduced it. This truly dramatic plant has long, thin, weeping branches that bear semi-double pink flowers in intense profusion. Its picturesque qualities are undeniable when grown over a water feature, perhaps near a weeping willow, and all the more so in the morning or evening, when its rich perfume is at its prime.
Native from British Columbia to Mexico, and eastward to Iowa.
An ethereal beauty of the West Coast, ‘Woods’ Rose’ has charmed Europeans and Americans much as its East Coast cousins have. It’s one of only two roses immortalized in the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, housed at Harvard University.
Like many North American species roses, R. woodsii has been described under a number of scientific names, but is now divided into five subspecies. I find R. woodsii subsp. ultramontana, the subspecies found in the area between the Rockies and Cascades, to have a special formal grace: slender green limbs with few prickles, which arch under the weight of marble-sized hips; soft lilac-colored flowers with a nice boss of stamens; and grey-green foliage that resists disease. The effect of arching limbs and fruit has been compared to strings of large cranberries on a Christmas tree.
All varieties of ‘Woods’ Rose’ form a dense, spreading shrub up to 6 feet tall. It’s a superb choice for woodland plantings, but it’s also worth planting in more frequented areas, where its festive winter display can be fully appreciated.
Rose rosette disease is caused by the Emaravirus sp., which is carried and spread by a very small mite. The disease results in overgrowth of vegetative shoots, which are typically red-hued and more succulent than normal growth. As the disease progresses, leaves become deformed, brittle, and small, while short, intensely red shoots erupt from most lateral buds; the affected plant becomes exceptionally susceptible to freeze damage. Most affected roses die within five years. Multiflora roses (R. multiflora) are the main hosts for rose rosette, exhibiting more extreme symptoms than other cultivated roses.
Many native species, including R. setigera, R. palustris, and R. carolina, appear to exhibit resistance to rose rosette, potentially offering a source of genetic variance that will confer resistance on cultivated species.
Shakespeare might’ve been referring to Damask roses (Rosa x damascena), which originated as a cross between three ancient rose species: musk rose (R. moschata), Gallic rose (R. gallica), and an Asian wild rose (R. fedtschenkoana). The exact history of this cross is unknown, but botanists theorize that it occurred first in Central Asia, spreading east and west along trade routes. By the 13th century, Iranian and Turkish gardeners were cultivating the lush plants for their beauty and their fragrance-rich flowers, and European crusaders likely brought the plants back to their home countries around that time.
The shrubs grow to about 7 feet tall, with sturdy, densely thorned stems. Summer Damasks (R. x damascena nothovar. damascena) bear clusters of small, many-petaled pink flowers, redolent of a scent best described as “rosy,” for a brief period in late summer. Autumn Damasks (R. x damascena nothovar. semperflorens) blossom into autumn.
Bulgaria and Turkey are now the world’s leading producers of rose oil from cultivars of R. x damascena. The oil is immensely labor-intensive to produce, as the petals are harvested over a period of about 40 days, and 60,000 petals (about 180 pounds) are required to distill 1 ounce of oil.
Bio: Ben Whitacre is a hobbyist gardener with a particular interest in figs and roses. He has worked with roses at Arnold Arboretum, Mount Auburn Cemetery, the American Horticultural Society, and Monticello.
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