North American Wild Roses

For truly carefree roses, look to North America’s own flinty natives.


| Spring 2018


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.

‘Climbing Prairie Rose’ (Rosa setigera)

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.





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