Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
Coming Up Roses by Julie Bawden Davis - Summer 2004
Ruth Parnall's constantly moist Conway, Massachusetts, yard isn't your typical home for roses - but then Rosa palustris isn't your typical rose. Commonly known as the swamp rose, this native thrives in areas where more finicky, non-native hybrid teas curl up their leaves and retreat.
A landscape architect who specializes in native plants, Parnall chose R. palustris because it is native to her area and she knew it would thrive in soggy soil. It's also a beautiful plant that gives her a continuous show. "The rose grows in a goldenrod meadow that I can see from my upstairs windows," she says. "In early summer, it's covered with gorgeous pink blossoms, followed by stunning large red rose hips, and (then) mahogany leaves in the fall."
While much of the gardening public's attention is focused on hybrid teas and their counterparts, there's a virtually untapped selection of native roses now available in the trade.
"We may hear a great deal about those roses whose parents originated in Asia, but the truth is 15 percent of roses actually come from North America," says Steve Jones of Valencia, California, who is the current vice president of the American Rose Society and has won many awards for natives growing in his landscape, such as R. stellata, with its intense purple-pink flowers.
We are so familiar with roses of Asian descent because 80 percent originated there (and another 5 percent in Europe). These plants have obvious attributes, yet natives can be equally impressive and can be less fussy.
Native Roses: A Rugged Sort
"Most natives are low-growing and colonial (rhizomatous)," says Bill Cullina, Nursery Director of the New England Wild Flower Society and author of "Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines" (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). "Though they can get the same fungal diseases as teas, natives are more rugged, often drought-resistant, and capable of thriving in low-fertility soils."
Most native roses produce single pink flowers borne on plants that tend to be more open and sprawling than your standard hybrid teas. They are usually once-bloomers, putting on a show in spring or early summer, but a few, such as R. californica, will repeat. "Certain native roses can also be encouraged to reflower if the rose hips are removed and they are fed from mid-May to Mid-June," says Mark G. Wilson, restoration ecologist with the Natural Resource Program of Portland Parks in Oregon. He manages 7,500 natural acres within the city.
Native roses tend to be much smaller than their hybridized relatives. Most have small, simple flowers. "One particular species has a flower the size of my thumbnail," says Wilson. Rosa nutkana is one of the largest native roses, reaching 2 inches in diameter. Many are unscented or only slightly scented, although a few, like R. nutkana, are fragrant.
One reason native roses don't enjoy the limelight like hybrid teas is their lack of ornamental qualities as defined by florists and some gardeners, who look for large double flowers and repeat blooms, says Mike Shoup, owner of the Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham, Texas.
In terms of performance, there is really no comparison between native and non-native roses, says consulting rosarian Dr. Henry Najat, editor of the quarterly Old Garden Rose and Shrub Gazette. He lives in the country outside of Madison, Wisconsin, where he grows many native roses.
"Hybrid teas are high-maintenance, requiring constant pruning of the spent blooms; a lot of water, fertilizer and sun; rodent and winter protection; and good air flow," says Najat. "Species roses, on the other hand, require very little care. Pruning is limited to cutting out the dead wood in early spring. They may only bloom for about three weeks, but they make lovely green hedges throughout the summer and have wonderful hips that are a good food source for wildlife such as birds. Bees also love these plants," says Najat, who is a beekeeper.
Roses Restoring Habitats
Those involved in ecological restoration, such as John P. Gutting, a landscape architect in Church Hill, Maryland, are encouraged by the increased use of native roses.
"A major advantage of native roses is how critical they are to native habitats," he says. "Their rose hips, for instance, are important to many different mammals, and their flowers to pollinators such as wasps and small bees."It's the trend toward using natives for all of their good qualities - including their strength at habitat restoration - that is leading native roses into the foreground. "Native roses are definitely becoming more available," says Wilson. "Fifteen years ago when the city of Portland began specifying the planting of natives in environmentally sensitive areas, the native nursery market was virtually nonexistent," he says. "Early on we offered growers a consistent long-term partnership and assurance that if they grew the plants we specified, the demand would continue. The call for native roses and natives in general has continued to increase."