Go Wild with Native Roses

Instead of choosing delicate garden roses, grow beautiful, carefree flowers with North America’s own flinty natives.

| Summer 2019

Photo by William Cullina

The accepted wisdom on roses is forbidding. The queen of flowers requires royal treatment: the richest soil, drip irrigation, a bed of its own, and precise pruning at a 45-degree angle. If the rituals aren’t done just right, the luxurious shrub with its delicate flowers turns into a single spindly cane.

North America's native wild roses, however, require no such pedestal. You can burn them, mow them, step on them, and eat them. They’re equally at home growing by train tracks, on the edges of swamps, or in frozen tundra as in the most coddled garden. They’re so tough that the United States Department of Soil Conservation once tested some species in highway medians, finding that they could stop an out-of-control car. And despite their bearishness, some of them possess the qualities that have made us obsess over the rose for millennia — edible hips with eight times the concentration of vitamin C found in oranges, the ability to flower multiple times a year, and a rich, old-rose scent so complex and tuned to our senses that it can’t be effectively recreated in a laboratory. Native roses are also resistant to another North American native, rose rosette disease, which is incurable after it infects a rose plant.

Landscape Use

Influential English rosarian Graham Stuart Thomas claimed that of all the roses in his garden, visitors gave the most attention to Rosa stellata, a Southwest native with leaves resembling those of a gooseberry, a rich almond fragrance, and occasional repeat blooming. Thomas’ high estimation of many of North America's wild roses wasn’t isolated. But despite their incomparable charms, they remain in limbo, rarely used deliberately in the landscape.

Photo by Getty Images/Etka45

Effective garden use of native rose species requires reframing them. Instead of thinking of them as options in a palette of roses, reimagine them as alternatives to popular garden plants, such as potentilla, beautyberry, privet, holly, anemone, and forsythia. Species such as 'Virginia Rose' (R. virginiana), with its dense, mounding growth and shiny leaves, make superb flowering hedges, while 'Cluster Rose' (R. pisocarpa) produces dense displays of fall and winter fruit that could substitute for or pair with beautyberry. As a plus, 'Cluster Rose' may repeat bloom. A recent selection of 'Swamp Rose' (R. palustris) that’s reliably repeat-flowering deserves to be considered alongside the landscaping standbys 'Knock Out' and ‘Rugosa Rose’ (R. rugosa). 

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