Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Roses

The Rugged Roses

by Thomas Christopher


Rugosa rose

Suzanne Verrier grew up with rugosa roses along the Maine coast. When you see them in their natural habitat," she explains, "you have to be impressed. You'll be out in the islands, way out there, and you'll see this rocky outcrop where nothing grows but the rugosas. And they flourish. It's so impressive because you know at times those shrubs are completely under salt water."

So Suzanne Verrier knows that rugosa roses are tough. But she learned something else about them during her childhood. Her mother grew hybrid rugosas that were beautiful in a more refined way. These crosses between the wild rugosa (Rosa rugosa) and a wide range of garden roses retained the wild ancestor's toughness (they could shrug off a Maine winter or the hottest, driest summer) and yet bore blooms of a beauty as delicate as any flower in the garden.

In 1983 Suzanne started her own nursery, Forevergreen Farm, in North Yarmouth, Maine, in large part simply to promote these favorite roses. In 1991, she published Rosa rugosa (Capability's Books, Deer Park, WI). She has since sold the nursery because it wasn't leaving her enough time to garden.

She realized that American gardeners needed an alternative to the hybrid teas that can be so difficult in many parts of the country. As our time and space grow ever more precious, few of us can afford to give roses a private plot of their own or cater to fastidious plants with weekly spraying. If roses are going to have a place in our foundation plantings, hedges or flower borders, then roses need to be as easy to grow as any other flowering shrub. Rugosas, Verrier realized, are well equipped to do that.

As landscape shrubs, rugosa roses have a lot going for them. They are attractive from spring through fall. Whereas most hardy rose species bloom just once each season, typically in early summer, the rugosas and the best of their hybrids blond rebloom until frost. After the flowers fade, they produce large orange or red hips that may reach an inch across. These make quite a show all season too, but especially in autumn when the foliage turns orange or yellow before dropping to reveal the lightly branched upright canes, covered so thickly with fine needle-like prickles that they look almost hairy.

As garden design books stress repeatedly, the best landscape plants have beautiful leaves as well as beautiful flowers. This is where rugosas really shine. Typically, their foliage is a dark and glossy green unmarked by black spot or mildew, for rugosas are among the most disease resistant of all roses. They are "the ultimate organic-gardening subject," in Verrier's words. The leaf texture is quilted, or rugose, because the veins are depressed below the surface.

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