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Coming Up Roses: American Native Roses

Tough enough to stop a speeding car, native roses are as versatile as they are resilient, and they may even be immune to a pervasive rose disease.

| May/June 2019

A bee visits a semidouble ‘Pasture Rose.’ Photo by Kent Krugh.

The accepted wisdom on roses is forbidding: The Queen of Flowers requires the richest soil, drip irrigation, and a bed of its own. She has expensive fertilizer dependencies. She must be pruned at precise 45-degree angles, and if not cared for just right — poof — the luxurious shrub with its delicate flowers turns into a single spindly cane.

North America’s native wild roses need no such pedestal. You can burn them, weed-whack 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 pampered garden. They’re so tough that the U.S. Department of Soil Conservation once tested them as highway medians, finding that they could stop a car. And despite their bearishness, some of them also have edible hips with eight times the concentration of vitamin C found in citrus, the ability to flower multiple times a year, and a rich perfume so complex and tuned to our senses that it can’t be created artificially.

‘Virginia Rose’ often bears electric-pink flowers. Photo by Ben Whitacre.

In addition to their other charms, these roses have more than 35 million years of experience in an evolutionary arms race against another native: rose rosette disease, an incurable plague ravaging rose gardens across the country. Native roses’ apparent immunity may be the key to the long-term survival of all roses.

Wilder is Better

Influential English rosarian Graham Stuart Thomas claimed that, of all the roses in his garden, Rosa stellata, a southwestern U.S. native with leaves like a gooseberry, a rich almond fragrance, and occasional repeat bloom, got the most attention from visitors. His high estimation of many of North America’s wild roses wasn’t isolated. But despite their incomparable charms, they remain rarely used in the landscape.

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