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.
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.
Instead of thinking of native roses as options in a palette of roses, consider them alternatives to popular garden plants, such as potentilla, beautyberry, privet, holly, anemone, and forsythia. Species with dense, mounding growth and shiny leaves, such as ‘Virginia Rose’ (R. virginiana), 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’ can repeat bloom. A recent selection of ‘Swamp Rose’ (R. palustris) that’s reliably repeat-flowering should be considered alongside landscaping standbys ‘Knock Out’ and R. rugosa.
Where to Plant Wild Roses
Because North American native roses offer virtually every growth habit imaginable, including dwarfs, climbers, ground covers, and shrubs characteristic of European and Asian types, they offer something for almost every gardener. Traditional uses have combined beauty with function in the form of living fences to contain livestock (R. setigera) and garden borders to keep deer out (R. carolina). The virtues that make them so adept in tough situations transfer well to the smallest planting areas — their extreme tolerance of moisture, drought, heat, and cold makes them perfect for a pot. A wild rose neglected in a small container all summer will survive and flower where other roses would dry out and die. And the pot will limit a wild rose’s aggressive tendency to spread, also allowing it to be moved in and out of dominant spots for different effects in the garden. R. carolina plena, a repeat-blooming, fragrant, cabbage-flowered form of ‘Pasture Rose,’ would be perfect for a busy person looking for a lovely, easy-care patio rose.
A few other recommended uses for wild roses: beach plantings, pollinator gardens, meadows, grottos, stream banks, lake edges, erosion control on slopes, boreal forests, mountains, deserts, and wetland mitigation areas. They’re also a good choice for authentic old house gardens, because they were once prized and widely planted by everyone from farmers to aristocrats. President Thomas Jefferson himself grew them and jotted down their bloom time in his garden book, and personally took orders from his French friends for seeds.
Growing and Caring for Wild Roses
Many North American native roses can be readily obtained from seed suppliers. Growing from seed can be a good way to promote genetic diversity.
However, plants grown from seed will take up to five years to flower and may not have the minimal thorns, repeat-bloom, rich scent, or dense foliage of their parent plant. If these traits are important to you, find a nursery that sells vegetatively propagated plants, take cuttings from wild plants with the traits you want, or trade with other collectors.
In most cases, propagating wild roses is as easy as dividing other spreading perennials, such as bee balm or daylilies. Simply find a plant with suckers and separate a stem with its roots from the clump. Pot the pieces up and place them under a tree, on a porch, or on the shady side of a house for a month or two. While wild roses can be propagated by division at any time of year, transplants taken in early fall require the least attention. In a good season with weekly rainfall, you may not need to water a new plant after the initial potting. Get permission before dividing a species rose on someone else’s property, and obey all rules and laws in parks.
Occasionally, dividing roses isn’t an option. In these cases, you can try layering or taking cuttings for the same result. To layer a rose, bend an arching stem over, twist or otherwise injure a small area of the stem, and bury it. When the stem roots, sever it from the mother plant and pot it.
Cuttings are suitable for producing a large number of plants, but tricky in a home setting. To produce homestyle rooted cuttings, cut 6-inch, pencil-thick pieces from the recently flowered tip of a stem. As quickly as possible, dip the cuttings in rooting hormone and stick them into a well-drained medium. Cover with a clear baggie or milk jug to maintain humidity while the cutting roots.
The last option for home gardeners is to bud or graft onto rootstock. This is standard practice in the nursery trade for commercial roses, but natives are almost never available on rootstock. For species roses to be suitable for in-the-ground planting in a small rose bed, budding or grafting onto rootstock is essential. This will produce nonspreading plants, as long as the bud union is kept well above the soil and the plants aren’t allowed to tip-root. Budding and grafting are specialized techniques best taught through demonstration. Contact your local horticulture extension agent to sign up for a class, or search for step-by-step videos online.
While native roses don’t require any care, they will respond to it. Typical rose garden conditions, such as irrigation, full sun, regular application of manure or compost, and heavily altered loam, may encourage them to grow larger, produce more fragrant flowers, and (if they can) repeat bloom better. If you plan to harvest flowers or frost-softened fruit, don’t spray with toxic chemicals or apply systemic pesticides or fungicides at any time.
Wild Rose Species
‘Climbing Prairie Rose’Rosa setigera
Native from Quebec to Florida, and westward to Missouri and Texas. Up to a 15-foot spread, with clusters of 2- to 3-inch flowers. Thornless cultivars ‘Inermis’ and ‘Serena’ are ideal for high-traffic areas, while spinier forms would serve well as intruder deterrent.
‘Virginia Rose’Rosa virginiana
Native from Quebec to Georgia, and westward to Missouri. Extremely similar to ‘Pasture Rose’ in growth habit, with glorious golden fall color.
‘Nootka Rose’ Rosa nutkana
Native from Alaska to California, and eastward into the Rocky Mountains. Two to 10 feet tall and prone to suckering, with flowers up to 3½ inches across. Typically close to thornless, and suitable for containers.
‘Pasture Rose’ Rosa carolina
Native from Quebec to Florida, and westward to Texas. Up to 6 feet tall, but usually closer to 3 feet, with dense stems and large, fragrant flowers.
A double-flowered, repeat-blooming variety, R. carolina var. plena, is also available.
‘Swamp Rose’ Rosa palustris
Native from Quebec to Florida, and westward to Missouri. Up to 6 feet tall and wide, with arching branches and 1- to 2-inch flowers. Extremely tolerant of wet soil, even growing in slightly submerged locations on the edges of streams and ponds. A weeping variety, R. palustris var. scandens has dense, semidouble flowers with a strong scent.
Wild Rose Suppliers
Ben Whitacre is a hobbyist gardener with a particular interest in figs and roses. He’s worked with roses at Arnold Arboretum, Mount Auburn Cemetery, the American Horticultural Society, and Monticello.