The Most Popular Flower
by Charles Kidder
I’ve been writing this column for several years, but never had the nerve to take on roses. Until now, that is. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, roses will be appearing everywhere, so I guess it’s time for me face the thorny things.
I remember reading in some unimpeachable source like Parade magazine that roses were the most popular flower in the country. Never mind that most survey respondents probably could not name their second-favorite flower. Taking on the number one plant is daunting, especially when there are many rosarians—and perhaps even Rosicrucians—waiting to jump to the plant’s defense.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that roses are not my favorite plants. A few years ago I grew a couple of shrub roses, but became discouraged when they became lunch for the Japanese beetles. At least in certain cases, roses are high-maintenance plants, so not my cup of tea. Despite that experience, I do acknowledge that some roses are much tougher than others. What are some of the better ones, and how do you grow them?
There are somewhere between one hundred and two hundred species in the genus Rosa, and most of these wild plants are not beset by all the ills of their cultivated brethren. If you are content with fairly small, single flowers, i. e. only five petals per flower, along with a short bloom period, natives such as Rosa virginiana, R. carolina or R. palustris would do fine. But if you want big, blousy flowers with hundreds of petals and a long bloom season, you’ll have to seek out the numerous hybrids and cultivars that so many people conjure up when they think of “rose.” Unfortunately when those features were bred into roses, much of their natural toughness was bred out. This is why most of the fuss-budget roses are quarantined in rose gardens where they can more readily receive frequent chemical blastings. Irreverent rose-detractors might refer to such roses as “black-spot-on-a-stick.”
But back to the tough-species roses. One of my favorites, R. banksiae or Lady Banks Rose, is a standby in the Deep South, but will do okay up here. The wild form has small white flowers in April; the more commonly seen cultivar ‘Lutea’ features small, yellow double flowers. Reportedly the yellow flowers have little fragrance, while the white ones will do better at tickling your olfactory lobes. Lady Banks Rose is not for small spaces. A sprawling climber, it needs something to hang onto—a fence, pergola or sturdy trees can support it as it grows to twenty feet. In mild winters it can be essentially evergreen, and the older stems have attractive cinnamon-colored shredding bark. Plus, they have almost no thorns.
Breeders are always striving to produce healthier roses that still have the flower power that most people crave. Many new varieties appear to do the trick for a few years but ultimately succumb; however, it does seem that the answer to gardeners’ prayers may have appeared in the Knock Out Roses. Knock Out is the trademark name for a series of shrub roses developed by William Radler of Wisconsin and first released around twelve years ago. Borrowing from his last name, the official cultivar names all begin with “Rad”, such as ‘Radrazz’, the original cherry-red Knock Out, and may also be followed by a designation such as PP 11,836, indicating the plant patent number.
All the Knock Outs are tidy shrubs, eventually reaching about six feet by six feet, although many of the promotional materials claim 3’ by 3’. If they get too big for their space, they can be cut back severely in early spring. They start flowering in April or May and will keep going off and on for most of the summer and fall. New growth is an attractive burgundy, and in milder winters they will retain much of their foliage. Their big selling point is that they are healthy, vigorous plants that require no spraying, dusting, etc. for the many rose diseases. Some even claim they’re resistant to Japanese beetles. Knock Outs are available in the original red, as well as pink, yellow, white and coral. Even I may have to find room for one in my garden.
All roses share similar growing requirements: as much sun as possible (although the Knock Outs will take some shade), well-drained soil amended with organic matter, moderate watering, and a good mulch to keep the roots cool and prevent splashing from rain striking the soil. Many sources warn against overhead watering of roses in order to discourage foliar diseases.
One rose to avoid scrupulously is the Multiflora (R. multiflora), an invasive species from Japan. I doubt anyone is selling this evil weed anymore, but there is a good chance it’s growing near you. It was originally promoted for ornamental purposes, as well as for erosion control and as a natural fence. It is easy to distinguish from other roses by its large clusters of many small white flowers. The best control method is applying herbicide to the cut stem late in the growing season.
Even my hard heart is warming up to the better roses, though I don’t expect to see any in a box and wrapped in tissue paper landing on my doorstep any time soon.