Lo, How a Rose

Julie Falk
Adams County Master Gardener

As my favorite Christmas carol is "Lo, how a rose e’er blooming", even the coldest weather can bring the fragrant blooms to mind. I was given a beautiful long-stemmed red rose recently, and it led me to think about the long history of roses, although my own gardening relationship with them has been sporadic.

I once planted wild prairie roses, Rosa carolina, on a bank where I lived in east Tennessee. That June, the breath-taking pink climbers carpeted the bank and climbed up into the nearby junipers. Although they were native flowers requiring no special care, for some reason they never grew back in subsequent seasons. I read that prairie roses have been around for about 35 million years, and like most native blooms are resilient and enduring. They have certainly endured in my memory for two decades, and I still feel privileged to have seen them that year.

"Preparing a bed for roses is a little like getting the house ready for the arrival of a difficult old lady, some biddy with aristocratic pretensions and persnickety tastes." That’s what Michael Pollan, author of Second Nature, had to say about planting ornamental garden roses. From their easygoing wild beginnings, roses began to be cultivated around 500 BCE – developing into the complex whorls of petals we know today. Gardeners have always been passionate about roses because of their luxurious colors, the compelling beauty of their form, and their fragrance. What we recognize as a typical garden rose today owes much of its form and characteristics to a rose brought from China in the 1700s, known as the damask rose. There were roses native to Europe that were cultivated previously, but they only bloomed for about one month of the year. The first china roses were known for their longer blooming period, and subsequent roses from China (tea roses) were known for their scent. Over the centuries, breeders designed the hybrid tea rose we know by so many fancy names – like "Louis-Phillippe", "Queen Elizabeth", "Empress Josephine" or "White Killarney".

As the many cultivars and hybrids of roses were developed, the degree of their neediness also grew. They required plenty of water, but well-drained soil, lots of organic content, and protection from winter frost. Pollan noted that the list of diseases that can threaten garden roses required eight pages in the New York Botanical Garden’s reference guide. The effort and attention required by tea roses, along with a dislike of thorns, kept me away from roses for many years.

Then came a new style of rose, trademarked by its developer, called Knockout roses. In 2000, a Wisconsin rose breeder named William Radler produced a variety of rose bush that was cold tolerant, disease resistant, and bloomed about every 5 weeks from spring through hard frost. Mr. Radler is a dedicated rosarian who spent about 15 years working toward a simpler rose, followed by about ten years of testing his flower-child around the world. The Knockout rose took the market by storm because of its ease. It retains the beauty of traditional roses, and is even mostly self-pruning. Most of the roses we pass in town, peeking in profusion over fences and around flower beds, are Knockout roses in red or pink. About 3-4 million of this variety are being sold each year, so I can’t help but wonder what effect they’ve had on the cultivation of traditional tea roses. Will the older cultivars become endangered, or will the purists continue to grow them in sufficient numbers?

It strikes me that, in terms of grower-friendliness, the rose has come full circle. It began with the wild native species that took care of themselves. Then it moved for many years into the period of painstaking horticulture, and now back to simplicity. There are still some diseases that Knockout roses can get, such as rust or powdery mildew, if you don’t water sensibly (wetting the soil, not the leaves). We’ll see if their seeming perfection passes the test of time, or if they go the way of the Bradford pear. I think I’ll enjoy a few Knockouts in my garden. I have a lone pink native rose on my present property. Each year I make sure the honeysuckle doesn’t kill it, and I must admit my sympathies still lie with the wild things.

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