"They don't need a whole lot more care than any other flowering shrub," says Paul Zimmerman, author of "Everyday Roses: How to Grow Knock Out and Other Easy-Care Garden Roses" (Taunton Press, 192 pages, $22.95). He also helps run the Biltmore International Rose Trials for roses that can be grown sustainably (http://blog.biltmore.com/international-rose-trial-winners-announced/).
Choose the right variety, and there will be no need for chemical sprays to prevent fungus disease or insulation to help it survive a Chicago winter. You can find a sturdy, easy rose to do just about any job in the garden, whether as a screen or a hedge or a companion to perennials.
There's just one problem: It probably won't smell much like a rose. Or at least not like the feeble, fussy but intoxicatingly fragrant hybrid tea roses that were popular for most of the 20th century.
Decades of selecting genes for glorious scent and elegance in a vase had selected away the genes for disease resistance, leaving hybrid teas helpless before black spot and powdery mildew. Then, when breeders started selecting for disease resistance in the useful new shrub roses and climbers, Zimmerman says, genes for fragrance were lost.
Of course roses had smelled sweet for many centuries before the first hybrid tea. There are many species and ancient hybrids of sturdy, fragrant roses. But they bloom like they did in Shakespeare's day, for just a few weeks in June. Today, we are reluctant to give garden space to a fleeting beauty; we want rose bushes that keep pumping out blooms all summer.
So is the fragrance of roses just a nostalgic notion? No, there's hope: Breeders have become aware that a roses is just not a rose without scent, and are making it more of a priority in new varieties—along with disease resistance and reblooming. And if you're willing to dig a bit, you can find some fragrant older roses that rebloom, though not as often as the newer hybrids.
There's just one other problem: Roses still have thorns.
Here are some hardy, disease-resistant, reblooming roses, old and new, with notable fragrance.
Lady Ashe climbing rose (Rosa 'BEAdix'): With large apricot-salmon flowers that bloom in June and come back in flushes over the summer, this climber from the Biltmore Rose Collection has a classic old-rose fragrance and glossy dark green leaves. Like all climbers, it grows long, flexible canes, up to 10 feet long, that must be tied to an arbor or other support.
Frances Meilland hybrid tea rose (Rosa 'Meitroni'): This pink rose from Conard-Pyle Co. was the 2013 All-America Rose Selections winner, the first hybrid tea rose to win the breeders' contest without any spraying for foliage diseases. The large shell-pink blooms have a strong fragrance of fruit and citrus and the foliage is glossy dark green on a plant that can grow 6 feet tall. Hybrid tea roses have long stems and often look best when their stalks are hidden by shorter roses or perennials. Meilland was the French breeder of the 'Peace' hybrid tea rose, which was a sensation after World War II. (conard-pyle.com)
Milwaukee's Calatrava shrub rose (Rosa 'Radfragwhite'): A recent introduction from Wisconsin's famed breeder William Radler, with a strong fragrance in addition to the resistance to fungus diseases for which his Knock Out roses made him famous. The fluffy white blooms of Milwaukee's Calatrava come back throughout the season and get a hint of pink in cooler weather. The bush grows to about 4 to 5 feet tall and wide. The rose, from Star Roses, is named for Santiago Calatrava, architect of the Milwaukee Art Museum. (conard-pyle.com)
Gertrude Jekyll shrub rose (Rosa 'Ausbord'): One of the most reliably hardy of the David Austin old garden roses, with a strong traditional rose fragrance to its intensely pink many-petaled blooms. It grows to be a vigorous medium-sized upright shrub about 5 feet tall, but can be trained as an 8-foot climber. Gertrude Jekyll was an influential English garden designer and writer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (davidaustinroses.com/american)
Autumn damask rose (Rosa damascena bifera): Also known by 'Quatre Saisons', 'Queen of Castille' and several other names, this old variety has pink flowers that come back two or three times after their first flush of bloom. Believed to have originated in the Middle East and reached Europe in the Middle Ages, damask roses are vigorous shrubs with a rich, tangy fragrance, gray-green downy foliage and lots of thorns.
'Fru Dagmar Hastrup' rugosa rose (Rosa 'Fru Dagmar Hastrup'): Single silver-pink flowers with a strong clovelike perfume appear all summer on a dense, mounded bush. Rugosa roses have shiny, crinkled dark green leaves that turn golden and orange in fall, along with lots of red rose hips. Because the bushes are very thorny, they often are used in barrier hedges. Rugosa roses need well-drained soil but are extremely tough once established; they are planted in the medians of Lake Shore Drive. Fru Hastrup was the wife of the Dane who discovered this pale-pink variation on a bush in 1914.
Kiss Me grandiflora rose (Rosa 'BAIsme'): The large pink double blooms of this grandiflora rose from the Easy Elegance line are highly fragrant, especially for a rose bred in Minnesota to be hardy and disease resistant. The roses, borne in clusters on a low shrub, return all summer. For bright red-orange hips, stop deadheading in late summer. (easyelegancerose.com)
Here are some mail-order sources for hardy, disease-resistant roses that can be grown without spraying.
Shipping season is largely over for mail-order rose nurseries, but it's not too soon to plan for 2014. You also can ask a good local garden center to order a rose for next spring.
For winter hardiness without fuss, be sure to buy a plant that was grown on its own roots, not grafted. If a plant is grafted, the graft at the base of the plant needs winter protection.
Antique Rose Emporium, Independence, Tex., antiqueroseemporium.com
Chamblee's Rose Nursery, Tyler, Tex., chambleeroses.com
David Austin Roses, Tyler, Tex., davidaustinroses.com/american
Edmunds' Roses, Randolph, Wis., edmundsroses.com
Heirloom Roses, St. Paul, Ore., heirloomroses.com
Rogue Valley Roses, Phoenix, Ore., roguevalleyroses.com