It is difficult not to love roses. Their ravishing charm can tempt one beyond endurance, and the sight of them in catalogs and in the glossy color photos that adorn packages in garden centers in the spring are nearly more than one can bear. Old roses, sometimes known as antique roses, especially hold a fascination for many of us: Their aura of faded romance, sweet scents, and the seemingly careless abandon with which they bloom is irresistible.
I, of course, am one of the stricken. For years, I have turned eagerly to the pictures and descriptions of these roses in publications such as Wayside Gardens, Roses of Yesterday and Today (which, alas, is no more), Heirloom Old Garden Roses, Jackson & Perkins, et. al., and let the splendid names beguile me. Bourbon, wichuriana, damask, chinensis, musk and moss. No matter that my tiny garden is already crammed full of plants; nothing will do but to contemplate where just one more rose might fit in. Does this sound at all familiar?
It is easy to plant a dozen or so from your favorite home center or catalog without inquiring closely into their family background or what they may shortly require in care, time and materials. As with hasty liaisons of all sorts this has its pitfalls, such as ending with a handful of dead or sulking plants, a shelf full of chemicals in the garage and a frustrated gardener who is tempted to swear off roses forever.
After starting with the fancier tea roses and moving on to Bourbons, musks, and damasks, I, too, was almost ready to throw in the towel. It seemed I was to be condemned to suffer the interminable slings and arrows of black spot, mildew, aphids, buds that refuse to be coaxed open and so forth. Although reputed to have something of a green thumb, I was out of patience with these prima donnas, to say the least. What I needed instead, I thought, was an introduction to a more suitable kind of rose.
And so I was, to rosa rugosa. As is often the case with people, the last name is important. Rugosa roses are hardy roses and thoroughly thoroughbred performers. While not quite as spectacular as the hybrid teas or centifolias, they come with impressive credentials especially noteworthy for the urban garden. And for the harried, time-short gardener, I found them irresistible.
First, rugosas are about as unfussy as roses get. They adapt well to urban as well as suburban conditions. Many do nicely in the half-shade positions the urban garden frequently has to cope with. They are often repeat bloomers throughout the summer, resist pests and plant diseases sturdily, even standing off the depredations of Japanese beetles, and are tolerant of weather extremes, pollution, inexperienced pruning and the occasional incursions of children, pets and basketballs.
Additionally, they are prickly enough to discourage trespassers under windows or at fences, and make a lovely hedge, although pruning is not strictly required . Their natural form is that of a shrub rose. They can be espaliered, or clipped into a hedge. Their foliage is neat and crisp-looking, characteristically finely veined or crinkled and of a bright, sparkling green. Moreover, most of them smell divine, a gift often sacrificed in modern roses. One bush can scent a small back yard, creating an oasis in the city, or one blossom perfume a room.
Rugosas do require a reasonably decent home, of course: Some sun (half a day is usually OK, and all that mine get), adequate water, average soil enriched with some compost or amendments (bone meal, etc.) is good. Mulch to restrain weeds is advisable. (I said they were hardy and tolerant -- not heroic!) Spent coffee grounds are said to be good for them, but I have not tried this myself.
Among those I have had personal experience with, favorites include 'Blanc Double de Coubert' (heavily doubled, white, repeat bloomer), 'Roseraie de l'Hay' (deep rosy magenta, very fragrant, very double, repeat), 'Belle Poitevine' (4-inch double lilac, intensely scented), 'Hansa' (double, purple crimson, dove-like fragrance, repeat) and 'Therese Bugnet' (full double mauve-pink flowers, extremely hardy).
While not your usual garden center offering, rugosas are well worth pursuing. In addition to the catalogs listed above, many books in the public library can help introduce you to the numerous different varieties and show you what they look like. Some, for instance, have the edges of their petals frilled as if with pinking shears ('Grootendorst'). All are splendid bloomers, and just about as nearly carefree as roses can get.
If you enjoy the challenge of Bourbons, floribundas, hybrid teas, etc., and keeping an arsenal of sprays, dusts and so forth on hand, possibly rugosas may not be for you. But if you are in the market for a problem-free rose that asks only that you admire its heady and lavish display year after year, consider trying a rugosa.
Pub Date: 4/06/97