A Rose by any other name -July 2008

by: Hilary Newell

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

It never fails. Every time I press a fragrant rose to my nose and take a deep breath, my grandfather’s image is conjured up. Tall and tan, with sparse, snowy hair, he is walking with me through his extensive maze garden filled with roses. I am transported back to 1965, and I can vividly recall holding his gnarled hand, while he bends a long rose stem toward me so I can sniff it.

I take a deep breath and my 4-year-old brain forges a life-long connection with Grandpa and the perfume of roses. At the end of our walk, he lets me choose a rose to pick for my mother. This is a treat, as he carefully chooses the best roses to sell to the local florist shop. Wow. I really miss him today. I’ve learned so much about growing roses and other plants, but I wish he could have shared everything he had learned.

The history of the rose is a long and rich one, a 35 million-year-old history, according to fossils found in Colorado and Oregon. From being the symbol of The Kentucky Derby (The Run for the Roses) to one of the icons of The Grateful Dead, the rose has been an alluring symbol in more recent history, too.

Roses have symbolized love, beauty and war. Romans planted large rose gardens for the public in the south of Rome. A struggle within the Plantagenet family in the 15th century became known as “The War of The Roses” when one side of the family, York, symbolized by the white rose and another side, Lancaster, symbolized by the red rose, fought for control of England. Roses and rose water were even considered currency in the 17th century when they were used for payment or barter.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that roses similar to what we grow today were brought from China into Europe, from where they eventually made their way to the Americas. Old garden roses, as they are known today, have been in cultivation in the United Stated since 1867. They consist of several classes including but not limited to Bourbon, China, damask, gallica, Portland and tea roses.

David Austin successfully married the old garden rose form and fragrance to the modern notion of recurrent bloom and disease resistance with some of his recent introductions. Graham Thomas, bred by Austin in 1983, is deep golden yellow and highly fragrant. It grows five to seven feet tall with an upright, vigorous, narrow growth habit and excellent disease resistance – perfect for Nantucket gardens. Heritage was also bred by Austin, and combines outstanding fragrance, dependable repeat bloom and a true old garden rose form. It grows five to six feet tall, has almost no thorns and carries a double soft pink flower that smells like fresh lemons. Heritage is found in many Nantucket gardens, too.

Rose breeders, looking for the best attributes in different roses, discovered that the multiple blooms of the polyantha (literally “many flowers”) rose and the fragrance and color range of the hybrid tea would combine to make what is known as the floribunda rose. Notables in this class are Iceberg, Gruss an Aachen, and Betty Prior. Iceberg grows to about four feet with multiple three-inch blossoms on each stem. Floribundas can thrive in a wide variety of conditions, too.

But if you really want to get to the heart of rose-growing culture on Nantucket, the place to look is at climbing roses. New Dawn simply can’t be beat. It’s the pink climber that is most popular in Sconset, seen climbing up on cottages, large and small, often reaching the ridge of the roof. The world’s first patented plant, New Dawn is a sport of Dr. W. Van Fleet and is similar to its parent in every way except for New Dawn’s very reliable repeat bloom. It is quite disease-resistant and very hardy, withstanding winters that are windy and cold.

Eden is a vigorous climber with large flowers that are creamy white with lavender and pink tones like an old garden rose. While Eden is called a climber, it might better be known as a languid climber, preferring to ramble horizontally along a fence. The plant is more vigorous and produces more flowers when it is grown this way.

If you’re looking for a splash of red traveling up the side of your cottage, Dublin Bay is the answer. It has profuse, large, fragrant inflorescence, and usually puts out a good repeat bloom.

Got shade? Zepherine Drouhin is a low to medium climber that tolerates shade and is nearly thornless. It’s great near a walkway or near an open window where the fragrance can waft in any time. The heady, bourbon scent makes you want to stop and fill your lungs with the fragrance.

Shrub roses are not technically climbers, but can be trained that way. One notable in the class is William Baffin. Its three- to four-inch hot-pink, single blossoms are not fragrant, but its showiness more than makes up for it. William Baffin is also one of the world’s hardiest roses and is widely grown in Canada.

Photo by Jim Powers
Rosa rugosa blooms in sandy soils all over the island.

An article on roses on Nantucket wouldn’t be complete without some mention of Rosa rugosa. Quaintly known as the salt spray rose and a native of eastern Asia, Rosa rugosa may have become established along the coast of New England as the result of debris washing in from coastal shipwrecks. It’s somewhat invasive habit makes it excellent as a hedge in very sandy areas, and while some gardeners have told me that they can’t plant it because of the deer, most say that deer browse is not a problem. Rosa rugosa remains ornamental long after the bloom is gone. Its large hips look like small cherry tomatoes and they make the most delicious jelly.

Other shrub roses of note include Bonica and Seafoam. Seafoam makes an excellent ground cover, and is good for covering rough terrain and embankments. Its flowers are double light pink, fading to white and they have excellent repeat bloom. Bonica is a newer variety and has good repeat bloom. It requires heavy pruning each year, as the canes are long and arching. Pruning for most roses is generally done in the fall to tidy up stray canes and keep the form you wish to have, and then again in the spring to cut out any winter kill that may have occurred.

Is just reading about rose gardens enough for you? Or do you really want to get into it? If you do, here’s some good advice. Listen carefully. If you don’t have a full day of sun (six-eight hours), good air circulation and the willingness to really put some effort into your rose garden, don’t bother! But if you are willing, and have the right conditions, a rose garden can provide you with color, fragrance and cut flowers for weeks on end.

Getting started

Once you’ve decided to grow roses, understanding their basic needs will go a long way toward having a successful garden. Above all, water and fertilizer are essential ingredients. BioBloom is an ORMI-rated fertilizer that is readily available from online sources. According to the manufacturer, it “encourages abundant flowering and fruit production by supplying much needed macro- and micronutrients as well as enzymes and amino acids and contains a small dose of nitrogen and enough phosphorous and potassium to ensure exuberant flowering.”

Exuberance. I like that. Follow the directions on the label to find out how much you have to apply. Feed your roses when the soil is moist and they will have improved nutrient uptake. Mulch is also important to help eliminate weeds and insulate the soil against summer heat.

As your roses start to grow, be on the lookout for insects and fungus. Aphids, Japanese beetles, mites, thrips and midges can all be found at various times throughout the rose season. There are several organic products that can be found commercially to mitigate common insect damage, or you can enlist the services of a commercial applicator like Bartlett Tree Experts to keep the pests under control. A do-it-yourselfer can do fine with products from a well-supplied garden center. Safer and Bayer both have products that work on insects or fungus or both. The key is prevention, and not waiting for a problem to occur. In particular, it’s important to apply a fungicide before you see the tell-tale black spots that indicate a problem.

The larger pests on Nantucket deserve their own conversation about deterrence. An eight-foot fence will do the trick, but short of that, there are plenty of deer repellents available. Old wives’ tales suggest that human hair, Irish Spring soap, coyote urine or rotten eggs will keep those cloven-hoofed trespassers away, but the deer say otherwise. With names like Liquid Fence, Bobbex, Repellex, Deer Stopper and Deer Scram, there are lots of choices, some smelling worse than others. A systemic repellent, one that is absorbed into the plant making it distasteful to the animal, is a good choice. Apply early in the growing season, and again in about a month.

With some effort, rose gardens can be enormously satisfying, and you just might get the chance to enchant a small child with the result of that effort. Jane Oechsle Lauer said “Life is like a rose . . . more exquisite and precious, when shared with others.” Or was that my grandfather?

Hilary Newell is the greenhouse production manager at Bartlett’s Farm, where she writes “The Farm Dirt.”

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