Reliable Rugosas

Fragrant, trouble-free rugosa roses are a natural choice for organic gardeners.

By Wes Hunsberger

Photography by Cameron Sadeghpour


When the joy of growing roses turns into the frustration of tending the leafless sticks that most roses become in late summer, it's time for a new approach to rose gardening. Rugosa roses give gardeners the pleasure of recurrent and fragrant blooms with clean, healthy foliage, as well as a more effortless gardening experience. After years of fiddling with an assortment of finicky hybrid tea, shrub, and old-fashioned roses, I have switched to rugosas with happy results. Now I wouldn't consider my garden complete without the repeating and highly scented blooms, fall foliage, and colorful hips and canes found in these roses.

Rugosa roses—selections and hybrids of the species Rosa rugosa—are recognized by their distinctively wrinkled (rugose) foliage. While most rose foliage is smooth (if it's not blighted by black spot, mildew, or other diseases), rugosa foliage is heavily textured and impervious to almost all of the usual ailments that affect roses. The leathery leaves of most rugosa varieties transition in fall to golden yellow, burgundy, burnt orange, russet, or a combination of colors—an uncommon trait among roses. The brilliance of fall foliage depends in part on the variety, but weather conditions also play a role and can alter the colors from year to year.

You may already be familiar with rugosa roses from their decorative hips. Rose hips are seed capsules that are formed after the bloom is spent. While some roses are sterile and cannot set hips, many rugosas produce large and colorful hips; the cultivars 'Hansa', 'Frau Dagmar Hartopp', and 'Scabrosa' are standouts. Hips may be shaded deep cherry through tomato red, yellow, or apricot. To obtain more flowers through the summer months, clip the spent blooms from the shrubs at the sacrifice of the first or second crop of hips. But be sure to stop deadheading in late summer to let hips form in the fall, when they will combine with the noted fall foliage for a spectacular display.

Rose hips provide eight times the vitamin C of oranges, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database. They can be used to make jam or jelly or to flavor tea; in Sweden, they are used to flavor soup. Although I have not tasted my rugosa hips (I leave them on the shrubs for the maximum amount of color), several gardeners report detecting a flavor similar to that of apples, unlike the more metallic taste of hips from other rose species.