Reliable Rugosas

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

By Wes Hunsberger

Photography by Cameron Sadeghpour


Rugosas grow as dense shrubs with thick, prickly stems. Some varieties sucker to form a spreading, impenetrable colony, making them good barrier plants. Even in winter, rugosas are a decorative garden asset. Some varieties are known for colorful canes that are more notable after the foliage has dropped. There are purple canes ('Martin Frobisher', 'Basye's Purple') and red canes ('Thérèse Bugnet' and others).

Care for rugosa roses could not be easier, as they do not require particular soil conditions. Choose a sunny site in the garden with 6 hours or more of direct sun, and you will be rewarded with plenty of blooms.

Rugosas do not have to be sprayed to prevent black spot and other foliar diseases or to keep away the usual insects that prey on roses. In fact, most sprays formulated for other types of roses will cause rugosas to drop their foliage. The only spray I use in my garden is Safer Insect Killing Soap to control tiny green sawfly larvae, also called rose slugs, which skeletonize leaves. But there have been years when I have been too busy to spray my rugosas, and the roses have done fine, although they may have looked a little the worse for wear in June, when these pests seem to be at their strongest. And fertilizing is not a requirement for these effortless shrubs. I sometimes apply an organic water-soluble fertilizer before the big display of blooms in June, but you by no means need to do this. There have been seasons when I never fertilized, and I was still rewarded with many blooms and healthy roses.

If you have a garden near the sea, where most roses do not do well because of wind and salt spray, do not despair. Rugosas survive and even thrive in coastal conditions. Their tolerance for salt also helps them survive in parking strips close to the street where plants are apt to get a dose of road salt in winter.

Remarkable winter hardiness has made rugosas popular among northern gardeners. As Rosa rugosa is native to cold coastal areas of China, Japan, and Manchuria, many of its hybrids—including several bred in Canada—have the fortitude to survive winters as far north as USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 2. As a rule, the hardiest rugosas are those with white, pink, or red blooms. Rugosas with yellow ('Agnes'), peach ('Vanguard' or 'Dr. Eckener'), or bicolor flowers ('Rugelda') are less hardy, and northern gardeners will have more winter kill to remove on these varieties in spring. Also, if you are wondering about the hardiness of rugosas with French names, many well-known varieties were developed in France around 1900 by Cochet-Cochet, Gravereaux, and other companies. Don't let the French names put you off these rugosas, as I have found them to be as hardy as those developed in Canada.