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.
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.
Rugosa roses have many sterling qualities to recommend them. Flowers produced by these hardy and carefree shrubs will delight you with their spicy perfumes—some of the strongest and sweetest scents found in roses. The old-fashioned shapes of the double varieties are lovely, and the colors found in rugosas in fall and winter are a welcome addition to the garden. Give rugosas a try, and see for yourself how their remarkable beauty comes without the typical problems of other roses.
Recommended Rugosa Roses