“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows
where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine
with sweet musk – roses and with eglantine.”
~A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The rose is one of the oldest flowers in cultivation and is still considered one of the most popular garden flowers today. The flower is so popular that in 1986 Congress named the rose our national floral emblem. Roses were also grown in monastery gardens in the Middle Ages in Europe and used by the monks for medicinal purposes. The French have been distilling roses since before the French revolution; early French “Ottos” were a byproduct of the distillation process. In Colonial times, the Rosa alba was brought from England to the Plymouth colony where it is now known as the Plymouth Rose. Other English cultivars were also prominent plants in our early American gardens.
Most modern roses are descendants of eight European and Asian rose species. The elaborate flower forms and colors of today are the result of extensive breeding and hybridizing that began in the 1800s.
Kinds of Roses
Roses can be grouped into 3 classifications according to their growth characteristics:
Bush roses are self-supporting and bear flowers primarily at the top of the plant. Plant heights vary from a few inches to 6 feet. Bush roses can be further divided into groups by their growth and flowering habits.
Climbing roses are extremely vigorous plants with long canes or branches that require support. Canes can be trained to a trellis or fence or allowed to sprawl as a bank cover. Canes may range in size from 5 to 20+ feet depending on the type of rose and how they are supported and maintained.
Shrub roses belong to the class of wild species, hybrids, and cultivars that develop large, dense growth needing little maintenance. Many have fine textured foliage, making them suitable for use as hedges or screen plantings. Old-fashioned roses generally bloom only once a season. Old-fashioned roses were popular in colonial gardens for their fragrance. Their flowers do not compare with the roses of today, but the plants are very hardy and require little care. Many old-time roses are still commercially available.
Selecting Your Roses
When selecting roses for your garden, check with your local nurseries, garden centers, or mail order catalogs. These resources can be useful for determining plant hardiness, disease resistance, plant type, bloom form, and color. The American Association of Nurserymen sets standards for grading the quality of rose stock.
The best plants of each cultivar are rated No. 1, while lesser plants are graded No. 1 1/2 or No. 2. The roots and canes of No. 1 roses will be better developed and more numerous than those of lower rated plants.
I suggest purchasing your roses from reputable sources such as nurseries, garden centers, or mail order suppliers. I personally like to go and wander around my local nurseries to get an idea of what a particular rose actually looks like (color and size of bloom) and smells like. You can also get an idea of growing habits. I do this prior to buying. It saves me a lot of time and frustration.
Remember to order early when mail-ordering so that plants can be shipped at your proper planting time. Quality plants may also be available from supermarkets and department stores if their stock has been kept dormant and protected from drying. Check these roses out very carefully; look for wilted or dried out canes, dried out packing material.
Roses are sold as either bare-root or potted plants. Bare root plants, often sold as packaged roses, have their roots packed in moisture-holding material such as peat moss rather than soil. The roots are exposed when the packing material is removed. Bare-root roses can only be planted during a limited period of time in the early spring. The plants must be in the ground before shoots develop (although I have had success with planting bare-root roses with a small amount of shoot development). Bare-root plants may also require some pruning before planting.
Potted roses are bare-root roses that growers have placed into a container of soil in late winter and forced into growth. Potted roses often have leaves and possibly flowers when they are purchased. This is a plan B for me; often I will wait till later in the spring or early summer and purchase a potted rose. This way, I know what it looks like and it’s growing behavior, and perhaps I have that perfect spot now when I didn’t have one earlier on in the spring. Some new roots will have already formed in your potted rose, which gives these plants a head start over bare-root roses. Potted roses can be planted over a longer period but are usually more expensive and are available in a smaller selection of varieties than bare-root plants.
Potted roses are best suited for the casual home grower who needs just a few plants and does not plant the garden until warm weather has arrived. Whether buying bare-root or potted stock, check the canes for healthy, plump, green growth. Avoid plants with shriveled or discolored canes or signs of insect or disease damage.