A rose by another name smells sweeter to me

David Austin rose, L. D. Braithwaite (photo by Lee Reich)

Perhaps it was youthful rebelliousness, but for years – for decades – I lambasted my father’s roses. The roses reared up their colorful heads on the other side of the low, clipped privet hedge that bordered our terrace. If youthful rebelliousness was at the root of my rose aversion, that rebelliousness has lasted well beyond my youth: right up to the present day, even though those roses are no more.

The plants were hybrid tea roses, in various colors. You’ve got to admit that the shrubs themselves, typically with a few gawky stems topped with disproportionately large blossoms, are not much to look at. The pointiness of the blossoms – a sought-after quality among hybrid tea breeders – is, for me, particularly unattractive. Couple that with the blaring colors and you get the picture – for me, that is.

Hybrid tea roses are not particularly tough plants, succumbing to insects, diseases and winter cold – which is why my father grew them practically as annuals, often having to replace dead bushes with new ones. What a waste.

Times change, and over the last few years I’ve become a fan of roses – no, not hybrid tea roses! Other types of roses, of which there are many.

Here are my criteria for a worthy rose (not necessarily in the order of importance): insect and disease resistance; a full-bodied, corpulent shrub; cup-shaped or single flowers; pastel colors; fragrance; and repeat blooming. Hybrid tea roses generally lack all these qualities, except for repeat blooming.

Some species and old-fashioned roses tend to have the qualities that I seek. Father Hugo’s rose, Rosa hugonis, is one such rose, with single, small, soft yellow blossoms and ferny foliage. It’s supposed to be a tough rose, but mine hasn’t yet lived up to that billing – too much weed competition, perhaps.

Rugose rose (R. rugosa) is another outstanding rose, this one living up to its reputation for being tough – so much so that it’s considered invasive in some places. Still, I like it for its nonstop blooms of single, usually pink/red flowers, its strong fragrance and its nice hips – fruits that is, very tasty.

If I had to choose just one rose to plant, that rose would be my old-fashioned Rose de Rescht. Its petals are soft cerise in color, and are crumpled like crêpe paper with just a bit of organization on the ends of flowerstalks. The fragrance is heavenly – to my nose the best of any rose.

Some modern roses (but not hybrid teas!) have also won me over to my father’s camp. One such group of moderns is the Knock Out® roses. Very unclassical in appearance, with short, wide stature and mostly single-petaled flowers, these roses are tough and carefree and bloom all season long. The colors would be gaudy, except for their being pleasantly subdued by the small size of the flowers and their lush and abundant backdrop of glossy green leaves.

The other modern roses that have won me over are the David Austin roses, all bred with the goal of combining the look and fragrance of the old-fashioneds with the repeat blooming and pest-resistance of the moderns. Right now, Strawberry Hill and L. D. Braithwaite are growing very well in my garden, partly the result of a very mild winter.

My father eventually came around to my way of thinking and gave me free rein to rip out his hybrid tea roses and replace them with a mix of other perennial and annual flowers. The view from the terrace was transformed into a spring-through-autumn panoply of colors and forms from the likes of tree peonies, ligularias, lungwort, bleeding heart and other perennials. The one constant following the transformation was the line of begonias or marigolds that marched along the edge of the bed, just as they did when the bed was home to roses.

Mulberries have ripened, so a taste test was in order: Illinois Everbearing versus Oscar versus Kokuso versus Gerardi Dwarf versus random seedling. Oscar was best, with Kokuso and the seedling a close second, followed by Illinois Everbearing and then Gerardi Dwarf. These ratings aren’t writ in stone, for me, because confounding everything were big flavor changes that depended on slight changes in ripening – I think.

Note that black mulberry – the species Morus nigra – was not in the running. That’s because the fruits won’t be ripe for a while and because, I know from experience, it’s far and away the best of them all.

Any gardening questions? E-mail them to me at [email protected] and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at https://www.leereich.blogspot.com. For more on local homes and gardens, go to Ulster Publishing’s homehudsonvalley.com.

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