Not quite three years ago I wrote enthusiastically about a revolution in roses that would propel America’s national flower into its most popular and widely grown flower. Leading the pack were the Knock Out roses, which indeed have become best sellers.
The best of these 21st-century roses flower profusely and continuously from spring until frost, require no spraying against insects or mildew, and finish the season with foliage that is just as clean and fresh in September as it was in May.
Little did I realize at the time that the revolution had only just begun. Knock Out and Carefree roses are good landscape plants that provide lots of color with little effort for months on end. But are they the voluptuous, romantic beauties we’ve come to idealize through the centuries? Hardly.
Progress in breeding has gone at warp speed and today there are literally dozens of roses of unutterable beauty that meet the no-maintenance requirements of the 21st century. The best are also self-cleaning so deadheading isn’t necessary, and fragrance is once again being bred back into the rose. It sounds too good to be true, but it’s not.
I spent last Wednesday, the hottest day of the year thus far, at the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden selecting my favorites from the more than 600 new varieties that have been planted there since 2007. That was when New York City banned the use of the pesticides needed for roses on city property, including NYBG.
What could have been a catastrophe at NYBG, which was embarking on a major renovation of the rose garden, turned into an opportunity to create a showcase of the best roses of and for our time.
After a lecture at the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons last fall by Peter Kukielski, curator of the garden, he provided me with a list of the top 115 performers at the garden during 2010. (That list is now posted on the NYBG Web site.) I studied the list, cross-referencing descriptions and photographs from growers. Most of the plants are not yet available commercially in the United States. Mr. Kukielski hopes that U.S. propagators will begin to offer them if the plants receive enough favorable attention.
Calista Washburn and I selected nine of our favorites in a range of colors including climbers, shrubs, floribundas, and even a lavender hybrid tea, and imported them from Canada. We thought if Mr. Kukielski could put his high-profile job and reputation on the line, we couldn’t go wrong. We sold more than 100 plants for the Garden Club of East Hampton, many more than we had anticipated. The moral: People love roses and want to grow them if it doesn’t involve high maintenance and heavy-duty spraying.
And that brings me to why I spent last Wednesday in the heat at NYBG: It was time to actually see and smell the roses. Did I like the ones we had imported and are there others you ought to try? Yes, and yes.
Shrub roses are particularly adaptable for today’s informal gardens: They integrate nicely in mixed or perennial borders, or they can be grown as specimens on their own. Cinderella has large soft pink fragrant flowers with the cupped shape of old garden roses. It can be grown as a bush or even trained as a climber. It more than lived up to its expectations, and my notes show it captured my attention and fancy at two different times during the day.
I would be hard pressed to choose between Cinderella and another very pale pink shrub that I hadn’t noted before, Eiffel Tower. I love its classic buds, fragrance, and color. Fortunately it is self-cleaning because it is packed with flowers and the clusters of blooms are pristine.
If you prefer more intense color, All the Rage is a shrub rose that might fit the bill: It has pointed coral buds that open to large semi-double apricot flowers with a light fragrance that age to pink before self-cleaning. A veritable flowering machine, it is one of the Easy Elegance series of roses bred and sold by Bailey Nurseries in Minnesota. Bailey grows them on their own roots and guarantees the plants for two years.
Healthy and vigorous yellow roses are the most difficult challenge for hybridizers (except for the elusive blue rose). An entire bed is filled with the recently introduced Solero. It is a clear and bright soft yellow, which may be a new color break in roses. The bushes were literally covered with fragrant flowers. A low-growing floribunda, Solero would be excellent in traditional rose gardens as a color block enclosed by box hedges, in containers, or planted toward the front in perennial beds.
People keep asking if I’ve found a new pink climber that would be an improvement over New Dawn. When I first grew it in the 1980s, it was so vigorous the canes from one plant completely covered the rail of my deck and it flowered fragrantly and abundantly from June through September or October. So it has been a surprise to hear that over the years it seems to have declined.
No, I’ve not found the new New Dawn, but there are a number of excellent pink climbers that are non-stop flowering that don’t need spraying. About 20 years ago Ellen Samuels, the Star Gardener at that time, recommended the pink-apricot Rosarium Uetersen, which I grew and loved. There it was at NYBG in abundant full flower covering a large span of the garden’s fence. Rosanna is a very bright salmon climber with blooms in the shape of traditional hybrid teas and with long stems that would make it good for cutting. The fragrant blooms of Jasmina are somewhat smaller, but the lovely old-fashioned lavender pink flowers grow in clusters of 10 to 15, making a strong impact.
For those who like red roses there are a number of good new ones. Near the entrance to the garden is a large block of a shrub rose which only has a number thus far: Kordes 01/1538-08. We’ll probably hear about it in the future. It has masses of blooms in clusters on long stems that make it good for cutting. Another Kordes, Desmond Tutu, is a show-stopper: It looks like a hybrid tea and has long stems for cutting.
Peter Kukielski’s favorite white is Kosmos. It is a shrub rose with fragrant creamy white cupped blooms. I’m inclined toward Lion’s Fairy Tale, which is very similar but has a blush center when the flower opens. For those who like singles there is the pure white Escimo shrub rose. Its flowers remind me of a dogwood flower with rounded overlapping petals and prominent stamens. I covet it.
With the exception of All the Rage, my taste gravitates toward Kordes roses, even without seeing a label. A venerable German breeder (The red climbers on the fence at the railroad station in East Hampton are Dortmund, which Kordes introduced in 1955 and which we have never fertilized or sprayed since they were planted 20 years ago.) Kordes breeds the most disease-resistant roses of anyone. Their flowers tend to be classical forms or are singles and they flower for months on end.
Taste in roses, however, is personal. Plan a trip to the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden any time between now and October to select your own favorites. The later in the season that you visit the better because the true test of vigor and disease resistance comes after a summer of stress.
Most of these new roses are available only through mail-order nurseries; NYBG lists its recommendations on its Web site.