'Hot Cocoa' in the garden

Special to The Times

Compelling and uniquely colored, 'Hot Cocoa' combines two favorites of romantics -- it's a rose with a taste of chocolate. Not literally, of course, but the color contains hints of chocolate brown, as if a thin layer of melted chocolate had been poured over the hotly colored blooms.

Developed here in Southern California by Tom Carruth, it is special enough to have won a 2003 All-America Rose Selection Award and is one of several new roses taking their bows this month, at the start of the roughly two-month rose-planting season.

While a few varieties of roses are available year-round, it is in January and February that nurseries carry hundreds of varieties, old and new. Anyone thinking of planting their first rose or adding a few more to the garden would be wise to do so during the next few weeks.

'Hot Cocoa' is by many accounts the most fascinating of this year's All-America Rose Selections. The brown does not show up well in photographs but is quite noticeable in the garden and, whatever the color is, it's unlike any other -- it looks great growing out in the garden or cut. (The rose, of which I had a chance to plant a trial version last year, is already one of my favorites.)

Carruth, rose hybridizer at Weeks Wholesale Roses in Upland, says he had a devil of a time describing the color of this floribunda when applying for a plant patent. The buds are the color of old rust; the blooms are a hot, glowing red-orange with the overlay of soft cocoa-brown. This color has been described as "smoky chocolate orange" or cinnamon brown. Weeks' catalog deliciously calls it "a chocolate haze of velvety smoked tones."

Not all AARS roses prove to be winners in Southern California, but many have become garden stalwarts, such as 'Abraham Lincoln' or 'Double Delight,' both developed here. Quite a few AARS roses have been hybridized in the Los Angeles area or in the Central Valley rose town of Wasco, so they naturally do well in this climate. 'Hot Cocoa' is the fourth AARS rose from Carruth, and his others are equally distinctive -- the wildly striped climber 'Fourth of July,' the striped and highly scented 'Scentimental' and the two-toned 'Betty Boop.'

Ron Vanderhoff, nursery manager at Roger's Garden in Corona del Mar, saw or actually grew many of the new roses and gives high marks to 'Hot Cocoa.' He doesn't think that any of the other 2003 AARS roses are as choice, but there were other new, non-AARS roses that he liked. One favorite is a crisp, white-flowered rose that he finds similar to the beloved and bestselling 'Iceberg,' "but it's lower and bushier," he said. Named 'September Mourn,' after the tragedy of two year ago, it really stood out when he saw it in the growing fields of Wasco.

'Mary Lou Heard' is also a memorial rose, named after the late Orange Country nurserywoman.

The deep red, many-petaled blooms have a distinct old-fashioned look that Heard would probably have approved of. It will be offered only this year and participating nurseries will donate a portion of each sale to a horticultural scholarship fund in Heard's name.

Rose bushes, sans soil

Roses sold at this time of year are "bare root." Dormant and leafless (or nearly so), the prickly bushes can be dug from the ground by growers and shipped to nurseries with no soil around their roots. Sans soil, they are easy to ship and stock -- and nurseries price them to sell.

The roses that recently decorated the parade floats and those that will show up for Valentine's Day are not garden roses, but special varieties grown in greenhouses, often in other countries. In winter, garden roses should be flowerless, leafless, and if they are not, many gardeners strip off leaves to force the plants to rest.

At one time, bare-root roses were simply tucked into bins of damp sawdust and, when a customer wanted one, nursery personnel would carefully take it from the bin and wrap its roots in paper, like a butcher wrapping up a big roast.

A few nurseries -- including family-run Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena -- still sell bare-root rose out of the traditional bins.

This method has one major advantage: You can actually see the roots before taking the plant home, to make sure there are plenty and that they are plump with moisture. Plants that have too few roots or have roots that have become dried out are not likely to thrive or even survive in the garden.

Often, the best prices are on prepackaged bare-root roses, but since the roots are hidden inside plastic bags (along with a little sawdust packing), you have no idea what you're buying. It's a bit of a gamble, so don't be shy about bringing a plant back to the nursery if it has too few roots once you've unwrapped it.

A healthy bare-root plant will take hold quickly, leafing out in late February and producing its first delicious blooms in spring.

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How to plant bare-root roses:

Since there is no pot and no soil, bare-root roses need to be planted in a special way. Nurseries usually have printed instructions showing how to plant, but here are two methods, one for wrapped plants and one for those planted in peat pots.

Basic method

Dig a hole that is wide enough for roots to be spread out, then mound up soil to make a little cone in the bottom of the hole. Set the plant on top, spreading the roots in a natural fashion over the cone of soil. Fill in the hole. Make sure the rose is planted so the graft or "bud union" -- the swelling at the base -- is right at soil level.

Peat-pot method

Though the peat pots in which the plants are now sold at many nurseries are biodegradable, don't plant them along with the rose here in the Southland. It simply takes too long for them to decay.

Ron Vanderhoff of Roger's Garden suggests digging the hole, then cutting around the bottom of the peat pot. Set the rose--still in its pot--in the hole, then slice and peel off the sides of the pot, so the rose remains sitting on the base of the pot. Fill in the hole. By leaving the bottom of the pot, the roots are barely disturbed.

Some caveats

If the soil is wet and sticky, don't plant. Wait until it is dry enough to crumble in your hand. If you need to store an unwrapped bare-root rose until you can plant, keep it in a big pail or bucket of water. You can safely submerge the entire plant for several weeks. If a Santa Ana wind is howling or the temperature is in the 80s, make sure you shade, cover or otherwise protect newly planted roses.

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