Rethinking the rose

Times Staff Writer

Beauty is a dangerous thing. Witness the rose. It was plucked from shrubdom because of the bloom. Its fragrance gave Egypt rose water, Persia attar, France candied rose petals. It sweetened the medieval apothecary cabinet and became a symbol of passion for poets, purity for Christians and nobility for kings. In short, until a burgeoning garden industry got to it in the Victorian era, the rose symbolized all things fragrant, passionate and brave.

Now glory is sold by the gallon can, with names so cute you could gag on them: Baby Doll, Candy Cane, Giggles. Garden centers are full of rose fertilizers, rose pesticides and rose care books on how to prune the plant to force more bloom.

Beauty, like love, does not always bring out the best in us.


As Southern California reaches the peak of spring bloom, a flush that even the best repeat-flowering specimens will not rival again until next year, it merits stopping as we find ourselves in the throes of helpless admiration. Now is the time to look at the rose, but really look at it, not just the flower but the whole plant, and to ask: What would happen if we stopped fertilizing them so much; watering them so heavily; forcing, then pruning, forcing again and pruning again, all in pursuit of blooms, blooms and more blooms? Would the world fall apart if we let a rose be a rose?

The toughness inherent in even the showiest rosebushes might surprise us. The rose is at heart a bramble, from the genus Rosa, from the family Rosaceae. Its cousins could stock a fruit shop: strawberries, raspberries, plums, pears and, sigh, cherries. Most roses are deciduous. Most have thorns. There the similarities end. There might be another genus of plants with a greater variety of cultivars — orchids, perhaps. But roses range from 6-inch miniatures to ground cover, to shrubs, to ramblers, to trees, to climbers. The bloom might have five petals, it might have 100, it might have 350. It might be chaste, ruffled and girlish, pointed and regal, or a rouged whorehouse on a stem. Roses can look like cabbages, chrysanthemums and hibiscuses.

There is so much variety in form alone that an infernal language has evolved to cope with it. “Single” rose blooms have eight petals or fewer, “semi-double” eight to 20, “double” 20 to 30, and “fully double” 30 or more.

Scent is no less varied. Roses range from sweet to spiced to citrus-sharp to musk. Our largest school of garden roses, the “teas” and “hybrid teas,” were so named because of the fanciful notion that the blooms smell like a newly opened pack of tea leaves. As for color, roses come in every shade but blue.

The variety is more the work of man than nature. Depending on who’s counting, there are 100 to 200 wild species from throughout the Northern Hemisphere north of Mexico and south of the Arctic. Britain has its fragrant old dog brier roses, France its gallicas, America its pasture, marsh, desert and mountain roses. Los Angeles has the discreet flowering shrub Rosa californica, so often dismissed as beneath notice by fans of big-leafed, big-flowered hybrids.

No place has roses like China does. Only after Chinese roses reached Europe and the Middle East in the wake of the tea, porcelain and opium trades did the rose enter its modern era. Armed with plants selected by the Chinese for generations to flower not once but repeatedly throughout the summer, French breeders quickly crossed these with roses from Europe, North Africa and North America to create showy new hybrids. “Hybrid perpetuals,” followed by “hybrid teas,” had new, deep crimson reds, big showy blooms and the ability to keep them coming.


Thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife, Empress Josephine, we have an exquisite snapshot of the period. Creating a garden at Malmaison château near Paris, she hired botanists, plant collectors and the now famous French flower painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté. It led to a treasure trove of botanical art: Redouté’s 1817 book of engravings, “Les Roses.”

After China roses prolonged the bloom and bumped up the size, in 1900 a stunning copper and yellow rose from Persia, Rosa lutea, set the tea rose palette aflame. Meanwhile, scent came and went. Breeders, scandalously for some, blessedly for others, realized that while floral perfume is a divine thing outside, it can be suffocating in a closed room.

Looks, however, were never optional. The Victorians made the flower a captive to beauty, says Scott Lohn, founder of the Corvallis, Ore., nursery Uncommon Rose. “That’s the period when they started using cut flowers in competitions in shows,” he says. “As that became more of a fashionable thing to do, there was less attention paid to things that were shapely garden shrubs instead of mere bloom machines.”

The tendency persists, he thinks. There are tens of thousands of hybrid tea roses on the market today. Rather than breed more tea roses with slightly varying flowers, Lohn would like to see us change the way we use roses, starting with the expectation that they keep blooming all summer. “We don’t expect a lilac to be in constant flower,” he says.

He is not alone in wishing we would rethink rose gardens. These can be magical places — for those wealthy enough to maintain them, and for those with alternative gardens to stroll when the rose garden is either shaggy or dormant half the year. However, for the rest of us, dedicated rose beds can look less like an American Riviera than a wall of thorns. David Byrne, holder of the Robert E. Basye chair of rose genetics at Texas A&M University, jokes that he can’t even stop his mother-in-law from planting that way, even when he pleads, “But the plants look horrible.”

British rosarians have been pleading the same case on the other side of the Atlantic. In “The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book,” the author missed no opportunity to suggest that roses be placed in mixed hedgerows where companion plants can help carry the bloom load. Use the most formal miniatures and pruned tree specimens near the house, placing the wilder, thickety types as transition plants to wilderness, he urged. Let the plant find its habit for at least a year before pruning.

The hedgerow approach encouraged by Thomas adapts well to California, provided you swap out the wet-woodland filler of England for shrubs and herbs suitable for our far drier climate. Keep it woody and herbaceous: buddleia, rosemary, salvia, artemesia, lantana, penstemon.

The next art is to avoid tipping into a marzipan palette that could give you the floral equivalent of sugar shock. The magenta color of the intensely fragrant old Bourbon roses, such as ‘Madame Isaac Pereire,’ can be tricky to manage, but comes into its own with lavender, the purple of Mexican sage and the deep blue of salvia ‘Indigo spires.’

The floppy canes and lovely mid-green foliage of the David Austin roses, the ‘Graham Thomas’ or ‘Abraham Darby’ combine perfectly with ivy and leaves of flowering lavatera.

Care. Every publishing house has a rose care book, usually interchangeable versions of how to get on the bloom treadmill. For California, they will tell you to prune in January for spring flowers, fertilize, spray, water, deadhead, water, fertilize, deadhead, prune.

But by placing roses in mixed beds, you can give yourself and the plant a break. By all means go into the bed in the winter and cut away dead wood, spread some manure, renew mulch. But there is no crime in leaving pruning until February, even March. The thing to remember is to clean shears between plants, prune before spring shoots begin appearing and the sap is rising, and do it in dry weather so cuts can heal cleanly.

The plant itself, experience and common sense will tell you how much to prune. When canes die, cut them. When they get in the way, cut them. For shrub roses, cut for an even shape, or even let the plant flop and range if it suits the space. For grafted roses, cut suckers from rootstock. For climbers and many old roses, all you need do is tidy up dead wood or free engulfed structures.

Taking roses down to stump state is common garden violence. Savage winter pruning can force new foliage to grow too densely at the heart of the plant, leading to mildew and fungus problems. (If these occur, trim some of the leaves to increase ventilation, or move the plant to a sunnier spot.)

Conventional instructions recommend routine trimming to keep the flowers coming. Failure to deadhead can even draw criticism of neglect, based on the belief that the plant will stop flowering. In fact, untrimmed repeat bloomers continue to flower, if less abundantly. Meanwhile, previous sets of flowers will do what they were supposed to do: form fruit, called rose hips.

Hips range from the size of a blueberry to that of a small apple. Even simple white roses, like the ‘Iceberg,’ produce radiant hips, lovelier than the original rose. By the time the plant is making them, the foliage will often begin to mottle and age, reminding us that roses are often deciduous.

Once ripe, hips can be peeled and eaten raw, made into jams or teas, or cut up and sprinkled in salad. Lohn advises care. The fibers inside a rose are exactly the same as those once sold in the back of comic books as itching powder, he says. He recommends removing the fibers to avoid a laxative effect.

In cold places, birds eat rose hips, but it is deer and, in Texas, cows that really seem partial to them, says Byrne. Cows so like the hip of the lemon-scented Macartney rose that their browsing on them, then redepositing the seeds with large piles of fresh fertilizer, made it a common pasture weed. “It got out of hand,” Byrne says.

In California, even where hybridized roses have remained fertile, the seeds rarely get cold enough to seed wild volunteers. Feral roses are more likely to arise from residue rootstock. ‘Dr. Huey,’ a thorny, small-leafed rambler with a pretty little red face, is likely to crop up on old properties in the wake of bygone tea roses. Its tenacity gave rise to the term “shovel pruning.”

Entire industries ride on the notion that growing roses is difficult and that roses are so fragile, they require chemical assistance by the shedful. Not true. While much of the plant’s disease resistance was lost in breeding, if you follow Thomas’ advice and grow the plants in mixed hedgerows, chances are good that pests will be gleaned by a healthy population of beneficial insects and birds. Mildew and fungus can generally be eliminated by light pruning for ventilation, a sunnier spot or a morning rinse with the hose. Occasionally mites will make an orgy of leaves from a cane or two. These can be pruned away. But a good basic rule for all gardening is: If a spray or fertilizer needs to be disposed of at a hazardous waste site, it does not belong in your garden.

As planting season ends and flowering season is upon us, now is the time to regard the roses, choose favorites, then imagine them allowed to stretch and relax. Choose a plant with good foliage because, when you stop fussing over roses, they will indeed bloom less. Yet allowed to be just another garden plant, their charms somehow intensify. When you suddenly see a new cane of blooms arching out of a mixed hedge, a yellow rose climbing a yucca, a ‘Dr. Huey’ sprouting up next to a cactus — now, that is the glory of the rose.



Be a little picky

There is a school of thought that discourages impulse buying of plants. But not here. A rose’s job is to seduce us, and if a hybrid tea catches us as we stand at a bus stop outside Home Depot and convinces us to lug it home, that’s some rose.

Sometimes, however, it is worth looking further for unusual specimens, the most highly scented Bourbon, the tiniest miniature, the fairest English rose. For these, here are a few good nurseries and reference books.

Sequoia Nursery, 2519 E. Noble, Visalia. (559) 732 0309.

Uncommon Rose, 3333 S.W. Brooklane Drive, Corvallis, Ore. (541) 753 8871; (website has a color chart).

The Rose Garden Nursery, 1805 Stewart St., Santa Monica. (310) 828-4570.

Vintage Gardens Antique Roses, 2833 Old Gravenstein Highway S., Sebastopol. (707) 829-2035, .

Recommended reading:

“The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book,” Sagapress / Timber Press, $49.95.

“The Rose: An Illustrated History,” by Peter Harkness, Firefly, $60.

“Simply Roses,” for Angelenos by a local author, Karen L. Dardick (Universe, $19.95).



Viewers’ list

With roses flourishing, now is the time to pick out future plantings:


Arboretum: Grandifloras, hybrid teas, floribundas and other varieties will be available at this show and sale hosted by the Pacific Rose Society. 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. $1.50 to $6; children 4 and younger free. (626) 821-4623.

Exposition Park: The fourth annual Blooming of the Roses Festival showcases the spring rose blooms at the historic Exposition Park Rose Garden. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Exposition Park Rose Garden, 741 State Drive, Los Angeles. Free. (213) 763-0114.


Santa Clarita gardens: The Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society hosts a tour of three private rose gardens from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. (661) 296-5033.


South Coast show: The South Coast Rose Society highlights miniature roses at “A Rosy Day in May.” Noon to 5 p.m. May 1; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 2. South Coast Botanical Gardens, 26300 Crenshaw Blvd., Palos Verdes. (310) 544-6815.

MAY 15

Ventura show: The Fair Friends of Roses Rose Show will be held at Seaside Park, Ventura County Fairgrounds, Ventura. Rose entries accepted 6 to 9:45 a.m. Show open to the public from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free admission; $5 parking fee. (805) 648-7322.

MAY 26

Huntington tour: Huntington rose garden curator Clair Martin leads an after-hours tour of the rose garden from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Martin will point out classic China and tea roses, modern hybrids, floribundas, miniatures, climbers and many other varieties. Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Members $15; nonmembers $20. Registration: (626) 405-2146.

Next week, a walk through a rose-filled garden in Temecula.