Let’s face it growing roses in the South can be a real challenge with high humidity and temperatures which can last for months. In Charleston we have 4 seasons: Almost Summer, Summer, Still Summer and Christmas.
A sustainable or low maintenance rose garden is possible if disease resistant cultivars are selected and the site is carefully prepared. In the first part of this series I will explore low maintenance rose cultivars.
A queen is a very high maintenance person indeed and it is no wonder that hybrid tea roses are often called the queen of flowers. A weekly regiment of spraying for insects and diseases will pay off with beautiful blooms. There are a few folks who have the time and money to wait on the queen of flowers, but most of us just want a few nice rose blooms to enjoy in the garden or in a vase.
There are many types of roses and some are better suited for southern climate than others. There are some that can stand the heat and humidity and will not succumb to fungal diseases and some that are not appealing to bugs.
Before the invention of pesticide, roses had to survive. Weak cultivars faded away and were lost to history. After chemical fertilizers and pesticides came along, hybridizers bred flowers with big showy blooms and southerners relied on chemicals to keep them alive. Now hybridizers are breeding roses that are earth friendly or low maintenance. Still many rose lovers look to old garden roses that have stood the test of time.
Antique or Old Garden Roses are usually roses that came along before Hybrid Tea Roses. ‘La France’ was hybridized in 1867 is considered the first hybrid tea rose but it was the French ‘Peace’ rose that made modern hybrid teas popular . ‘Peace’ was introduced in 1945 and its big showy blooms propelled the hybrid tea class in to garden spotlight. Soon every southern gardener was planting hybrid tea roses even though they were very susceptible to fungal diseases like ‘Black Spot’. Not to worry, because as fast as hybridizers turned out roses, chemical companies could produce pesticides to keep them alive.
Rachel Carson’s Book “Silent Spring” (1962) was a wakeup call against the use of pesticides, but it would be many years later before rose hybridizers would realize that gardeners did not want roses that needed constant spraying. In the year 2000, Will Radler introduced the ‘Knock Out’ rose as a low maintenance rose and in the past 15 years many other low maintenance roses have come on the market. These modern roses are often marketed as “Low Maintenance”, ”Landscape roses” or “Earth Friendly” but be aware that these roses may still need pruning in late winter. Also insects can still be a problem with these roses.
Some gardeners took a different approach to growing roses. They sought out old cultivars that survived in cemeteries, church yards and old homesteads with little care. These Rose Rustlers shared their finds with each other and rose nurseries. Now there are rose suppliers that specialize in old types of roses. There are several types of roses that do well in the South. I recommend Polyanthus, Noisette, Tea, China, Hybrid Musk and some Species.
Polyanthuses are darling little roses. The small clusters of flowers are found on neat compact plants that need little pruning. ‘The Fairy’, introduced in 1932, ‘Marie Pavie’ in 1888, ‘White Pet' in 1879, are a few to try if you have a small space. They also do well in pots. An old southern favorite is the ‘Sweetheart’ rose whose real name is ‘Cecile Brunner’, a French rose from 1881. The ‘Cecile Brunner’ most often found in the south is the climbing form.
If you have plenty of room and a large trellis you should try some Noisette roses. This was the first class of roses hybridized in America by John Champney of Charleston. “Champney’s Pink Cluster” 1811 and Noisette Blush are large bushes with small pale pink flowers. Other Tea- Noisettes are vigorous climbers like ‘Crepuscule’ and ‘Rêve d'Or’ 1869 with large flowers.
Most old garden roses have soft pastel colors, so if you need a bold red than try a China Rose. They are not very fragrant but will bloom almost year round as long as the temperature is above freezing. 'Louis-Philippe' is a red rose with a pink center that has been growing in lowcounty gardens for years with little care. Some of the old timers’ call it Charleston Red China. Other good China Roses are ‘Old Blush’ and ‘Mutabilis’, the butterfly rose.
Hybrid Musk roses are an odd group of roses bred in Great Britain from multiflora, Musk and Noisette roses. They produce huge amounts of small to medium size blooms in spring and will bloom a little through the summer. The bushes tend to be medium size and tend to sprawl and cascade in the garden. ‘Penelope’ produces pale peach colored blooms that will fade to white in the summer heat. “Prosperity” is a small climber or rambler with clusters of pure white blooms. ‘Ballerina’ is a vigorus climber with dainty single pink flowers with white centers. She blooms the same time as Confederate Jasmine and they do well planted together.
Tea roses should not be confused with modern Hybrid Tea roses. Tea roses have large flowers that are mostly pastel colored from rose pink to white. There are a few yellow ones but the colors are soft. Flower stems are weak and the large flowers often nod. There is a variety of flower forms--flat, cupped, quartered, and globular. Most are very fragrant. Tea roses produce large shrubs that only need light pruning in the spring. If you have room try ‘Duchesse de Brabant’, ‘Mrs. Dudley Cross’. There are also some wonderful moderate climbers, since the flower heads look down, they work well on arbors. ‘Sombreuil’ has a flat cream colored flower and is a 6 to 8 foot climber.
There are a few good species worth trying but most only bloom for a few weeks in the spring. The ‘Cherokee’ rose is a native species rose from southern China and the state flower Georgia. ‘Cherokee’ is a vigorous climber covered with thorns and not recommended. The popular ‘Lady Banks’ rose is another China species rose, it too is a vigorous climber but nearly thornless. , the Chestnut rose, is an odd rose. It has large deep pink blooms on a large bush. The buds have prickles like a chestnut. A good care free rose if you have room. If you want a Carolina native rose then try Rosa palustris, The ‘Swanp Rose’, it is one of the few roses that will live in wet ground. This rose can be found growing along fresh water rivers around here. It blooms late in the spring for about 6 weeks. The swamp rose is very fragrant an ideal plant for rain gardens.
Recommended reading: The Organic Rose Garden by Liz Druitt, In Search of Lost Roses by Thomas Christopher and Antique Roses for the South by William Welch.