Seaside Roses

By: Mary Wilbur
Photo: Ted Pease

Mary Wilbur, a native of Wales, worked in the field of psychiatric care, and has gardened in England and New…

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When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It needs must wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.

William Shakespeare, Othello, act V, scene 2

Perhaps I should start with a few of my prejudices. I don’t like to pick the roses in my garden (or have anyone else pick them), so none of my roses are selected with that fate in mind. I don’t particularly care for modern hybrid teas; to me, they are over civilized, unnaturally perfect, and more suited to the florist’s shop than the garden, and, as the saying goes, “they don’t die well.” The older roses I favor tend to have one season of extravagant bloom and reach their peak just before they are finished for the year. They also know how to age gracefully, whereas the supreme moment for a modern rose is when it is still in the bud.

There are other reasons restricting my choice of rose: my unwillingness to tolerate black spot and mildew and the spraying required for prevention (another reason for preferring old roses, which are generally resistant to these foliar diseases); my garden’s north coast climate of fog, high humidity, and strong winds (Sunset zone 17); and an annual rainfall of forty-two inches, restricted to the months from November through April. Salt air, a problem for some plants, has not proved a stumbling block for my roses.

Northern California’s coastal region is so diverse in microclimates, however, that it is hard to generalize why certain roses thrive. Depending on the lie of the land and exposure or protection from the prevailing northwest winds, even immediate neighbors remark that one can grow a particular plant and the other cannot. Overall, if you are really in love with a rose and search around your garden for a special place for it, you will probably find it. In coastal areas, it is best to avoid roses with an abundance of petals, as the summers are too cool for them, and they tend to rot in the bud; yet even this advice can prove faulty, if a warm sheltered spot can be found. I have found, however, that smaller roses with many petals, such as ‘Little White Pet’, ‘Excellenz von Schubert’, Lady Banks rose (R. banksiae), and ‘Cécile Brünner’, do well in my garden.

China rose (Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’)

China rose (Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’). Photographs by Doug Ploehn

My favorite rose is the ancient China rose (Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’), which combines the sturdiness of the old rose with the longest flowering season of any rose in my garden (still flowering in January). Known as the “butterfly rose,” it is awash with ever-changing floral colors, and its airy form enhances that nickname. The single flowers first show apricot buds that gradually turn to pink and finally to red. It is also tough and manages to survive the depredations of our resident gopher, who seems to find the roots particularly succulent.

Apothecary rose (Rosa gallica var. officinalis). Photographs by Doug Ploehn

Apothecary rose (Rosa gallica var. officinalis)

Three roses compete for my affections with their delicious, heady scent: the apothecary rose (Rosa gallica var. officinalis), ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’, and ‘Excellenz von Schubert’. The apothecary rose, as its name implies, is an old rose, in fact the oldest of the Gallicas, and was originally used as a basis for medicines and perfumes. It is the rose I depend upon for making potpourri. Its semi-double blossoms are a rich red, with a touch of purple surrounding the center of golden stamens, and they open up like a layered plate. It has a long flowering period beginning in June and tapering off in August. Because it suckers and spreads freely, it is often used as a tallish ground cover, but I use it as a climber, and it reaches about eight feet in height. Though a Bourbon rose, ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’ is not dissimilar in form, scent, and season, but the red flowers tend towards hot pink rather than purple. ‘Excellenz von Schubert’, a hybrid musk rose, is, for me, the most aromatic of all roses; its clusters of rich pink blossoms are almost intoxicating. Add to this its freedom from disease and its recurring bloom, and it may be the perfect rose.

The many selections of Rosa rugosa are the ultimate roses for the seaside; they resist high winds, drought, and salt, and their leathery leaves never show signs of disease. Alas, they tend to be too rambunctious for my small garden. Another tough species is R. wichurana, native to Japan and used mostly as a ground cover. These roses are evergreen in this coastal climate.

Austrian copper rose (Rosa foetida ‘Bicolor’)

Austrian copper rose (Rosa foetida ‘Bicolor’)

An old rose of sprawling habit but incomparable single blossoms is Austrian copper rose (R. foetida ‘Bicolor’). Its petals are coppery red with an underside and stamens of sulphurous yellow. Sometimes it reverts and sports a few pure yellow flowers like the parent species (R. foetida), so that both colors flourish on the same bush. It has a reputation for susceptibility to black spot, but I have not found it so, perhaps because it is isolated from my other roses.

Newer roses also have their place in my garden. Bonica (1987) was the first shrub rose ever awarded the All-American Rose title—and well deserved it is. Elegant, pink blossoms smother the bush in June, and each rose has long staying power. Its flowering season is long and recurs here in early fall. It is also highly disease resistant. I have learned, however, that this rose does not like to be pruned, preferring to go its own way. Give it plenty of space, and it will reward you well.

Rosa ’Little White Pet’

Rosa ’Little White Pet’

Once started on roses, it is difficult to stop, but I must mention a few more favorites. ‘Golden Wings’ (1956) is a shrub rose that lives up to its name. It has an airy habit and large, pale yellow, single flowers bearing a light scent. After its first flush of flowers, it will continue blooming in a more restrained manner for the entire summer. ‘Penelope’ (1924) is another hybrid musk shrub rose with a generous habit. Its fragrant, semi-double flowers—pale creamy pink, with a wash of salmon and gold fading to white—are outstanding. It too needs plenty of room to show to advantage. ‘Little White Pet’ (syn. ‘White Pet’) is a good choice of shrub rose when space is limited. Despite its name, its buds are tinged with pink but open up to pure white trusses, delicately scented.

All the roses I have mentioned are hardy, although that is not an issue here where winter temperatures rarely drop below freezing. None of the roses mentioned are ideal for cutting. Although I have not selected them for that purpose (at least, not consciously), it is a welcome development. A statement attributed to George Bernard Shaw perfectly captures my own feelings. When asked why he had no flowers in his house, though he clearly loved flowers and had a beautiful garden, he replied “I love children but I don’t cut off their heads.”