Picking the sweetest (and healthiest) roses

Ann Lovejoy
 |  Special to KItsap Sun

Year after year, roses win the “favorite plant” prize hands down. Indeed, they’ve been popular for millennia; ancient Egyptians loved roses, as did Chinese and Roman emperors, as well as healers and herbalists on nearly every continent (Australia missed out).

Here in the maritime Northwest, native rose species were and are treasured by Native Americans for fruit and flavor, and gardeners can grow almost any rose from anywhere in the world. Or at least we can try. In truth, while some roses are sweethearts, others fully deserve their reputation as prima donnas that demand a lot of care and attention.

In nature, rose species are generally hardy, tough and delightfully fragrant. The problems that can plague garden roses, from black spot to mildew to bud-balling in wet weather can mostly be attributed to hybridizing for showy blossoms rather than for plant health. For thousands of years, cultivated roses were basically pink, red or white. When plant geeks introduced Persian Yellow roses to Europe in the late 1500s, the explosion of rose hybridization began. Adding yellow to the rose palette made possible hundreds of new colors, notably shades of coral, peach and bronze. It also added susceptibility to foliar diseases, especially in cooler, more humid climates than its native Afghanistan.

For many years, breeders have been working hard to create roses with great disease resistance, and they’ve succeeded. Many modern roses grow readily and bloom well in a wider range of conditions than their more temperamental kin, but many also have a different issue. Roses are beloved as much for their heady fragrance as for their lovely colors, but modern roses often lack scent. It turns out that the genes that promote fragrance don’t mix well with the genes that make roses disease-resistant.  

So do we have to choose between strength and scent? Happily, no; just be sure to pick plants that offer good health, wonderful scent and beautiful colors. Once home, offer roses what they need; while our native roses tolerate filtered shade, garden roses need all the direct sunlight possible so they don’t get leggy reaching for the light. Air circulation is also critical since in crowded gardens or overly sheltered sites without good air circulation, rose woes like black spot and mildew are common and hard to eradicate.

Given good light and air, roses will grow well in well-drained garden soil enriched with mature compost. However, they need plenty of nutrients to produce those magnificent blooms, so feed them monthly with a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or so).

To find roses that combine vigor and fragrance, do some research and always sniff before you buy to ensure the sweetness you seek. I love Fragrant Plum, a robust (to 6 feet) shrub with silvery lavender blossoms with a sweet, almost fruity fragrance. Another favorite is Honey Perfume, a 4-foot Floribunda with apricot-shading-to-coral blooms and a rich, powerful scent. Longtime favorite Fragrant Cloud boasts big, coral-red blossoms with exceptional perfume, but this one needs frequent feeding (every three weeks, May-August) to produce the long, strong stems for cut flowers it’s known for.

Another Floribunda, Sunsprite, makes a vigorous, 3-4 foot shrub with glossy foliage and abundant, golden yellow blossoms with a strong, spicy-sweet perfume. My favorite for wedding bouquets is a sturdy David Austin hybrid, Margaret Merril with soft white, semi-double blossoms blushed with pale pink. Any or all of these will scent your garden sweetly all summer.

Contact Ann Lovejoy at 413 Madrona Way NE, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110 or visit Ann’s blog at http://www.loghouseplants.com/blogs/greengardening/ and leave a question/comment.