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To Avoid a Host of Thorny Problems, Seek Out Native Roses for Flower Beds

Native species not only make beautiful plantings but also provide valuable food sources and protection for wildlife

  • Evan Mallett
  • Aug 01, 1999
LIKE MOST AMERICANS, you have undoubtedly given them, wanted them and admired them. They're big and flashy and sport names such as 'Cherokee,' 'Fourth of July' and 'American Beauty' that sound as American as apple pie.

But like apple pie, whose roots extend to Europe, these roses and most others cultivated by American gardeners are exotics—foreign species brought to the United States during the past four centuries. Hundreds of hybrids and varietals of the genus Rosa, extracted from species found all around the world, contribute to the 35- to 40-million rose plants sold to gardeners in this country every year. Native rose plants, however, amount to only 1 to 2 percent of the rose market, estimates Henry Conklin, president of All-America Rose Selections, a Chicago-based organization representing garden-rose growers.

Conservationists and native-plant enthusiasts would like to change that. Many native rose species, they point out, not only make beautiful plantings but also provide valuable food sources and protection for wildlife. Hybridized exotic rose species, in contrast, offer relatively few nutrients; they also require excessive care and frequently crowd out indigenous vegetation.

“We have to be careful that naturalized roses from Europe and Asia don't take over native habitats,” advises Mike Ruggiero, curator of The New York Botanical Garden's award-winning rose garden. “Canina and multiflora [two exotic species] are about as invasive as anything you'll find.” Yet gardeners continue to seek exotic roses because of the plants' large, brilliant blooms and intense aromas (all by-products of amateur and professional hybridizing). As most rosarians know from experience, however, these big bloomers tolerate little adversity. In fact, so vulnerable are most hybridized cultivars that gardening authorities often advise using powerful and toxic pesticides to protect the plants.

“While most cultivated rose plants are very chemical-dependent, native roses require a lot less care in terms of artificial irrigation and various chemical inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides,” says Bruce Stein, senior botanist at The Nature Conservancy, a conservation group headquartered in Virginia.

What's more, exotic varieties of roses are often short of pollen and nectar, which are crucial food sources for a variety of insects and other creatures. “They're all show and no go,” says entomologist Stephen Buchmann of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Native roses are better because they contain a full complement of pollen and nectar,” attracting bumblebees, birds and other important pollinators.

As the shortcomings of exotics become more apparent, a growing legion of plant experts is calling for the resurrection of America's forgotten native rose species. There are about 20 species indigenous to the United States. Carolyn Davis of the California Native Plant Society works regularly with three—wood rose, California rose and Nootka (or Pacific) rose—and recommends them all for backyard habitats.

Natives may have smaller flowers than hybrid roses, Davis says, “but they have plenty of things the bigger varieties don't have, such as great foliage that changes color with the seasons.” In addition, she says, native roses are 'far more pest-resistant and way easier to grow' than hybrids.

Most rose species—native and foreign—require plenty of sun. But some native roses do well in the shade. The wood rose, for example, “is a very delicate rose that could make a wonderful addition to any shade garden,” says Walter H. Lewis, a botanist at Washington University in St. Louis.

Among Lewis' other recommended native rose species are the clustered wild rose, the Pacific rose, the thornless rose and—his personal favorite—the prairie rose. Of the latter, the botanist raves, “It is wonderful growing along a fencerow, and it is also the only native climbing rose.” Gardeners who live in the Northeast may want to consider planting swamp rose, says Craig Tufts, chief naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation. “Swamp rose clumps in virtually any wet landscape area form a favorite nesting site for song and swamp sparrows and common yellowthroats,” he says. Habitat creation is just one of the many benefits of planting native roses in backyard gardens, Tufts observes. “Some native roses that bristle with thorns make great cover plants and might take the place of barberries, some species of which are exotic invasives,” he adds.

Native roses are not a panacea, however. They often don't transplant well and they have to be raised from seed, Lewis notes. And aside from specialty operations such as Cornflower Farms in California and Royall River Roses in Maine, native rose species can be difficult to find in commercial nurseries. In addition, at least three types of native roses are considered rare: the tinyleaf rose of Baja California, the desert rose of New Mexico and the gooseberry desert rose of Texas and New Mexico.

But these limitations should not dissuade backyard gardeners from exploring the native-rose option, advocates say. With apologies to Mr. Shakespeare, a rose by any other name may indeed smell as sweet, but the long-term benefits of the real American beauties are far sweeter.

Evan Mallett recently moved to coastal New Hampshire, where birds and gardening often distract him from his writing.

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