THE QUESTION arose last week, which is the best sort of rugosa rose, and possibly the wild five-petaled white sort (Rosa rugosa alba) is the best.
Some gardeners, I know, will wonder why anybody would wish to grow any of the rugosas, those wrinkle-leaf and excessively thorny wild roses from Japan, plus a few of the hybrids between the wild rose and garden roses.
To begin with, no variety of rugosa will please the gardener who really wants a firm, fully packed rose five inches in diameter, with long cutting stems. Like 'Crimson Glory,' say.
All the rugosas lack substance, the flowers are too thin of petal, and not one has good stems for cutting.Also, the foliage is usually dense, right up to the bloom.
So anyone who is looking for the sort of rose you see in florist shops and whiskey ads may ignore the rugosas.
What is their charm, then, that so many ancient gardeners turn to them - limp and floppy - when the world is almost solid with roses of "better" shape and more spectacular color?
First and foremost, the beauty of the rugosa as a garden plant. Typically the rugosa makes a bush six or seven feet high and roughly globular or moundshaped. Second, the fragrance with which the group is endowed, soemtimes with a strong element of clove. Third, the repeat blooming nature of the wild rugosas and many of their hybrids. Fourth, the fruit (like tomatoes an inch wide) which comes in late summer. Fifth, the general good health of this group (though the yellos 'Agnes' may be a martyr to black spot) and their utter hardiness to cold.
But none of these attractions would make much difference if the plant were not extremely beautiful.
I have never seen much point growing things merely because they perform well.
And yet I know from experience that many gardeners od not, and would not, think the rugosas beautiful. There is no arguing with that, except to suggest that plenty of gardeners who have known all sorts of roses for nigh on to 50 years, etc., etc., would go to pieces if anything happened to their rugosas. Not that anything ever does.
The best-known white variety is 'Blanc Double de Coubert' which is semi-double and has a certain amount of fruit, or hips, and which is a very pure white, sweetly and strongly scented. It usually does not bloom much in the fall, but blooms heavily in spring and a bit all summer.
I can think of at least two world-famous rose lovers who prefer the wild white Rugosas alba to it, however. Doubling or tripling or quadrupling the number of petals in a rugosa is not quite the advantage you might think.
In hot weather, the double flowers are usually pretty shapeless and ratty looking, while the singles are elegant.
The wild white also makes a handsomer, more luxuriant bush than the other whites.
I used to grow 'Sir Thomas Lipton,' a white rugosa that bloomed before the garden bearded irises, and if the weather was right (not too hot) the flowers looked like white camellias and were superbly fragant. It bloomed all summer, but I would have like it better if it let it go with the spring display, since the summer flowers were never handsome. It bears no fruit, by the way.
I have mentioned the yellow 'Agnes,' which is very double and fragant. Its non-rugosa parent was the Persian yellow rose. In some gardens it is a great carrier of black spot, but others say it never gets black spot with them. I would be very suspicious of it, since the yellow roses of the Middle East (R. foetida, or R. lutea as it used to be called, more charitably) are more susceptible to the black spot defoliation than any other roses.
Indeed, it was only with the influx of genes from those roses, in our present century, that black spot became a real scourge to the gardener. To the Persian yellow and other roses of that group we owe the glorious brilliance of most garden roses such as 'Mme. Henri Guillot' and so forth - but the nearer the variety is to the wild yellows the more vigilant the gardener must be to spray against black spot.
The main color of the rugosas, apart from white, is a sort of faded mallow pink, or else a sort of magenta, sometimes fairly strong. Lilac pink is about right for most of them. Pink fairly pale with a good bit of blue in it. If you do not like the color, you should not grow the pink rugosas, but I suspect many gardeners would succumb if they had a fine bush of say, 'Belle Poitevine' in the garden. That one grows to perhaps eight feet, has four-inch flat blooms of light mallow and is well perfumed.
Clearer pink, with less blue in it, is 'Frau Dagmar Hastrup,' with single (five-petaled) blooms, scented, in contrast to the double blooms of 'Belle.'
The frau may be kept to waist height without any trouble, and its fruit is crimson rather than yellow-red.
The semi-double white 'Schneezwerg' grows to perhaps five feet, not nearly so tall or fat as the wild white rugosa. The name measn 'Snow Dwarf,' I am told, but the gardener should not imagine it is the sort of dwarf plant that can be used for edging rose beds.
'Hansa' is purplish red, and in the heat of it can be quite lavender, very strongly scented of cloves, and double. Its flower are floppy, even by rugosa standards. If the weather is just right, of course it can be very beautiful, but it is rarely considered a prize of the family.
'Rose a Parfum de I'Hay' is famous for its scent, and its relatively large (four inches or better) flowers of red touched with wine or purple. It sometimes grows poorly.
The current darling of the family in this color range is 'Roseraie de I'Hay' which makes a bush to five feet or so and is intensely scented of clove and has flat double flowers, not too densely packed, of red flushed purple.
(The "I'Hay" in both these varieties is in honor of the rose garden of I'Hay outside Paris, and has nothing to do with cows).
Other rugosas in commerce (from rose specialists) include 'Will Alderman,' double mallow; 'Delicata' a lighter and less double pale mallow, and the single wild reddish R. rugosas; the double and scented reddish magenta 'Magnifica,'; the red 'Ruskin,' well scented and double with a good bit of substance, and less of the rugosa look than some, and the very tall (nine feet) 'Conrad Ferdinand Mayer,' pink, and 'Nova Zembla' a lighter colored sport from it (both the last two sometimes have disease problems, but that would not greatly discourage me).
There are still others, of course, and I hope it is already clear that rugosas take a lot of space. In a border 14 feet deep, they are fine toward the back, but you would not want to use them in the narrow borders or ordinary town gardens. Or maybe you would. Think of them as being as bulky as a lilac or forsythia bush.
They do not need any pruning to speak of, but will endure (the question is whether the gardener can endure) cuttign or sawing back in late winter, without taking offense and sulking.
I guess I have forgot 'Sarah van Fleet' a great favorite of mine, which blooms all summer and is scented, but has no fruit. Like all these rugosas, a big plant in bloom in May is quite a sight. They are very good along a country drive, and the tall ones make good summertime screens along an alley. The foliage turns yellow or yellow-orange and tawny in the fall, by the way.
I suppose rugosas can die, but in comparison with most other roses in gardens they are virtually immortal. Some of them get black spot here and there (Sir Thomas always did) but it never was very unsightly and never seemed to make any difference.
They are all supposed to prefer a sandy soil to clay, and it is sometimes said they do not grow well on clay. Well, they will grow well enough on any dirt you may have in Washington.
Some gardeners are simply not going to get out there to spray roses for the various maladies to which roses in general are prone. It is too bad for such gardeners to plant roses that are almost certain to drop all their leaves in July from black spot, and such gardeners may find in the rogosas an answer to their prayers. But - please - remember they are huge bushes.