I SEE WE have not paid enough attention to the rugosa roses.
As all gardeners know, we lean towards things we cannot grow with safety, such as oleanders, gardenias, and the general flora of subtropical climes, and we take for granted the magnolias, nandinas, photinias and so forth that we can grow and grow well.
And when it comes to things they can grow even in Boston and similar arctic places, well, of course we will have none of that. We want the plants of the Gulf Coast or the Mediterranean, and we virtually sneer at anything that can be grown in colder climates than our own.
Thus among roses, we may stir ourselves, at least in our thoughts, for the great tea roses which grow so well in Italy or Charleston, and many a gardener will go to a bit of trouble on behalf of somewhat tender (they die if just plopped in anywhere, but may grow all right if given a warm wall and a bit of mulch and extra shelter in winter) kinds like the Lady Banks Yellow or 'Marechal Niel,' the spectacularly scented butter-yellow noisette rose.
We may even condescend to grow some of the wild roses of Asia, hardy as oaks, provided they are uncommon (as they all are in American gardens) for we like to be the only fellow around with this and that treasure from Tibet.
But the rugosa rose and its varieties are somewhat scorned and always have been. The unspeakable beauty of the wild white rugosa made scarcely a dent on any gardening consciousness when it was introduced from Japan in the last century. Nobody then liked five-petaled wild roses, especially wild roses not even mentioned by Shakespeare.
And when it became clear that these rugosas were excellent for binding dunes along a Massachusetts coast, they were even less esteemed than ever. How could a rose be worth growing if Yankees can grow it in a wilderness?
All the same, the rugosas are among the most glorious of roses, often highly perfumed, virtually foolproof, and usually of splended habit in the garden, unlike the floribundas and hybrid teas which do not make handsome bushes at all.
By the end of April I saw my yellow rugosa, 'Agnes' was in flower. This is a hybrid of the wild rugosa and the wild yellow rose of Persia, R. foetida. 'Agnes' is buff, a soft color, a butter-buff with a hint of brown about it. The flowers are double, showing the stamens when wide open, and like all rugosas it is no good for cutting unless you are content with four-inch stems.
The scent is attar of roses with an undertone not entirely pure, as if a pinch of asfoetida is back there somewhere. Furthermore, the scent does not waft abroad on the air; you have to get right up on the bloom to smell it.
The leaves are deeper than medium green and have a leathery quality.
Another good one is 'Belle Poitevine,' which in bud is rich cherry, but which opens to medium madder with a touch of magenta. It has fruit later in the season like cherries. 'Agnes' does not.
One of the grand ones is 'Roserie de l'Hay,' named for the rose garden out from Paris. This rose is deep rose red, a muted rich magenta, sometimes, or rose approaching purple. It has as fine a scent as any rose in cultivation and would be worth growing for that alone, but also it makes a fine bush maybe five feet high and wide. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be in general commerce, but I have noticed if gardeners fuss and mutter long enough, unobtainable plants have a way of eventually showing up in catalogues.
This rose I had to order from England, a substantial pain, and it had to be isolated two years out in the country and at last I was able to plant it in my garden. You have to want a plant badly to go through the process.
'Hansa' is a red-purple rugosa, strong of clove scent and ferociously armed, but then most rugosas -- all I have ever dealt with -- have thorns to make a porcupine blush. They are sheer hell to prune, and I find I do not prune them unless they get so large they threaten to take over the place. A good saw in winter is the best tool for them.
"Sarah Van Fleet" was once a popular pink rugosa (a slightly raw, candy-pink) heavily perfumed and invariably making a good solid bush. Mine is about eight feet high. Then this rose fell into disfavor, and now (for such is the fickle nature of gardeners) it is becoming esteemed once more. It blooms off and on all season as most of the rugosas do, except 'Agnes.'
If you want a white sort, 'Blanc Double de Couvert' is all right -- I am not as smitten with it as most rugosa enthusiasts seem to be -- and 'Sir Thomas Lipton' is a possibility. It looks quite ratty (or its blooms do) all summer and fall, but at the end of April it covers itself with white roses the quality of white camellias, only scented. Besides these, the single white rugosa listed as 'Rugosa Alba' seems to me flawless.
I have never sprayed any rugosa, and while they are not immune to blackspot, they do not go into a blue funk over it. All the rugosas turn a nice russet-yellow in the fall, nothing spectacular, but pleasant enough since most roses have foliage that does not color at all.