I put ‘Agnes’ in the ground today. If I look out the front door I can see her now, occupying a place of honor in my front border. Her roots are thoroughly watered in and the surrounding ground has been tidily mulched. In the days to come, she will be treated like royalty–waited on, watered and fed. With all this attention, you might think that ‘Agnes’ is a rare yellow Clivia or at least an exotic abutilon. She isn’t. She is a hybrid rugosa, one of the toughest roses around.
Anyone who has been to the seashore and noticed the plant life has probably seen a rugosa rose. Though native to Asia, they thrive in sandy American beach soil, impervious to salt spray. With pink single flowers and golden stamens, rugosas liven things up in the summer. Come fall, they sport bright red hips the size of large cherry tomatoes. Rugosas laugh at Maine winters and chortle through New Jersey summers. They are so admirable, you would think gardens everywhere would be full of them. You would be wrong. You can travel for miles in suburbia or even in inland towns and rural areas and not find a species or hybrid rugosa.
There is only one reason for this rugosa shortage—thorns. Most roses have thorny stems, but rugosas and rugosa hybrids have stems that are nothing but thorns. Unless your fingers are made of Kevlar, you cannot pick rugosas without gloves. People with impeccable manicures avoid rugosas, even though the blossoms are generally beautiful and frequently fragrant.
Still, garden gloves are relatively cheap, and sources of beauty are often hard to come by. Rugosas are worth the minimal expense for gloves and the pain of the occasional prick from a thorn. I made a commitment to rugosas as a source of beauty when I bought ‘Agnes’.
When ‘Agnes’ pushes out her first few blossoms later this spring they will be yellow, single and fragrant. Since the bush is in the yellow, white and peach border, the color will be perfect. The blossoms may be somewhat smaller than those on the neighboring Austin English roses, but eventually there should be more of them. The foliage is dark green and crinkled, characteristic of all the rugosa and rugosa hybrids. When the bush is mature it will be between 4-6-feet tall, which is also typical of the class.
If I go further into the rugosa realm, I will probably try an old standby, ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’. This rose, introduced by the French rose breeder Cochet-Cochet in 1892, is, as the name suggests, a white double. Its blossoms are particularly large with delicate snowy petals. The fragrance is entrancing. For a smaller gardens, Jackson & Perkins has recently introduced a cultivar called ‘Snow Owl’, that was bred in Germany, and has white single or semi-double flowers.
Pink is always a fashionable color for roses, and right now it is fashionable for entire gardens as well. Lovers of pink will take great delight in ‘Rosarie de l’Hay’, a cerise double-flowered variety, introduced in 1901. ‘Frau Dagmar Hastrup’, introduced in 1914, has lighter pink single blooms and extremely large showy hips. ‘Pierette’ and the prosaically named ‘Purple Pavement’ are two smaller pink cultivars that retain the desirable rugosa traits. English rose breeder David Austin has also produced ‘Mrs. Doreen Pike’, a fluffy, medium pink rose with a compact habit.
Aside from their other virtues, rugosas are drought tolerant, a valuable trait in this day and age. The hips are full of vitamin C and are loved by birds and human jam makers alike. A few summers ago I was in a coastal town in Maine admiring the huge hips on some strapping rugosas. A few feet away a man was saying to a companion, “Last fall we had so many rose hips that I made twenty bottles of rosehip jam.” When his friend praised the accomplishment, the man replied, “I only wish that I didn’t hate rose hip jam.”
by Elizabeth Ginsburg