The Versatile Hardy Shrub Roses

A Prairie Garden Journal 2003

June is the first of three months of spectacular summer landscape displays in Wyobraska. That is due in no small part to the growing popularity (and population) of shrub roses in Wyobraska landscapes. Hybrid tea roses have always been popular plants in Wyobraska landscapes, but their popularity with homeowners never lead to increased populations in the landscape, because most the hybrid tea roses planted in a given spring planting season didn’t survive the following winter. As a result most roses were “annuals”—flowers that survived for only a single growing season.

But in nature, the rose is one of the most widely distributed plants on earth. Native species of this plant are particularly abundant in North America, Europe, and eastern Asia—the geographic regions from which most of our traditional landscape plants are drawn. For most of the early twentieth century, breeders of the fragile hybrid tea rose were focused almost exclusively on producing the most beautiful flower possible. These plant breeder produced beautiful flowers, but on fragile and temperamental plants that bore little resemblance to the superbly adapted native roses from which they had been bred.

In the latter part of the 20th Century, a number of rose breeders undertook the goal of producing roses that blended the beautiful flowers of the hybrid tea rose with the natural hardiness and adaptability of the native species. Breeding programs in Canada, England, and the United States have been overwhelmingly successful, and more recently one of the largest wholesale nurseries in the northern United States has started its own rose development program which is now introducing three to five new hardy shrub roses each year.

Wyobraska has been a particular beneficiary of the reintroduction of hardy roses to American landscapes. Because these newly developed hardy shrub roses have been specifically bred to retain the hardiness and adaptability of native roses, most not only survive our dry and variable winter weather, but they also tolerate or thrive in the region’s relatively infertile soils. As a result, the rose population is on the rise around Wyobraska, and our June landscape now explodes with color. It seems like everywhere you turn these days you can see a rose in bloom.

It’s no wonder. Not only are hardy shrub roses replacing the temperamental hybrid tea roses in Wyobraska landscapes, but they are also replacing many other traditional shrubs. It’s not that those traditional shrubs like barberry, potentilla, and spireas aren’t hardy or soil adaptable. The shrubs roses are winning out over these shrubs based solely on their flower power.

I recently counted approximately 60 different named varieties of shrub roses that are either proven to thrive in Wyobraska landscapes or are in the process of being tried. The significance of that number is that by my reckoning there are only slightly more than 100 varieties of other shrubs of all varieties that perform well in our region. Based on those numbers, look for shrub roses to stake out an even larger stake in Wyobraska landscapes in coming years. I don’t see an end to the population explosion in shrub roses anytime soon.

And if beautiful flowers, hardiness, and soil adaptability aren’t enough, consider this. Hardy shrub roses come in all heights, sizes, and shapes. Many of the recently introduced shrub roses are relatively compact 2-4’ tall plants with a similar spread. But a number of the early shrub roses are relatively large plants ranging in height from 6 to 12 feet tall, again, with a similar spread. As a result, there is a hardy shrub rose that can compete for almost every spot in a landscape.

Almost all shrub roses are in full bloom in the month of June. Almost all are what is know as “recurrent bloomers”, which means that they will continue to bloom more lightly, or off and on, all summer. The recurrent bloomers typically bloom through October and sometimes into November. Those that only have the single early summer flowering are not necessarily to be overlooked. Many of these “old-fashioned” roses are particularly hardy and soil adaptable.

One final note. It appears that there may be a relatively few hardy shrub roses which may not be completely hardy or fully soil adaptable to Wyobraska. I have seen a few shrub roses that seem to be struggling in certain situations. My advice in these circumstances is to simply try one of the many other options, paying particular attention to select one of the hardiest or most adaptable varieties.

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