I was doing a live chat on Instagram a few months ago with my friend Erin, you know her as The Impatient Gardener, and we briefly touched on roses. Our conversation turned to them when I asked her about a plant she was over. She thought for a moment and replied “roses.” Too much work, too needy, too demanding. I get it. All valid points. Erin lives in Wisconsin, a stones throw from lake Michigan. Winters are harsh, the season short. We didn’t really dig into her response but immediately after she said it, I resisted the urge to argue the case for the rugosa rose.
My rugosas are the Rosie the Riveters of the rose world, full of beauty, brawn and multi-season interest. After all, rugose means rugged or rough, which relates to the overall appearance of their thick toothy leaves, but appropriate nonetheless.
I’m partial to them for so many reasons, but mostly because they ask for so little and deliver so much. Maybe a little too much in certain parts of the country where they’re considered an invasive species. As in all things gardening, do your research and check with your local extension office to determine if rugosa rose is appropriate for your region.
Now that I have that out of the way, let me get back to why I love this rose. I have three David Austin roses in my garden – two James Galway climbers and a Munstead Wood. I’m hopeful ‘ole Jimmy will cover the arbor between mine and my neighbor’s yard with gorgeous pink cabbage roses in the next few years. So far things are looking good. And the fragrance of the deep red blooms on my Munstead Wood can be smelled all the way to the street. It’s about 50 feet.
Two years have passed since I planted them bare root and they’re holding their own despite the yearly onslaught of roseslug sawfly that happens from late May until late June. They munch away at leaves and while their numbers aren’t enough to kill the shrubs, they do cause a decent amount of cosmetic damage. Funny thing though, the sawflies avoid the rugosas.
I’m not knocking the David Austins. They’re the beauty queens of the rose world, in my opinion, and as such require a little more fussing which I’m glad to do in return for such perfection.
History of the Rugosa Rose
Also called Beach Rose, rugosas are native to Asia and were brought to the United States in the 1800s to address erosion issues along the beaches of New England. Over the years, dense thickets of rugosa rose spread like wildfire, forcing it onto invasive species lists across the region. It’s ability to withstand salt, sand and harsh conditions is unmatched. Due to it’s strong presence in coastal areas, many assume the rugosa rose is native to North America.
The rugosa rose is resilient with some varieties sporting terrific cold tolerance to USDA Zone 2 where winter temperatures can drop to a -50 degrees F. Not every rose can withstand neglect, and I deal my share of it. Still, she’s lovely beneath my family room windows covered in hot southern sun all summer long. I don’t have a drip system and my three rugosas may only receive a few – like three or four or maybe just one – supplemental waterings from me if they’re lucky throughout the growing season. And yet they’re undetered.
Rugosa Rose Has It All
As you might know, I was away from the garden for much of last year. Unlike in years past, I didn’t feed the roses in 2022. Not one time. By late may, they were covered in single pink flowers, they’re yellow centers often occupied by bumbles and other pollinators.
I grow a a smaller variety called Frau Dagmar Hastrup (at right) that grows three to four feet tall, blooming constantly all summer. The first flush of fragrant single pink flowers in May is its best show but the repeat bloom is impressive.
If you deadhead, she’ll keep flowering at the expense of her plump hips. So I dead head just once to get a second bloom and allow the hips to form for fall and winter interest. They swell to a beautiful orange color, remaining so throughout the winter at least until the birds gobble them up. Prior to this variety, I grew a clove-scented rugosa called ‘Hansa’ in this spot beneath the windows. She was a beast, swallowing up the windows as she aspired to seven-foot Amazonian heights. Keeping her in check required regular pruning so I dug her out and replaced her with a more suitable dwarf variety. Right plant, right place for sure.
Speaking of pruning, rugosa roses are full of wicked prickles, better known as thorns, so a good pair of gloves is in order. I swear by Womanswork All Leather Gauntlet Gloves. The extended length provides effective protection for your forearms. Before these gloves, my forearms were always bloody and full of welts after pruning the rugosas. I’m also allergic so I was an itchy, miserable mess!
When you hear someone talk of multi-season interest, this is exactly what they mean. I can’t think of a better example of fall color than that of my rugosa roses in October. From deep plums to firey oranges and yellows, the color transition is absolutely brilliant.
In my garden, the rugosa rose has just one nemesis, the Japanese beetle. Few flowers escape their notice but even they are part of this garden’s story. My children recall them fondly here. Well, sorta.
The point is, every garden needs a beauty queen or two, but it also needs a Rosie the Riveter. The rugosa rose is my riveter.
Here are a few reputable sources for rugosa roses:
What’s your most low-maintenance rose? Tell me in the comments.