Rule-Breaking Roses

Sometimes, the best roses are those that don’t conform to classifications

THE BEST WAY TO CHOOSE A ROSE is to observe it in the garden—preferably a garden near yours—over the course of a year. Separated from catalog hype and freed from the fine print of rose classifications, a rose can be judged for its suitability to your conditions. Put a rose in a garden and it’s easy to see what it’s worth. Put a rose into a class and it is judged by how well it conforms to that group. For example, a hybrid tea should have a long stem and a solitary bloom with a high-pointed center. A floribunda should make a large spray of florets. A miniature should look just like a little hybrid tea. Some roses are overlooked simply because they do not conform very well to the category into which they have been placed. These roses turn into garden stars once we set our expectations aside.



Many hybrid teas want to produce one bloom per stem; others are disbudded to flower this way. However, many will provide much more garden impact if allowed to send blooms out in sprays, or clusters. Although hardly undervalued, ‘Peace’ and ‘Fragrant Cloud’ are two examples of what great landscape plants hybrid teas can be if only we do not disbud them. Just as good, but overlooked in this country, is ‘The McCartney Rose’.

A lot of roses get named for celebrities. Nurserymen get a naming fee, and the expectation is that some of the celebrity will translate into increased sales. Some recent celebrity roses have been notoriously poor performers, but Paul McCartney got his money’s worth. His hybrid tea is pure pink, intensely fragrant, and absolutely at its best when left to produce sprays. The bush grows slightly wider than tall, and for most of the summer in my USDA Zone 5 Ohio garden you can’t even see the shiny green foliage for all of the blooms that have formed above it. Introduced in 1991, ‘The McCartney Rose’ has won medals for its fragrance and performance throughout Europe. It is still underappreciated in this country, perhaps because it has been dismissed by rose connoisseurs for its failure to produce the massive one-bloom-per-stem specimen blossom expected of a hybrid tea. A few other undervalued hybrid teas that are superb when allowed to create to sprays include the orange ‘Doris Tysterman’, red ‘Stephanie Diane’, and yellow ‘Freedom’.

Opposite to the hybrid tea that wants to form sprays is the floribunda that doesn’t. These are often just like small-scale hybrid teas, perfect in their own proportions but out of balance when planted in a bed of roses with larger blooms. Floribundas that don’t flower in sprays usually make a tremendous number of individual blooms, and are perfect for planting right by the back door, or any place where they can be conveniently reached when one is looking for roses to cut. One of the best one-bloom-per-stem floribundas is ‘Sheila’s Perfume’, a bright yellow edged in cherry pink. It is almost never out of bloom.

Perhaps because they grow somewhat closer to the ground, or aren’t used often as cut flowers, floribundas are sometimes given a pass on fragrance that isn’t extended to roses of other classes. Those floribundas that are fragrant, such as ‘Sunsprite’ and ‘Margaret Meril’, often receive extra credit for this attribute. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a rose named ‘Sheila’s Perfume’ has a strong, fruity fragrance. It was raised in suburban London, England, and named for the breeder’s wife.


The discovery, decades ago, that roses could be miniaturized through hybridization opened up a lot of possibilities. Two kinds of commercially successful miniature roses abound today. One is the disposable pot plant sold in supermarkets. Disposable roses are simply a bad idea. The other is the miniature version of the hybrid tea. Miniature versions of hybrid teas are a charming idea, and while rose breeders have given us these in every imaginable color, they have failed in many cases to put them on plants that work in the garden. Too many miniature roses have straggly, uneven growth, are susceptible to powdery mildew, and produce too few blooms, or blooms that are too large for the size of the bush.

One brilliant exception is ‘Simon Robinson, a miniature rose bred in the Channel Islands in 1982. Here is everything a miniature rose should be: constantly in bloom, resistant to disease, compact in habit, and with blooms that really are miniature. It’s not a miniature hybrid tea. ’Simon Robinson’ has clear pink, single-petaled blooms illuminated by golden stamens. These appear in perfectly proportioned sprays all summer long on a bush that blends effortlessly into any perennial bed.


In less than a generation, the voluptuous, many-petaled, fragrant blooms of David Austin’s English roses have been imprinted into gardeners’ brains. Over the years Austin has improved habit, floriferousness, and disease resistance, and tossed in just enough funky colors (the coppery orange ‘Pat Austin’ and the bicolor ‘Christopher Marlowe’, for example) to keep things interesting.

In Austin’s catalog, ‘Windrush’ seems to answer the question “Which of these roses does not belong?” It has a dozen lemon-yellow petals—not enough to unfold in any intriguing way and too many to approach the simple perfection of a single-petaled rose. What ‘Wind-rush’ has in abundance is good health, an eagerness to grow under difficult conditions, and bloom that can repeat in less than a month. Combine that with a soothing color that blends with anything, and a subtle but clear, spicy scent, and you have one superior rose. It is better for me than its ancestor ‘Golden Wings’, a beautiful rose raised just 30 miles from my garden but subject to dieback and sparse bloom.

‘Windrush’ will never be considered the ideal David Austin rose, because Austin roses have been defined as something that ‘Windrush’ is not. But roses offer more qualities than any categorization system can encompass, and my garden got better when I started looking at the rose first, and worrying about its family later. A rose should never be left out of a garden simply because of a classification made by man. H

For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 74.

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