A host of modern breeders continues to improve this versatile group


NTIL FAIRLY RECENTLY, most nurserymen introduced shrub roses as afterthoughts; now, these same nurserymen worry that a rose won’t sell unless it’s a shrub, or at least called one. I’ve gone along happily with these developments. Fifteen years ago, 90 percent of the roses in my USDA Zone 5 northern Ohio garden were floribundas or hybrid teas. Today, more than half of the 1,100 roses I grow are shrubs. David Austin may have sparked the shrub rose revolution, but there are others making substantial contributions. The family responsible for the first hybrid tea, the Canadian government, a venerable German nursery, an American with a taste for the unusual, and a Belgian have all changed the way the world looks at roses.


The Guillot family of Lyons, France, introduced the putative first hybrid tea, ‘La France’, in 1867, and the undisputed first polyantha, ‘Paquerette’, in 1875. Today, their series of Generosa roses take shrub roses a step back to the easy, graceful growth of the most esteemed heritage roses. Although they bloom as continuously as any modern rose, there is no mistaking Generosas for hybrid teas with too many petals. These are shrub roses with strongly individual character, from the intense fragrance of the voluptuous, nodding, chiffon-pink ‘Sonia Rykiel’ to the prodigious, upright sprays of ‘Florence Delattre’, an eerie mauve gray that appears different in every light. Comparisons with David Austin’s English roses are inevitable. In my experience, most Generosas have a better plant habit, growing up and then gracefully out, while most English roses have more perfectly intricate blooms.

My favorite Generosa for landscaping is the creamy ‘Martine Guillot’. It’s lovely on its own, and multiple plants make a uniform six-foot hedge covered with exquisitely tapered buds resembling 19th-century tea roses. While teas are notoriously tender, ‘Martine Guillot’ is Ohio-hardy. Apricot roses are also known for their tenderness, and here again, with ‘Paul Bocuse’, there is a winter-hardy Generosa. Yellows are so often the weak link in roses. Guillot’s ‘Claudia Cardinale’ is the most problematic Generosa, rangy and short of foliage. Even so, its hundred-petaled egg-yolk-yellow blooms are a remarkable sight, and garden visitors often stop to ask, “What’s that?”

Three of Griffith Buck’s extra-hardy (to at least USDA Zone 5) selections. Left to right: ‘Applejack’; ‘Distant Drums’; ‘Carefree Beauty’.

Facts & Figures

Shrub Roses

TYPE OF PLANT: deciduous shrubs FAMILY: Rosaceae (rose family) HEIGHT: varies according to cultivar LEAVES: varies according to cultivar FLOWERS: large, showy, single to fully double HARDINESS: USDA Zones 4/5/6-10, depending on cultivar SOIL: ordinary, well-drained EXPOSURE: minimum half day full sun WATER NEEDS: moderately heavy FEEDING: apply balanced fertilizer according to label directions once a month throughout growing season PROPAGATION: by cuttings, grafting, or budding PROBLEMS: black spot; powdery mildew; aphids; thrips; Japanese beetles; spider mites; rose midges; cane borers; consult a rose reference for remedies

Roses from the Canadian Explorer series. Above, top to bottom: ‘Jens Munk’; ‘William Baffin’; ‘Champlain’.

Above left: ‘William Baffin’ trained on an arch.


Bred for extreme hardiness, Agriculture Canada’s Explorer roses are reported to survive temperatures as low as -40°F (Zone 3a). (In my own garden they have easily survived -26°F.) To be completely successful, a rose bred for winter hardiness must also have qualities that would recommend it to those who garden in milder climates. ‘William Baffin’ is the only repeat-blooming climber to show no dieback for me after a typical Zone 5 winter. But if I lived where winter was not a problem, how much would I want a not very fragrant, slightly shaggy, small-bloomed, cerise-colored rose? Not very. That said, Explorers may be indispensable for rosarians in climates colder than mine, and a boon to carefree rose gardening everywhere north of Zone 6.

Explorers trace their ancestry to Rosa rugosa and R. kordesii. Those that are strongly rugosa, such as the vigorous, bright pink ‘Jens Munk’, will resent being sprayed with chemicals and can be expected to sulk in hot weather. Those with kordesii characteristics, such as the floriferous carmine ‘John Cabot’, are usually selfcleaning—that is, the petals drop away without deadheading, reducing maintenance but also any thought of using the rose as a cut flower. Most Explorers have 12 to 24 petals; they don’t pretend to be hardier versions of David Austin’s creations.

The Explorer that has traveled most extensively outside of Canada is the soft pink, sprawling ‘Martin Frobisher’, now recognized as a valuable rose in drought-prone areas of Australia. Other Explorers that stop short of harsh pink can also expect long careers. The neutral red ‘Captain Samuel Holland’ comes alive when paired with ‘Martine Guillot’, with which it shares bud form and plant habit. When my wife and I needed more red in a perennial bed, we planted the well-mannered, two-foot-tall, velvety crimson ‘Champlain’. No perennial hardy in our climate could give the five months of constant red color that ‘Champlain’ provides.

Explorers range from climbers and near climbers (‘William Baffin’, ‘John Davis’) to relatively low growers (‘Champlain’, ‘Henry Hudson’). The vigorous ones are not very happy when restrained, and care should be taken to choose varieties that won’t overgrow the space they are expected to fill. In addition, Explorers should not be overfed; I’m not even sure the taller ones should be fed at all.

The newest Explorers include several dwarf growers and one of real promise. ‘J.F. Quadra’ is a crimson climber with plush, fully double blooms, offering all of the plant advantages of ‘William Baffin’ plus a much more appealing flower.


Winter-hardy shrub roses are nothing new for the Kordes nursery of Sparrieshoop, Germany, whose namesake kordesiis were hardy staples of the 1950s and 60s. Perhaps because their roses are not packaged as part of a series, and because they often have stubborn names, such as ‘Rosenstadt Zweibrucken’ or ‘Dornroschenschloss Sababurg’, Kordes shrubs have not achieved the success in America that they deserve. In a world of increasingly retro roses, Kordes shrubs stand out as thoroughly modern creations. Their foliage is glossy, their colors strong and bright, and their form owes more to the hybrid tea than to the centifolia. Most reach five to six feet in my garden, and can be expected to grow taller in milder climates. Particularly effective recent introductions are the sky-mauve ‘Hansa-Park’, semidouble with bright yellow stamens, and the brilliant ‘Postillion’, reminiscent in both color and fragrance of the classic hybrid tea ‘Sutter’s Gold’, but with up-to-date health and vigor. Since 1987, Kordes rose seedlings have not been treated with fungicides during their evaluation; the health of the resulting selections is something that can be taken for granted. I winter-protect Kordes shrubs their first year, and let them fend for themselves after that. Winter has yet to claim one.

The Kordes nursery, of Sparrieshoop, Germany, has been at the forefront of shrub rose breeding for decades. Kordesii roses tend to have glossy foliage and strong, bright colors. Left to right: ‘Position’; ‘Hansa-Park’; ‘Rosenstadt Zweibrucken’.


The creations of Iowa’s Dr. Griffith Buck are also noted for their winter hardiness, but offer much more. Here one can find some of the most unusual and effective color combinations in roses (the purple and tan ‘Distant Drums’, the stippled, pink and yellow ‘Freckles’) and, in most cases, pronounced fragrance. But although Buck roses are classified as shrubs, most lack the backbone or stature to be used that way. Most of the Buck roses—and there are dozens—are simply excellent, often unusual, winter-hardy floribundas and hybrid teas, reaching no more than three feet in Zone 5. I like to use the Buck selections as surprise roses, either to break the monotony in a bed of more conventional modern roses, or to inject a spot of completely unexpected color into a roseless part of the garden.

A few Buck roses really are shrubs. The dappled pink ‘Applejack’ arches over six feet. And ‘Carefree Beauty’ provides a solid five-foot wall of informal, bright pink blooms all summer long.


While Griffith Buck pursued an original vision right from the start, Belgium’s Louis Lens enjoyed a conventional career as a rose breeder. In his retirement years, having sold his nursery and left hybrid teas behind, Lens created a remarkable series of hybrid musk roses. These include some of the most useful shrub roses I grow.

The first hybrid musks came from Britain’s Joseph Pemberton almost a century ago. Working with teas, Noisettes, and hybrid multifloras, Pemberton, a somewhat eccentric curate, bred a series of informal roses presenting small blooms in large corymbs. Based on their genetics, he wanted to call them hybrid teas, but rose society officials were concerned that these new roses looked nothing like the high-centered hybrid teas being entered in rose competitions, and suggested he call them hybrid musks instead. Pemberton’s creations have only a remote connection with R. moschata, the musk rose of Shakespeare and legend, but the name has stuck, as have many of Pemberton’s roses, more popular today than they were in his lifetime.

Lens’s work with hybrid musks offers improvements on Pemberton’s creations in four key areas. Many of his introductions bloom more consistently throughout the season. Many maintain a tidier habit. Almost all make better cut flowers. And his yellow and apricot hybrid musks are more winter hardy. The Lens hybrid musks never call out from across the lawn, “Look at me.” But when used as part of a border, they will provide a perfect spot of color throughout the summer. Nearly all appear in soft tones that blend well with companion plants and each other.

One of Lens’s first hybrid musks, the pink and white ‘Rush’, was voted the “Rose of the Century” by the city of Lyons, France, in 1982. That honor might be more impressive if Lyons did not choose a “Rose of the Century” every year, but ‘Rush’ has gone on to wide distribution and success in every corner of the world. Other Lens creations are equally good but not nearly as well known. Most effective in my garden have been ‘Rush’, the faint pink, single-petaled ‘Sourire Rose’, the ochre-yellow ‘Souvenir de Rose Marie’, and ‘Reine de Chabeau’, with its masses of tiny white pompons all summer long.

Nearly all of the Lens musks obtain a uniform height and width of four by four feet. ‘Petit Rat de l’Opera’ is notably smaller. All are clothed from top to ground in healthy, often elongated foliage. A 1997 Lens introduction, ‘Easy to Cut’, happens to be a fully double chamois apricot, but the name could have been used for any in the series. Appearing in big sprays on long stems, the new hybrid musks will be valued by any arranger who does not mind green buds and fully open blooms in the same display. Hybrid musks remain small-flowered roses, however, with individual flowers one to three inches across, effective in the garden or in a vase because of their mass effect. Few have a powerful fragrance; fewer still disappoint by having no fragrance at all.

And so roses come full circle. Guillot has bred roses great-grandparents would appreciate, if not exactly recognize. Agriculture Canada has given northern gardeners something that was here before we were: roses that won’t die over winter. And the hybrid musks from Louis Lens, like the Pembertons before them, are likely to grow in popularity among all who want roses that are beautiful, good natured, and genuinely useful.

For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 114.

Perennial companions for shrub roses

Alchemilla mollis (lady’s-mantle) 3-9
Campanula persicifolia (peach-leaved bellflower) 3-10
Delphinium cvs. (tall hybrid delphinium) 3-8
Dianthus plumarius (cottage pink) 4-10
Digitalis grandiflora (yellow foxglove) 3-10
Digitalis purpurea (common foxglove) 5-9
Geranium spp. (hardy geranium) various
Nepeta spp. (catmint) 3-10
Sisyrinchium striatum 7-10
Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ears) 4-10
Stachys macrantha (betony) 3-10
Viola cornuta (horned violet) 6-10

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