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Eco-friendly Roses: Heirloom Varieties and Native Species


eco-friendly roses

'Stanwell Perpetual' is an eco-frienldly rose because stays healthy with little input from the gardener.

Some gardeners avoid roses because they think these plants require lots of upkeep and chemical spraying. Breeders are responding with eco-friendly roses like the Oso Easy series (Proven Winners) and the Drift roses (Star Roses & Plants). There are also some forgotten old favorites and species that require little upkeep, no spraying, no amending of soil and, in some cases, little water.

low-maintenance heirloom roses
An no-fuss classic is ‘Stanwell Perpetual’ (USDA Zones 3b–9), dating to the 1830s and thought to be a hybrid between the Scots rose, R. spinosissima, and an autumn damask rose. From the latter it gained the ability to repeat its bloom of heavily fragrant, three-inch double flowers on and off from spring to fall. Their color fades from shell pink to white, and the autumn hips extend the shrub’s interest. This rose tolerates sandy or slightly chalky soils and a little shade. Growing two to five feet tall and four to eight feet wide, it makes a perfect focal point in the midst of perennials for a cottage or woodland garden effect, providing support for nearby plants and texture with its small fern-like leaves. To encourage bushiness from ‘Stanwell Perpetual', prune it by a third every winter.

For four seasons of interest, seek out the eco-friendly roses known as early yellows. This includes Father Hugo’s rose (R. hugonis; Zones 4b–9), the similar incense rose (R. primula; Zones 4b–9) and their handful of cultivars, such as R. cantabrigiensis ‘Canary Bird’ (Zones 5–9). A great replacement for forsythia, they welcome spring with two-inch, light to medium yellow single blossoms scented with honey and linseed. The palest of the group, R. primula, has the added interest of scented foliage. All the early yellows show decorative maroon new growth, canes and thorns. Late summer and fall bring vivid bronzy-orange, purple and yellow hues to the disease-resistant, ferny leaves. All produce a bounty of small hips. They grow with an upright, arching fountain-like habit, reaching around nine feet tall and six feet wide unpruned. These roses make perfect shrubs for woodland and cottage garden borders, tolerate poor soil and some shade and lend themselves to screening and hedging, all without spraying. Prune them after they flower for shape and to maintain a smaller size.

native species eco-friendly roses
For a naturally small rose, one can turn to the species foliolosa (Zones 5–9) and nitida (Zones 4–9). The former, which hails from North America’s western prairies, is a charming three-foot-tall and -wide suckering shrub that creates a tidy thicket. It blooms once, in late spring to early summer, with single flowers ranging from white to pink; its appeal really lies in its small, shiny, willowy foliage. New nearly thornless growth and foliage can take on hues of purple and red maturing to a bright green during summer. It offers vivid foliage color and profuse round, red hips in fall.

Rosa nitida, or shining rose, is an East Coast–native counterpart that can tolerate wetter, acidic and generally poor soils. It grows to a slightly taller 15 inches to four feet tall with a similar width, suckering to make a thicket of decorative thorny, cinnamon-red canes and small, glossy, dark green foliage. It blooms once, with light to medium pink single blossoms, and the leaves take on brilliant hues of purple, orange, red, and yellow in fall. It offers displays of profuse red hips similar to R. foliolosa. Both of these eco-friendly roses can be tucked into naturalistic woodland, wildflower and prairie-style plantings or used as larger groundcover specimens in rock gardens.

In a rain garden, try R. palustris var. scandens (Zones 5b–9), a repeat-blooming variety of the East Coast swamp rose. Growing three to six feet tall and wide, it’s right at home on the banks of rivers, streams, ponds and wet gardens, but it can also tolerate more moderate moisture and clay. Bright single to semi-double magenta flowers with light rose-black pepper scent bloom on and off through summer until frost, giving off a light rose–black pepper scent. The almost thornless canes bear thin, no-spray foliage that gives a graceful willowy or bamboo-like effect. The new growth is plum red.

Max Eber is a writer and rose enthusiast who gardens in Maryland.

Image credit: 'Stanwell Perpetual' by Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0