Rose hips (fruit), and the seeds inside them, are why roses grow. But they are rarely the reason gardeners grow roses. Because we've been spoiled by repeat-blooming roses and trained to fussily snip off all faded blooms, the appearance of rose hips is often either a new experience or taken as a sign that the gardener has failed in his rose responsibilities. But there is no reason why rose hips should not be admired as much as rose blooms. By selecting species and varieties recognized for their outstanding rose hips and planting them where one can view their display for a month or two after the first frost, gardeners can fully enjoy the fruits of the rose garden.
Both the paper-white Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’ and the smoky cerise R. r. ‘Rubra’ produce identical plump green fruit, often one inch in diameter, that ripen through stages of yellow and orange to a bright tomato red. The many rugosa hybrids offer plants with more compact habit (such as ‘Wild Spice’), larger blooms (such as exquisite light pink ‘Fru Dagmar Hartopp’) and vivid colors (such as the bright yellow ‘Rugelda’). All will continue to bloom even as hips form and mature, creating memorable September displays of new blooms and ripe red fruit.
Named for its hips, R. pomifera has fruits that are apple shaped and really red, although I have to admit I've never seen an apple quite so fuzzy. Rosa pomifera makes a very nice hedge, to about five feet in the Midwest. If you are looking for the same startling fruits on a shorter plant, try R. mollis.
Rosa rubrifolia (syn. R. glauca) is a thornless rose that fits in so well anywhere that it can often be found in the borders of gardeners who say they don't grow roses and in the catalogs of nurserymen who say they don't sell them. After its cheerful pink flowers have blown away (in the first breeze to stir them), the purplish red foliage provides summer-long contrast, until the masses of small hips ripen brightly in the fall.
An abundance of single-petaled red blooms are produced in spring by R. moyesii and its descendants ‘Geranium’ and ‘Highdownensis’. While impressive, this display can be lost in the overall abundance of the season. In October, however, just one of the large, lacquered-red, flagon-shaped fruits of R. moyesii makes an impression; a 10-foot shrub covered with a thousand of these is a sight not soon to be forgotten. The species, ‘Geranium’, and ‘Highdownensis’ are all confused in the trade. But you can't go wrong, whichever one you end up with.
If situating R. roxburghii in a city garden, think along the lines of a small tree rather than a large rose. The reward is great, both in the soft mauve-pink flowers of June, and the bristly chestnutlike hips that appear immediately thereafter and ripen throughout the summer. Rosa roxburghii can be pruned to less than the 12 by 8 feet it reaches in my northern Ohio garden, but it won't be happy about it.
Just as the discerning gardener would not limit himself to the largest, blowsiest hybrid teas, there is no reason to stop with the most obvious rose hips. Rosa spinosissima and its immediate relatives offer distinctive round, black hips in abundance. These are effective against any light-colored background in the garden, and when clustered with brighter hips in autumnal arrangements. ‘Windrush’, a David Austin rose with R. spinosissima ancestry, provides impressive sprays of hips, often appearing together in varying stages of ripeness. Rosa rubignosa and its numerous Penzance hybrids ripen their small, nubby fruit early and have the added advantage of foliage that smells as sweet as green apples after every rain. Letting hybrid perpetuals go to seed will be difficult for anyone who waits for their scarce autumn blooms. But the purple ‘Jubilee’ is not remontant in the first place, and follows its hefty June bloom with an autumn of pumpkin-orange hips.
‘George Vancouver’ and many of its Canadian Explorer kin will make impressive hips very easily, and will color to red if your season is long enough. Leaving hips to form will curtail bloom for the remainder of the season, so it is simply a matter of deciding what you want in your garden.
Just because a rose is old does not necessarily mean it will have worthwhile fruit. Rosa alba ‘Semi-plena’ is an eight-foot sheet of red fruit across the back of a border in my garden each autumn, but many of the later R. alba hybrids produce fruit so small as to be unnoticeable. Likewise, many of the more hybridized gallicas and damasks have nothing to say for themselves after June. Those seeking mossy rose hips should look first to ‘William Lobb’.
Commercial rose breeders have turned their backs on rose hips. A promotional point for some new shrub roses is that they are “self-cleaning.” That is, they are sterile, and their flowers will drop off all by themselves, to be followed by more flowers. Yet, while there are not a lot of new developments in rose hips, three recent hybrids deserve mention. ‘Bourgogne’, a Dutch hybrid, is an arching shrub whose small, simple pink blooms quickly give way to long, tubular fruit that ripens to a bright red as the season progresses. From Belgium, ‘Louis Rambler’ can cover a wall with its bright orange fruit months after it has done the same with its simple white blooms. And ‘PiRo 3’, a German creation, is credited with exceptionally high vitamin-C content.
Rose hips are as good for you as they are for birds. The idea of ambling down a country lane and grabbing a ripe rose hip to munch on is certainly nostalgic, if no longer entirely realistic. Where are these country lanes? What has the local farmer sprayed around these roses? In your own garden, you might feel free to munch away-there is no need to spray most of the roses that offer the best hip display. The rugosas and many other species roses offer excellent disease resistance. In most cases, their bloom will be complete before Japanese beetles arrive. And while I have seen beetles devour blooms, foliage, and buds on occasion, they've never touched the hips.