Category: Species roses

Showy Rose Hips

I’ve always said that roses are the hardest working shrubs in the garden. From the earliest in spring, they provide ornamental interest to the garden, plus food and habitat for insects, birds and other wildlife. In the fall and winter, they demonstrate this work ethic with their ripening fruit – the rose hip.

As I write this, it’s early October in my garden. While some of the less sensible hybrid roses are still sending up soft new shoots and flower buds, the species roses have been planning for winter all season: hardening off the wood from this year’s stems, and slowly ripening hips from the clusters of flowers they wore in May and June. If you’re not familiar with the species roses here’s the short explanation: these are the native wild roses from around the world. Unlike the hybrids often seen in gardens, they usually bloom all at once for a few weeks early in the season. Some of my favorites really put on a fall and winter show with their hips, and I’ve featured them in the video below:

What’s a gardener to do with all these rose hips?

If you’re like me, I just enjoy them as seasonal decor of the garden. The birds, rabbits and other small critters will snack on them as they soften. I only do minimal pruning and tidying in the rose field in the fall – small birds take refuge in the canes and brambles in large numbers. Sometimes, we’ll have a spell of hard winter weather and the snow and ice will cover the rose hips for a beautiful display.

If you’re a little more inclined to forage for yourself, you can collect the rose hips and use them for tea, syrup, jelly or even wine. They’re sweet and fragrant, with a flavor somewhat like an apple or quince – they’re also very high in vitamin C. Herbalist recommend them for heart health and arthritis – and they’re also supposed to be good for the common cold.

In my opinion, the best hips for harvest are the big, juicy hips of Rosa rugosa:

Some of the rose hips featured in the above video are definitely not for eating. The Scots rose, Rosa spinosissima and its relatives have attractive black or purple hips, but they’re rather dry and mealy inside:

One more rose I have to add a photo of is Rosa roxburghii, the chestnut rose. It’s a very large shrub (almost a tree), with finely divided leaves, and these large spiny hips that distinguish it from all other roses:

The Scots Rose

The earliest group of roses to bloom in my landscape are the Scots roses and their close relatives. For those who are not familiar with this group of roses, they deserve a formal introduction – but maybe skip the handshake on account of the thorniness.

The species rose that they are all related to is Rosa spinosissima. Native to the British isles, northern and western Europe, and western Asia, it’s picked up a few other names from the people who live around it. I know it as the Scots rose, Burnet rose, or the Scotch Briar rose. It’s noted for growing in sandy or rocky places, usually near water. It is very tolerant of drought, shade and cold winters – making it quite a useful rose in the landscape. The Scots rose flowers in white, with prominent yellow stamens for a period of around 3 weeks starting in May (here… maybe earlier in warmer climates).

The ornamental features of this rose doesn’t end with the flowers – that would be quite a let-down, given how early in the season it finishes blooming. The Scots rose also has finely divided leaves (up to 11 small leaflets on a leaf), which are also a deep green color and have toothed edges. The foliage makes for quite a fine textured shrub compared to most modern hybrid roses. The other really cool ornamental feature is the fruit, or hips. The fruit swells and ripens through green, red, brown, and finally to a striking black. The cut branches with black hips make for interesting winter decor.

As much as I appreciate the species roses itself, what I really find exciting is that breeders have been able to use the genetics of the Scots rose to hybridize these excellent landscape characteristics into shrubs with diverse flower forms. Here are some examples:

Above: ‘Suzanne’. Soft pink. I think in the video I called it an Erskine rose, but it’s actually Skinner.

Below: Austrian Copper – not a Scots rose, but a genetic relative with some similar characteristics.

Above: ‘Betty Will’

Below: ‘Prairie Peace’ I can’t stop taking pictures of this rose when it looks like this!

Rosa spinosissima

This tough little species rose has the honor of being the first species in my greenhouse this year to put in a full flush of flowers. Sure, there’s the odd rose that has thrown a flower bud or two, but the Scotch Briar beats them out by filling its branches with flowers and buds. Here it is:

This rose, like many others that have been cultivated for centuries in gardens, has accumulated a few names: Pimpernell Rose, Scots Rose, Burnet Rose amongst others. (See more on rose naming here)

As I grow more roses, I learn to appreciate them for their differences. Unlike the red, soft, fleshy new leaves of a Hybrid Tea, the Scotch Briar grows tiny dark green leaves with 7 to 9 leaflets with finely cut edges, giving it a very different texture in the garden. The stems are dark brown, and the hips, when they set, are a very attractive and distinctive flat black.

Low growing, disease resistant, and drought tolerant, the Scotch Briar is very much a landscaper’s shrub. No wonder its genes have been used in such garden classics as Stanwell Perpetual, and in the breeding of hardy roses like the ones bred by Agriculture Canada.

We offer this rose in 1 gallon pots for $10.


Rosa glauca

One of the great things about this species rose is that it’s attractive for more than one feature. The rose goes by more than one species name, the other common one being Rosa rubrifolia. Sometimes the latin name will reveal something about the plant, and in these two names, there’s a bit of a contradiction: glauca means grey, and rubrifolia means red-leaved. Both are sort of right, and both are sort of wrong. The leaves are green, and yes, there’s a matte grey or blue tinge to them, but there’s also a red or purple tint in the veins and stems. Okay then… that makes the leaves greenish, bluish, greyish, purplish, reddish and then usually yellowish before they drop. That’s a lot of color!

Rosa glauca


The flowers are attractive, but small and simple. They have five petals, which are darker pink towards the edges and lighter towards the center, where they give way to the prominent yellow stamens. When the flowers are finished their early-season display, the plant goes to work on setting a large crop of red hips, which can decorate the plant well into the winter.

Depending on how and where you grow it, Rosa glauca can be a 4 foot shrub, or grow to as high as 10 feet. It will grow happily in part shade, and like most species roses, will accept less than perfect soil conditions. I sell it in a 1 gallon pot for $10.


Species roses

How do species roses compare to the ones hybridized for gardens and cutting?

Very different, but beautiful in their own way, I’d answer. Have a look at one of our native roses, Rosa woodsii:

Rosa woodsii

It has <gasp> only five petals. Calm yourself. This isn’t a mistake. The garden has one set of rules, and nature has another.

In nature, a plant’s ability to survive and make babies depends on it not wasting resources. Extra petals are a luxury – particularly when they get in the way of the real business on the flower. That is, the business of getting pollen where it needs to go. Nature selects for the simplest structure that will get the job done – which seems like a strange rule, considering some of the complicated flowers and other plant bits that you can find in nature – but in the case of the rose, a five-petaled flower seems to do the trick for most species. The roses we know in the garden are more lavish because we’ve gone in there and messed with them, selecting for big, complicated flowers.

While I’m on a bit of a run here, let me write a bit about reblooming. There’s a reason many “unimproved” plants bloom in one large flush, don’t you think? A native wild rose like Rosa woodsii is trying to attract the attention of pollinators, and it has to do so within the context of other plants blooming around it. It also has to do the job early enough in the season to ripen the seeds before growth ceases in fall and winter. A big flush of blooms all at once in June or July has proven to be a successful strategy in our climate.

There may be places in the world where a reblooming strategy works well. I suspect it would be in a warmer climate, where the rose may have several attempts over a longer season to set seed. Whatever the conditions were that allowed generations of reblooming roses to thrive, they were specific to a certain species in its own climate.

Rose breeders found this gene (in China roses, for the most part), and decided to breed it into everything. So now, practically all cultivated roses have been bred with some attention to this genetic trait. This is definitely the case in modern roses, and in a fair amount of old garden roses as well.

There’s a trade-off for all this bling, I’m afraid. Don’t get me wrong. I love roses with many petals. I love reblooming roses. I love roses that are bred for extraordinary scent, color, bloom form, and for other interesting traits (think moss) that have nothing to do with what would make a rose successful in nature. But I know there’s a trade-off when I choose these “expensive” traits. For one thing, a plant can only produce so much energy (sugar). When it spends all this energy on flowers, it has less energy available for roots, leaves, and the hardening off of stems to prepare for winter.

This bears out in my own experience, by the way. I grow a mix of roses with a single bloom period, and those that rebloom all season. Come winter, I watch those roses with the strongest impulses to rebloom, and they’re still foolishly wasting their energy on succulent new growth and flower buds that will never open. My rugosa roses have long since let their leaves go yellow and drop. Their stems have faded to grey to signal readiness for harsh cold. ‘Playboy’ is still ready to party, and pays the price when the cold winds come.

Another trade-off in the amount of attention hybridized roses need from the gardener. With the strong breeding emphasis on large, repeat blooming flowers, many hybrids are not able to perform well unless they’re given special conditions. Gardeners are left to supply these relative weaklings with what they need to support these flowers; high levels of fertilizer, regular water, protection from pests… and just about anything else you can think of. Some are so weak on their own that they never perform to “expectations” if they’re grown on their own roots – they need to be grafted onto the stronger growing roots of another rose (usually a species rose!) in order to produce those perfect blooms.

That brings us back to species roses. These are the real deal. They’re still relatively pure in purpose. Most often, they have single (five petaled) flowers in basic shades of pink or white. Red and yellow are out there too, but they’re less common. The majority of these roses are from temperate climates in the northern hemisphere, so they bloom once, set a big crop of hips, and are hardy enough to stand a tough winter without much die-back. They don’t generally need much input from the gardener, and while their flowers may be less impressive individually, I dare you to say that the single heavy flush of flowers on Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’ (or, for that matter, the subsequent crop of hips) is any less impressive than what a pampered hybrid tea can produce all season.

Some are excellent specimens – Rosa moyesii with it’s large stature and urn-shaped hips – Rosa roxburghii has hips that look like chestnuts and also an attractively peeling bark. Others are fantastic hedge or barrier plants – Rosa eglanteria and also a variety of Rosa gallica (‘Hansen’s Hedge’) come to mind. Yet other species roses are rampant climbers or ramblers. Whatever their use in the garden, I find the species roses to be strong performers, even if they don’t match the modern idea of a rose.

Stanwell Perpetual

I don’t have a great nose for scent in roses, but when my timing is right, I can find a good Damask scent in ‘Stanwell Perpetual’. If you don’t know the scent I’m talking about, it’s what you’d smell in a perfume made with rose oil, which is harvested and distilled from Damask roses. As insensitive as my nose may be, I can tell you this: not every rose has this same scent. Some people describe the other rose fragrances as fruity, as spicy, or compare them to tea or cloves or licorice. I can’t really get all that specific myself, but I can pick out the scent of a Damask rose in this one just fine.

‘Stanwell Perpetual’ is a chance seedling from a garden, so the actual breeding would be a guess, but it most closely resembles the Scots rose, Rosa spinosissima. I do also grow the species, and they look alike most respects, but the flowers in ‘Stanwell’ are larger, fuller, scented, and instead of setting hips, ‘Stanwell’ repeats bloom later in the season.

Stanwell PerpetualThis is the rose in a 1 gallon pot. This picture is taken after the soft pink of the largest bloom has faded to a creamy white, but I do like the way this picture shows off the foliage and abundant buds. The habit of the rose is low growing, and because of its toughness, ‘Stanwell’ is great for putting on a sunny bank, or even in a more shaded location. It will, of course, do better in a more pampered location, but if you need a rose for a challenging location, you could hardly do better than this one.