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Foolproof Roses | Winter-Hardy Varieties

Foolproof Roses | Winter-Hardy Varieties
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It’s also a very different type of plant from those Canadian Explorer roses that he loves, in that it’s a product of nature herself, not the work of a plant breeder. Wild roses like rugosa are “species” roses—named because each represent its own species, not just a variety within a species—and they’ve evolved over time to be naturally resistant to cold weather and disease.

In a wetter corner of his backyard, Swain points to another species rose, the swamp rose (Rosa palustris). “Roses don’t like wet feet, but Rosa palustris is happy growing in a swamp—the opposite of well-drained soil. It’s eight feet high; has small, single pink flowers; it’s fabulously fragrant; and the bees love it!” Plus, it grows on its own roots. Which, strange as it sounds, is a big deal with roses.

“When you buy a rose from [a traditional rose company], you may actually be getting two roses,” Swain explains. “There’s the root, which is one kind of rose, and then a piece of another rose that’s grafted onto it. When the top of the rose freezes and dies back, what sprouts up is not the rose you wanted but the rose it was grafted onto—the understock.”

To preserve your original rose—and to keep that unknown rose from rearing its head like some weird mythical hydra—you must protect the part of the plant growing above the graft union at all cost. Burying, mulching, or putting a cone over it are all standard measures. But Swain knows there’s a better way: “There’s a whole bunch of roses that don’t require that treatment at all!” For us cold-climate gardeners, these roses growing on their own roots—called “own root” or “single rootstock”—make winter survival possible.

Swain points to another modern hybrid, the French Meidiland series, which are own-root hedge hybrids that bloom repeatedly and are “tougher than nails,” he says. “No banking the soil around the base, no pruning—you just leave them be! Big mass of flowers!

“Every time I go to the garden center, there’s a whole new series of tough roses, like Knock Out. So why would you grow something that diseases attack every year? Or, for that matter, that need to be sprayed? No one needs to spray roses. Knock it off!”

For a few seconds Swain considers the argument of historic, high-maintenance roses versus the newer, easy-care ones, before tossing it aside like compost: “People say to me, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have “Mr. Lincoln” because my grandmother had it,’ or ‘Oh, this is a historic garden—this is what Thomas Jefferson had.’” Swain’s shouting again, but this time he’s grinning: “And I say, ‘It may be what he had, but if he were alive today, he’d say, “Give me the best, give me the newest, give me the hottest one!”’”

This year’s Rose Sunday at Connecticut’s Elizabeth Park, on the Hartford/West Hartford line, is set for June 15. More information at:

Annie Graves


Annie Graves


Annie Graves is a regular contributor to Yankee. A New Hampshire native, she has been a writer and editor for over 25 years, while composing music and writing young adult novels. Find out more about Annie at

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