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Articles and Essays:

We are introducing guest editorials to - writings on roses for rose enthusiasts.

The first in a continuing series is from Mr. Harry McGee, Canadian writer and rose gardener with lots of hands-on experience. When he retired, he and his wife Joyce created Rosebank, a half-acre of formal gardens in London. Ontario. Mr. McGee publishes The Rosebank Letter, a bimonthly rose newsletter, subscription information is online at
or: 41 Outer Drive, London, Ontario, Canada N6P 1E1

Wild Roses

by Harry McGee

In the dawn of creation, roses had five petals – and so they remained throughout pre-history. The simple, single, sweetly-scented rose is the essence of the rose – a thing of beauty – a joy forever. The musk and eglantine of Shakespeare's experience, and the gallica Burns compared to his love, had five petals. And they were survivors – hardy and healthy in their environment.

We call them wild roses, yet they have such evocative power as to move Edward MacDowell to compose a tone poem "To a Wild Rose". His contemporary, Ellen Willmott devoted a part of her life to them in the writing of her scholarly work The Genus Rosa. In it she described 154 wild or species roses. It was ably illustrated by artist Alfred Parsons. Poets, composers, authors, artists and an empress – all these were drawn to wild roses. Our garden, Rosebank, is home to several and I would like to interest you in sharing their enjoyment.

There are three native Canadian wild roses that I would recommend for that special place in your garden. The first is Rosa acicularis, the emblem of Alberta, a modest little plant covered with soft prickles which blooms earlier in the spring than all other roses except 'Father Hugo'. About a metre (39 inches) high its simple pink flowers are followed by scarlet hips which birds consume before winter. If your soil is acidic, it will need the encouragement of a little horticultural lime to remind it of home. And if it feels very comfortable, it will sucker underground. These can be dug out and given to your friends to begin new plants.

The second I have valued for a long time is Rosa blanda. It is also called the Hudson's Bay and Labrador Rose. It has the remarkable quality of being nearly thornless, and has passed that characteristic to its progeny 'Thérèse Bugnet'. They both share the rich mahogany red colour of their newer canes. This is a modest growing shrubby rose not exceeding four feet and it blooms a bit later than acicularis. That is fortunate because it can be used in flower arrangements at rose shows.

A few years ago, in my home rose show, I registered to enter the decorative class for wildflowers. I took the antique pitcher from my family's washstand set; it is big! I cut three branches from blanda and held them erect in the pitcher with a puff of poultry netting. Then from our roadsides I filled it airily with colour compatible yarrow, wild phlox etc., and trained purple vetch aimlessly over the edge. A sprig of blanda flowers inserted in a flower pick camouflaged with a bit of sphagnum was laid on the table close to the pitcher. It hit the judges right. Try it. It was a very satisfying, expansive, unsophisticated celebration of nature, but by the end of the day blanda was beginning to shed pink petals on the show table.

The third wild rose I can recommend is Rosa nutkana. Tallest by quite a bit, be sure to place it near the rear of your garden. In its third year, mine grew to eight feet. Its blooming time is between acicularis and blanda, and has the largest flowers. Peter Beales of Norwich, England, says in his book Classic Roses, Holt Rinehart and Winston, NY, 1985 "I grow to like this species more and more". Later in his Roses, Henry Holt, NY 1992 he admits "one of my favourite species". Its new wood is mahogany punctuated with relatively few spines. It is native on the west coast of our country.

All these roses bloom in clusters, and then produce clusters of attractive scarlet hips which in the case of blanda and nutkana hang on all winter. I put a floodlight on them at Christmas.

One of the most attractive features of these roses is their autumn leaf colouring. When September rolls around these roses are busy turning their foliage to orange and gold. You know then that they are getting ready for a Canadian winter; all the water in their cells moves out so it doesn't destroy the cells when the water freezes. I look around to see which modern hybrids are doing the same and I know then which are winter hardy.

Where can you get these roses? Depending on where you live you may find them in the wild. I brought my acicularis home from a visit with my grandchildren in the Chilcotin area of BC. Blanda and nutkana I ordered from Pickering Nurseries, 670 Kingston Rd. Pickering ON L1V 1A6. Mr. Joseph Schraven and his son Joel have built this business since the former came to Canada from the Netherlands in 1950. Their second name is reliability. Over 800 roses, modern, antique and rare, are listed in their catalog.

In the next issue, I plan to recommend several roses which are noted for their single or nearly single flowers – some are non-native species, some are shrubs, some are even hybrid teas.

© Harry McGee 1996 - published with permission from The Rosebank Letter, No. 4, March 1996 and minimally abridged by the author Rose Database with variety & growing information on over 7,500 breeds of roses, flower photos, and gardeners' reviews.

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