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Roses: Tougher than the Tea

Roses: Tougher than the Tea

by Rob Sproule

What’s the first thing that pops into your head when I say “rose”?   I’m guessing it had something to do with red roses on Valentines’ Day or a proper British countryside rose garden.   You probably don’t think of a tough-as-nails, no maintenance garden plant that doesn’t need any winterizing in the fall.

It’s no secret that Tea roses aren’t exactly durable in our climate.   While ideal for gardeners who love to dote, they can be too fussy for those of us who want to plant it, forget about it, and who still expect scores of our mid-summer roses.

Luckily, Albertans have a surprising number of hardy rose options.   In the past decades a massive breeding program has given us dozens of colours, growth habits, and sizes to choose from.


Explorer Roses

The Explorers are a made-in-Canada answer to providing rose hybrids for Canadian gardens.   Since the 1960s, a consortium of breeders from across Canada, in partnership with Agriculture Canada, have worked to develop hardy, disease resistant varieties that would leave Canadian gardeners with no reason to be jealous when looking across the pond at British cottage gardens.

The breeding program, which was partially funded by the Canadian government, is now shut down, but the fruits of it remain.   With names like ‘Martin Frobisher’, ‘John Cabot’, ‘Henry Hudson’, and ‘David Thompson’, the list of cultivars reads like a Jr. High history quiz.

The roses are mostly hybrids of Rosa rugosa (see below) and/or Rosa arkansana, a Canadian native and our provincial flower in Alberta.   There are mounding and climbing roses, with the latter being the most successful part of the breeding program.

Explorer climbing varieties are so exceptional that savvy gardeners in the United States and Europe have started snapped them up for their gates, fences, and trellises.   They bloom freely over a long period and most varieties are so hardy that they require no special winterizing care.   If you’re a keener and just can’t imagine a rose that doesn’t need special attention in the fall, untie the climbing canes and lay on the ground, under mulch, to be tucked in for their winter sleep.


Rugosa Roses

The species Rosa rugosa is native to Korea, Northern China and Japan.   It’s tolerance of salty soil and sandy conditions has earned it the nickname, ‘SaltSpray rose.’

There are dozens of hybrids commonly available, with the most popular in Canada being the ubiquitous ‘Hansa.’   It’s a rock solid Zone 2 hardiness and it’s native adaptation to humid climates has given it excellent fungal disease resistance.

Picturing how a Rugosa rose will look in your garden is a two-part process.   First, imagine in your mind’s eye a well-formed, manicured hybrid tea rose.   Now imagine the opposite!  Rugosa grow up to 8′ tall, 6′ wide, and tend to dominate whatever area they’re planted in.

This isn’t a shrub for your pristine perennial bed.   It’s a no-maintenance, rugged and reliable performer that boasts a host of bee-attracting flowers in mid-summer.   The best word I’ve heard to describe its aesthetic is “shaggy.”

Watch out for wickedly spiny stems and don’t be afraid to hack it back when – not if – it gets too big for comfort.   The large rose hips add an extra shot of colour in the fall and, if you’re a tea-lover, Rugosa hips make the best rose hip tea around.


Read through our Growing Guides for tips to enrich your garden! 

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