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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Petal power

Pat Munts

Roses are the most popular garden plant in the world. And for good reason.

They come in a wide range of colors, most bloom from early June through the summer until the first hard frosts, and some are fragrant enough that one plant can perfume the entire garden on a still evening. Who can beat all that? Who would want to?

Unfortunately many Inland Northwest gardeners have the misconception that roses are hard to grow here. “We can grow just as nice roses as they can elsewhere. We just have to protect them more in the winter,” says Lynn Shafer who grows over 125 tea and other roses on her farm in Latah, 40 miles south of Spokane.

Shafer specializes in growing what are called the modern roses, which include hybrid teas and several other roses. “I am out in the open here, with roses growing on all four sides of the house, and rarely lose any to the winter,” she said.

Up on Spokane’s North Side, Heather Figg grows dozens of shrub roses, and varieties commonly called old roses, on her city lot. “All of the old roses are very tough,” says Figg. “This means they can stand up to our winters without much protection, and not be as bothered by diseases and insects as some of the modern roses can be.”

The secret to both women’s success with their very different roses is understanding the needs of their plants and then meeting those needs.

Before I can share their secrets, I need to explain the difference in the roses they grow.

A rose isn’t just a rose

The term “old roses” applies to roses that were growing or bred prior to 1867. They are characterized by very full double flowers, often with an intense fragrance and the ability to survive in what seems to be the most inhospitable climates with little care beyond adequate watering. Old roses include varieties of the gallicas, damasks, albas, centifolias and mosses. Unfortunately, most old roses bloom only once a year, in the early summer.

In 1867, an entirely new rose burst onto the scene. La France was the first of the hybrid teas. In a few short decades this new or modern rose would relegate most of the old roses to the shadows of the garden and practically into extinction.

The hybrid tea rose characteristically bears its cone-shaped buds and flowers on single stems held upright on small bushes. Their appeal is that they don’t just bloom once in the early summer, but repeatedly throughout the growing season.

It was this last trait that pushed the old roses to the sidelines. How could a gardener resist having the beauty and fragrance from early summer until frost?

Weak tea

Over time, breeders developed hybrid teas with flowers in almost every color. This development came with a price. In their efforts to create new colors, rose breeders sacrificed many of the traits that made the old roses popular in the early gardens, particularly hardiness, vigor, low maintenance, resistance to disease and bugs and, above all, fragrance.

So much of the plants’ energy was put into developing flowers that breeders had to graft the plants onto different, stronger root stocks to get the perfect plant. It’s no wonder the hybrid teas got a reputation for being temperamental. Enough had problems created by intense breeding to give the rest a bad rap and shake the confidence of gardeners.

Besides the confidence issues, a few other factors entered the debate about the merits of the highly-bred roses. Many gardeners no longer want to take the time, or have the desire, to care for high-maintenance plants. An increased awareness of the environmental implications of the continued use of chemicals to keep diseases and bugs in check has gardeners looking for ways to reduce their use.

As a result, in the past 40 years or so, rose breeders have taken note of the challenges and a new movement has developed to take the roses back to their roots, figuratively and literally.

A rosy future

Rose breeders have gone back to the lab and are focusing much of their work on developing new roses that are more disease resistant and grow on their own roots to improve re-growth should winter kill them to the ground. And, they are working to bring fragrance back into the flowers.

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