Can English roses thrive in American soil? An expert says they can, with just a bit of translation.
Admit it. Like most Americans, you're just a little bit intimidated by things English. The accent, the pageantry, even the warm beer — they all make us feel just a tiny bit cruder than our English cousins. Lately even their gardens have seemed out of our league, as the buzz spread about glorious, superior "English roses."
Never fear. Clair Martin, the curator of rose collections at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, has taken some of the mystique out of the British blooms. His new book, 100 English Roses for the American Garden (from Smith & Hawken and Workman Publishing; $16.95), describes plants that will get on famously in American soil.
Just what makes a rose "English," anyway? As it turns out, the term refers to a group developed by British hybridizer David Austin in the 1950's. They were bred to combine the best traits of old roses — beauty, charm, and fragrance — with the continuous blooming quality and color range of modern hybrids.
Clair Martin first discovered the David Austin hybrids on a trip to Australia and New Zealand ten years ago and knew he had to have some in his collection. "I had no information on how these particular roses did in my climate specifically, so I just took the catalog information I had from Austin and planted them accordingly," he says. "Working in a public garden, I had to figure out which are the big ones and plant them to the back of the border and the smaller ones in the front." Martin's trial-and-error method yielded imperfect results at first, but his experience has taken a lot of guesswork out of growing these roses in America.
Trial and Error
Martin discovered the hard way that English roses can indeed flourish on this side of the Atlantic. For example, 'Gertrude Jekyll', a rose that's supposed to grow to three or four feet, passed the ten-foot mark in California. "It was a problem," says Martin. "The guy who rides the lawn mower around the garden was mad because the roses kept hitting him in the face. When he'd see me in the garden, he tried to run me over with the lawn mower!"
Martin took extensive notes on how tall each plant grew, the essence of each rose's fragrance, and which plants had the fewest diseases. These notes are the backbone of his book, which is meant as a consumer's guide; take it to the garden center to select the hybrid that grows best in your area and that best suits your personal taste.
So why isn't everyone growing English roses? "Just mention the word rose and a lot of people are turned off immediately," says Martin. "They think roses are difficult plants."
Not so, he says. The key to simplifying rose care, though, is the research before the purchase. The plants most appropriate for your area will require the least amount of work, and the best place to start your research is in your own neighborhood. "See what grows well in your neighbor's yard and ask them what they are growing," says Martin. "Botanical or public gardens, where plants are often labeled, are an excellent resource for finding roses that stay healthy in your climate. And your garden center professional can also be very helpful. While their goal is to sell, they realize that if you're unhappy with their advice, you'll choose another nursery in the future."
Clair Martin offers the following advice for growing beautiful roses:
Where to Buy
You can buy a good rose just about anyplace today. I don't often buy roses from the grocery store, but you can. If it doesn't look fresh, don't buy it. Even if it's a dollar ninety-eight, it's not worth it. You'll be sorry in the long run, because it will probably die.
When to Buy
Buy in early spring. Most of the roses sold in the United States have been grown in California and were dug from October to December. The sooner you can plant a rose in the ground, the better it will fare.
What to Buy
Buy the best grade of rose you can. The garden centers make a big deal about selling only number one roses (the top grade). I would never plant a two, but most people can get by with a one and a half if they give a little bit of extra care. If the roses are not top grade, they will be labeled.
The 'Lillian Austin' is named after David Austin's mother.
What to Look For
The rose you buy should have three strong canes and a large root system. The canes need to be firm and crisp. If they look wrinkled or dried, or they're turning brown, then I would be worried about that.
Most Common Mistake
Most people don't realize that roses are very much full-sun plants. We start out with every good intention and plant them out in full sun. But as gardens grow, trees get larger, the plant matures, and the space for sunlight reduces. It's really important that you give roses eight hours of sun a day or more. Once you get down below four to six hours, you're going to have probably fifty percent less flower production. I probably wouldn't try a rose if there is less than four hours of sun.