Coming Up Rosehips

Credit: Carol Sharp

When the warm, flower-filled days of summer end with the first autumn rains, I find myself seeking consolation in the roses whose colour and fragrance dominated the June garden. While their short season of bloom has passed, these substantial bushes and cascading ramblers continue to enliven the garden with the wealth of interesting fruits they produce when so much else is fading into sodden decay.

The Scotch briars, first to open their delicate little flowers in late May, slowly ripen their rosehips through most of the later months until they look like polished jet-black beads strung down every arching branch. At the same time the foliage, in spring soft and green as a fern, takes on autumn tints of purple and bronze.

In my garden, bright contrast comes from a nearby rugosa rose, ‘Fru Dagmar Hartopp’ (‘Hastrup’), whose plump fruits are the size and colour of cherry tomatoes, backed by foliage in the process of turning from deep green to gold and tawny red. This is quite a small plant compared with the rest of its group, making a sturdy bush about 1.2 metres high and wide. If its satin-pink single flowers are cut off as they fade, more will follow but sparing later blooms encourages its vivid autumn display. Other rugosas that produce similar hips include Rosa rugosa var. alba with its starched white flowers and large scarlet hips, and ‘Scabrosa,’ with its magenta flowers and smaller but brighter hips. ‘Blanc Double de Coubert,’ like most roses that produce double flowers, has less energy to spend on fruit but its few red berries are set against foliage of such a dazzling lemon yellow that each one shines out boldly.

Although spectacular, the show is usually over by Christmas for the rugosas. The leaves fall abruptly and the soft flesh of the rosehips soon disintegrates or is eaten by birds. A much longer display, if not quite as vivid, comes from gallica roses like ‘Complicata’ and ‘Rosa Mundi,’ and Rosa ‘Macrantha,’ which has many gallica characteristics. All produce hips like round red hazelnuts that hang on the bare branches right through winter, looking particularly satisfying when, sugared with frost, they sparkle in the thin beams of winter sunlight. This profusion of fruits is preceded in summer by great drifts of fragrant flowers in pale or dark pink – or both in the case of ‘Rosa Mundi,’ whose candy-striped blooms have kept it popular for five centuries. Of all the old roses I grow, however, the boldest and most generous display comes from a damask hybrid, ‘Saint Nicholas,’ whose clusters of hips are truly the colour of a Santa Claus suit.

Not all old roses follow their flowers with fruit, so a good rule of thumb is to look for varieties with simple five-petalled blooms as the most likely to offer a winter display. Species roses – those that occur naturally in the wild – are almost all good choices. Siting them in a smaller garden can be a challenge as most of them develop into large, arching bushes or spread into thickets, but they make good back-of-the-border partners for lower-growing plants and excellent screens along lanes or between neighbouring gardens. Rosa canina, the dog rose of English hedgerows, is perhaps the best known of these, and still the classic for making rosehip syrup.

However, if you only have room for one, you might prefer Rosa glauca, almost a four-season plant with its unique foliage in shades of dusty blue and purple. The little pink stars that spangle its canopy in June only add to its beauty, while round red currant-like hips on its bare branches in winter compensate for the loss of its leaves.

Almost as good a foliage plant is the apple rose, Rosa pomifera, sometimes called Rosa villosa. It makes a tall arching shrub, about the same size as a buddleia, and has leaves of a soft grey-blue that make an effective backdrop for more vibrant flowers and harmonize with its own pleasing but rather bland pink blooms. Much more noticeable are the curious walnut-sized hips from which it gets its name. Starting out pale green, they ripen to a rich mahogany brown with a coating of bristles that makes them look more like a lychee than an apple.

Just as striking in their way are the hips on the various Rosa moyesii hybrids. Among the largest free-standing rosebushes, they can easily reach 2.5 metres, although their slender canes make them considerably less bulky than most shrubs of that size. Crimson blooms deck the arching branches in June and, when the petals fall, the long, thin sepals remain attached to the end of the hips as they elongate. At maturity, the effect is like a school of small orange squid with the sepals forming their tentacles.

Brightest of all are the hips of Rosa eglanteria, a useful hedgerow rose with thin stems that bristle with vicious little needles. Its winter hips might easily be mistaken for holly berries except for their lack of foliage. Its soft-pink summer flowers are attractive enough, but this rose’s other great feature is its leaves, which exude a fragrance like fresh green apples. After a shower of rain, their scent drifts enticingly on the air for a considerable distance.

Most of these roses gain their winter drama from fairly large individual fruits, but some of the rambling roses that cascade huge drifts of tiny flowers all through July are just as decorative with their sprays of equally tiny rosehips as bright as ceramic beads. Among my favourites are the Danish-bred ‘Lykkefund,’ whose scented flowers are tinged with peach. Its smooth canes end the year bedecked with sprays of orange hips that show up well against grey skies. ‘Francis E. Lester’ is more colourful still, with masses of glossy red berries that last longer than most – well into February. I fell for the heady fragrance of its apple-blossom flowers and was delighted to find another reason and another season to appreciate it.

Best of all for anyone who has the space is Rosa mulliganii, a giant of a rambler that easily smothers 12 metres of fenceline in clouds of summer white, then scatters blood-red droplets over its network of canes throughout the winter months. As if this weren’t enough, its leaves turn soft shades of gold before they drop.

All of these roses are easy-care, healthy, hardy plants, requiring no pruning except to curb their growth or shape them more attractively, and most of them will withstand a winter in virtually any region of British Columbia. Among the stark silhouettes and sombre greens of the winter garden, their cheerful hips are as welcome as their fragrant flowers were in early summer.

Author and gardener Christine Allen is a past president of the Vancouver Rose Society and teaches courses in rose care and cultivation at VanDusen Botanical Garden.