In Search of the Yellow Rose

Credit: Karen McLeod

Rosa rugosa is a gift from horticultural heaven, particularly if you prefer sitting back and smelling the roses over preventing and remedying their problems – meaning fending off nasty pests and disfiguring diseases!

Resistant to drought, pests and disease, rugosa roses are adaptable to extreme temperatures and often bloom nonstop or recurrently while simultaneously setting fruit. They feature deep-green, wrinkled foliage which, regardless of blazing sun or half shade, covers their stems all summer long. Pruning or no pruning, deadheading or no deadheading – it all can be left to the discretion of the rugosa’s owner. In my opinion, Rosa rugosa is the most versatile and carefree member of our beloved rose tribe.

Of course, I am biased. I am hooked on thorny rugosa roses simply because they are the perfect solution for my relaxed gardening style.

For reasons I fail to understand, rugosas are by no means horticultural crowd-pleasers. Their popularity lags far behind that of the hybrid teas, David Austin’s popular new English roses (he incorporates rugosa genes in his breeding programs) and the tried-and-true antique roses, which are dazzling during their short flowering period but rather boring and space-devouring for the rest of the growing season.

Why are my beloved rugosas – those toughies that survive salt sprays from the ocean, those leathery die-hards that turn off marauding deer while exhaling the most delicate perfumes – not offered in every B.C. nursery? Why aren’t my fellow amateur gardeners demanding these versatile value-for-money beauties en masse?

My horticultural friends have enlightened me: “True, rugosas are vigorous and easy, but look at their foliage, it’s too coarse to be pretty, refinement is sadly lacking,” or “Rugosas have no ‘vase-appeal,’ they don’t inspire flower arrangers,” and “They don’t come in yellow.”

It is hard to admit that the apple of your eye has characteristics that could be called flaws. The less hybridized a rugosa is, the coarser its foliage looks and feels. Vases filled with long-stemmed tea roses can be 10 times more elegant and long-lived than those filled with unruly rugosas. But as to colour, rugosas show a wide spectrum, ranging from violet-mauve and shocking pink to silvery blush and the purest white possible. And I must, and can, defend my love – there certainly are yellow rugosas!

Towards the end of the 18th century, Rosa rugosa quietly arrived in Europe from the Far East. Their unprecedented easy way of setting seed made rugosas a darling of rose breeders long before the amateur gardener had a chance to get to know them.

It was their tough hardiness, in particular, that attracted Canadian rosarians. In 1922, hybridizer William Saunders crossed a species rugosa with the yellow R. foetida ‘Persiana’ and thus created the hardy and extremely fragrant, double, pale-yellow R. rugosa ‘Agnes.’ (And – surprise! – although it was R. foetida that firmly established black spot fungus in the rose world, vigorous ‘Agnes’ is immune to it.)

About 1.5 metres tall and equally wide, ‘Agnes’ blooms in early summer. Some sources mention repeat flowering, but so far my five-year-old bush has shown no inclination to comply. As to her dense foliage, it is so extremely rugose (wrinkled) that visitors to our garden often wonder if it is healthy. Of course, this is a matter of taste; I rather like the abundance of small pleated leaves that veil an equal abundance of fierce thorns. ‘Agnes’ is by far the best and most vigorous yellow rugosa on today’s market. She reportedly has an amber-coloured younger sister, ‘Grace’ (1923), which unfortunately seems to have vanished.

During the 1920s and 1950s, many attempts were made to produce yellow rugosas. Often used was the vigorous climber ‘Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’ (1899), a pink-flowering hybrid rugosa with some ‘blood’ of the French yellow climber ‘Gloire de Dijon’ (1853). Although there are reports of an orange hybrid and several other single and double yellow, only two more yellow rugosa varieties have become available. Both hybrids were launched in the late 1980s. The first, ‘Yellow Dagmar Hastrup,’ which for reasons of patent is called ‘Topaz Jewel’ in the U.S., hails from France, while the second, ‘Rugelda,’ is a German creation.

Being an ardent fan of the original and perfect ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’ (Denmark, 1914), with her ongoing, blushing, silvery single blooms, her wonderful foliage colour in autumn and her fiery hips as large as cherry tomatoes, I could not resist immediately ordering two yellow specimens.

I now think that was a mistake. ‘Yellow Dagmar Hastrup’ has little in common with her pink foremother. Yes, her pale-yellow, double blooms are dainty, but the bush (approximately 90 centimetres by 90 centimetres) and its foliage lack the traditional rugosa vitality and glossy appearance. After a nice midsummer bloom only one or two new flowers appear; absent are the trademark rugosa hips. My two bushes show some winter damage even in our mild climate.

‘Rugelda’ (approximately 1.2 metres by 1.2 metres) seems hardier than ‘Yellow Dagmar Hastrup,’ although her small, shiny leaves show no rugosity. In midsummer her pointed, pinkish flower buds open into long-lasting, semi-double blooms that maintain a tinge of pink at the petal edges. When not deadheaded, these flowers are succeeded by smooth hips that lack the crab-apple characteristics of the species.

How do these three yellow hybrids compare with their superb reddish and white relatives? I would suggest that, for the time being, a yellow rugosa should be called a collector’s item, a specimen that adds to or completes a collection of rugosas. A gardener new to the inimitable advantages of the rugosa clan would probably be better off with a more traditional, less hybrid rugosa such as R. rugosa ‘Alba,’ ‘Rubra’ or ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup.’

Undoubtedly the perfect yellow rugosa will indeed come.

Writer Ingeborg van Driel has a passion for easy-care plants and natural-looking spaces, both of which are reflected in her Cobble Hill garden.