Rosy Prospect

Credit: Barbara Rayment

Roses always seem to be in a class by themselves. While there are a lot of shrub families available to gardeners – from Philadelphus to Spiraea to Viburnum and Potentilla – you never hear of people becoming addicted to them. Roses, on the other hand, inspire shelves of books to be written in their praise and the creation of innumerable societies for the sole purpose of admiring and promoting them.

I am not alone, then, in loving roses. I know I’m also not alone in disliking the problems commonly associated with them. Roses are also widely reputed to be high maintenance and disease prone, requiring endless spraying and pruning – but happily this doesn’t apply to many of the hardy roses. It’s a good thing, too, because everything in my garden has to take its chances with the existing conditions, including heavy clay soil, little additional watering, and no spraying or pesticide use. Our general garden philosophy stops just short of “survival of the fittest.” Every plant does get a good layer of surface mulch, an annual application of fertilizer and regular weeding; other than that they are on their own.

Fortunately there is a whole class of shrub roses tough enough for conditions of benign neglect, hardy enough for zone 3, and beautiful as well. Any rose that gets a place in this garden has to not only just survive, but also thrive and bring value to the garden in several ways through multiple seasons. The colourful hips in the fall are always welcome for their beauty as well as for food for wildlife, but the “value-added” doesn’t have to end there. Foliage varies considerably and surprisingly in the hardy roses, from soft mat grey-green to dark glossy hunter green, and fall colours run the gamut from gold to orange to an almost-black purple. Some even have red winter stems that stand out against the snow, as bright as the red-osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) that is often grown for that feature alone.

Picking out a few of my favourites is hard. This list could easily be two or three times as long!

• ‘Agnes’ is the grand old lady of Canadian roses. The buttery yellow double blooms in early summer have a unique fruity-spicy fragrance, and it can grow to 1.5 m (5 ft.) but is usually less in colder climates. Bred at the end of the 19th century by William Saunders, and later introduced by Agriculture Canada, ‘Agnes’ is hardy to zone 3, but may need winter protection in less sheltered locations.

• ‘Alika’ has large deep-pink single blooms in the summer, on a large upright shrub of loose habit, and is great at the back of an informal border. Growing to 2 m (61⁄2 ft.), this is an old (1896) variety which originated in Siberia, and was introduced to the North American prairies 100 years ago by Dr. N. Hansen. It is hardy at least to zone 3 and probably to zone 2.

• ‘Corylus’ has large rose-pink single blooms on an arching and densely suckering shrub, with some repeat bloom, small hips, and healthy glossy foliage right through the season. Great for naturalizing or stabilizing a slope, it stays below 1 m (40 in.) in height but spreads with enthusiasm. This low-growing beauty was introduced in the U.K. in 1988, and is hardy to at least zone 3.

• ‘Hazeldean’ has soft-yellow double blooms in early summer, on a prickly suckering shrub of upright habit, growing to 1.5 m (5 ft.) under optimum conditions, but usually less. Very nice in the middle of a border or for naturalizing, it is very prickly and makes a fine hedge. A 1948 introduction, it is just one of many great roses bred by Canadian Percy Wright. Hardy to at least zone 3.

• ‘Metis’ has semi-double, slightly fragrant rosy-pink blooms late in the spring, with some repeat bloom, small dark hips, and dense suckering growth to just over 1 m (40 in.) in height. The outstanding purple-black fall foliage makes this one of my favourites. ‘Metis’ was bred by Bert Harp at the Morden Research station (in Manitoba) back in 1967, and is a predecessor of the better-known Parkland/Morden roses. It is hardy to at least zone 3, and probably zone 2.

• ‘Mrs. John McNab’ is another favourite here. A large shrub, to 2 m (61⁄2 ft.), it is covered with fragrant soft pinkish-white double blooms in early summer, with some repeat blooms throughout the season. The arching red stems are covered with soft grey-green foliage which turns orange-red in the fall. ‘Mrs. John McNab’, introduced in 1941, was one of many roses and other plants bred and introduced by the legendary Dr. F.L. Skinner of Dropmore, Manitoba. It is hardy to at least zone 3.

• ‘Wasagaming’ is a classic, with mildly fragrant double mid-pink “cabbage rose” type blooms on a vigorous upright shrub. It sets hips freely, and is perfect for naturalizing. This may be one of Dr. Skinner’s best, introduced in 1939, and is popular with rose collectors in every region of the country, attesting to its hardy and trouble-free nature. It is hardy to zone 3, and possibly into zone 2.

If you have never heard of most of these, you’re not alone. They are all “heritage” varieties, mostly bred in Canada in the mid part of the previous century by private or amateur breeders, and they and their relatives are every bit as endangered as the spotted owl.

They can be hard to find, but are worth the effort. Many of the mail-order rose companies are starting to carry more of them, and our national federation of rose societies, National-Roses-Canada (N-R-C), is working to promote and preserve this part of our national heritage. The N-R-C can be contacted at or by email or post at 41 Outer Drive, London, Ontario, N6P 1E1.

The saying is that “everything old is new again,” and this is the case with these older roses as well. The roses of the last century are just what we need in these modern times – beautiful, tough and trouble-free shrubs that enrich our gardens and our souls.

Barbara Rayment operates Birch Creek Nursery, in Prince George, where she grows and experiments with a wide variety of hardy plants.