Off With Their Heads! Off With Their Canes!


Tree_rose_2I’m with Lewis Carroll.  Tree roses are really fun, nearly as fun as playing croquet with flamingos and hedgehogs.

But they are also ridiculous, Frankenstein-like manufactured plants, with the head of one rose grafted onto the trunk of a sturdier rose and then the roots of another.  The top graft is really tender, and if you are not gardening in Zone 7 or higher, forget the whole notion.

I once gave them a whirl when I was young in the ways of gardening and naive enough to believe the catalog promise that they could be made to overwinter in Zone 4.  So I ordered a pair of standard Fairy roses from White Flower Farm for a not-inconsiderable $120.  They looked pretty great in a pair of pots in my vegetable garden all season, really raised the tone of the potatoes and peas.  Then I stuck them in the basement for the winter, and by spring, they were dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.

Of course, there is little agreement on standard practice for overwintering tree roses.  For the real obsessives, standard practice apparently either involves burying them in a trench or encasing the trunk in pipe wrapping from Home Depot.  Let’s stop right here.  We love our gardens, but presumably there are people in our lives, too.  Or at least employers.  And they demand a modicum of attention, too.

Then, this year for the first time, I noticed in the catalogs a new kind of tree rose bred by Bailey Nurseries and called ‘Polar Joy.’  It’s not grafted and is apparently cold hardy to Zone 4.   Of course, it doesn’t appear to be all that pretty, either, with single blooms in a pink color that is not the fascinating color called "rose pink," but that other pink color I refer to as "Disney pink.’"

If I were the Queen of Hearts, my lower-number cards would be painting this rose the color and shape of ‘Charles De Mills.’

Still, ‘Polar Joy’ gave me an idea.  I know a fantastic gardener who loves roses, and visiting his garden years ago, I saw the most incredible tree rose, with gorgeous, giant yellow blooms.  "Oh, that," he said.  "It’s that David Austin rose ‘Graham Thomas.’  It sent out one thick cane, and I thought, ‘It wants to be a tree rose.’"  He just took out his Felcos, whipped it into shape, and staked it.

Until ‘Polar Joy,’ I always thought such a thing was impossible in my part of the world, could only be accomplished in the golden light and balmy clime of East Hampton by rarefied geniuses able to keep those worthless Austin roses alive for more than ten minutes.  But now, I’m thinking maybe this is a do-it-at-home project.

Why couldn’t I be pruning roses into trees at home, out of likely candidates–roses that send out the occasional super-thick cane?  I’d immediately nominate ‘Complicata’ or ‘New Dawn’, which sends out canes so robust, they are borderline scary.  Indeed, ‘New Dawn’ is a wichurana rambler, just like ‘Dr. Huey’, which is the usual stock for the trunks of tree roses. 

That way, I might get cold-hardy standards out of actually pretty roses.  Of course, you’d think that if it were so easy, some nursery long ago would have started pruning all their wichurana ramblers up into standards, which command five times the price.

Still, I think it’s worth a little experimentation.  It’s not like I’ve never killed a rose before.  I’m pretty much the Sweeney Todd of rose growers.  So, what does it matter, my dears, if I stuff a few more corpses behind the woodpile in the interests of science?


  1. It sounds like a can’t lose project. You could have a whole forest of tree roses, letting their canes comingle, a sea of roses several feet off the ground. Good luck with it!

  2. What a delightful read and one most of us can identify with…’the corpse part’! I always say, “You learn more from your mistakes than your successes” and those have already been made so what the heck, go for it! We’ll all be awaiting your results, with our pruners in hand!

  3. Susan, I think the formula is: flowers shaped like old roses, plus all the faults of hybrid teas.

    Possibly they do well in England and Portland. But I’d do well in those places, too.

  4. Fun idea!! I am always getting the urges to try and standardize things myself….not to mention, I’m currently overwintering an ‘Angel Face’ standard in my garage–should be interesting to see how it fares! Good luck!

  5. The first time I saw Martha going through the process of overwintering her roses by pruning them severely, wrapping them in burlap, and burying them in a trench I thought why does ANYONE grow roses. Insane.

    Of course, I live in California where we can expect really good roses to bloom in January — not the ones in MY garden of course, but really good ones in other people’s gardens! 🙂

  6. David Austin roses “worthless”? Not in my zone 7 high desert climate they aren’t. They are lovely here. That’s not to say I don’t love shrub, species and old garden roses as well, but then most roses are carefree here. It’s too dry for blackspot, and as long as you get own-root roses, there’s no danger of winter kill causing a reversion to Dr. Huey rootstock.

    Still–the topiary approach to creating standard roses appeals to me. I think I’ll wait for the end-of-season nursery clearance sales to pick up “ugly” rosebushes that already show potential to become standards.

    Like I need another project…and like that has any effect on my fascination with all things gardening?

  7. when i was a child in an italian new jersey household my dad used to topple the two fig trees in the garden , dig a trench and then bury the tress. the dirt was topped with burlap…haven’t thought of that in years!

    so if i just left one sturdy cane on a lovely rose bush that always sends out tall canes, is that the beginning of a tree rose? i think i may prune roses saturday.

  8. Great post. I say go for it. I, personally, have always though tree roses were ugly, but that’s just my opinion. I can see how Graham Thomas would send out a long, thick cane in that zone. In my zone 7 garden, it tries very hard to be a small climber. However, I live in 7(a) so I keep it short, cutting it a lot. I like Austins, but I have to keep them close to the house. Cold winds kill them dead, dead, dead.

  9. My Austin Abraham Darby would love to do the same thing. Great idea!

    BTW, I the 2 Austins I have do pretty well for me. I find most hybrid teas to be pretty worthless.

    But then, roses are problematic in so many others ways.

  10. i live in the central valley where winters are mild and summers VERY HOT. I’ve only purchased inexpensive roses since , when the weather is perfect, any rose is beautiful, and for the rest of the time , the poor plants struggle. My best bloom time is april and then the buds get increasingly smaller and smaller.
    i even prune at the end of july so then i have some blooms from sept thru november.
    so this weekend we’ll go for one rose tree!!

  11. Timely post for me as I contemplate a classic potager garden in my square-shaped raised bed vegetable garden. Standard roses are added to a classic french potager gardens, so I’m looking for decent rose standard ideas.

  12. I had another thought last night: hybrid perpetual roses, which have gorgeous, huge flowers at the ends of rather stupid-looking bare, leggy plants. They might be worth experimenting with.

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