The Roses and Lollipops Experiment


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Tree roses in containers (R.I.P.) and strawberries circa 1996

Though I am personally rather natural and unkempt, my taste in ornamental gardens runs to the super-formal and intensely artificial.  Filoli, which employs an army of smart young gardeners and has been the training ground for several Friends of Rant, including designer Michelle Derviss, is the garden I would make if I had a billion dollars and nothing better to do.

Of course, I have lots to do, including a big vegetable garden, and more debt than funds, so I am unlikely to ever live up to my own desire for formality and weirdness in the garden. 

But that doesn't mean that I can't plant boxwoods in my flower beds and try, ineptly, to prune them into balls.  Or that I can't attempt to make my own tree roses. 

Last year, I posted about how I was inspired by the advent of the first Zone 4-hardy tree rose, Bailey Nurseries' 'Polar Joy,' to manufacture my own rose lollipops. 

For this experiment, I ordered two of a Hybrid Perpetual named 'Souvenir du Docteur Jamain' last spring from the Antique Rose Emporium, which has been sending me big, healthy roses for the last 17 years. 

I selected the Good Doctor because Hybrid Perpetuals, the precursors to Hybrid Teas, have the most beautiful of flowers–as gigantic as Hybrid Tea blooms but with a flatter old rose shape that's much prettier as they unfold–on the stupidest-looking bushes. 

In fact, to call a Hybrid Perpetual a "bush" is to pay it a compliment it probably doesn't deserve.  These roses tend to send out one or two strong and inconveniently long canes and then throw up a mess of spindly little non-flowering twigs at their feet.

In other words, they are perfect candidates for a ruthless pruning to a single stem, which has now been perpetrated on poor Dr. Jamain and his brother across the path, Dr. Jamain.

In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I thought I should consult this year with Bailey Nurseries horticulturalist Peggy Montgomery.  She confirmed that yes, the reason 'Polar Joy' is hardy in Zone 4 is because it's not grafted at its neck like most tree roses.  And she confirmed that yes, it began life as just another shrub rose from their breeding program, until it sent out the kind of thick canes that convinced rose breeder Ping Lim to get out his pruners and give it a snip.

"But why hasn't anybody else done this, made ungrafted tree roses?" I said. "Isn't it obvious?"

"Well, it's a pretty limited market," says Peggy.  "Since grafted tree roses grow perfectly well in warmer climates, an ungrafted tree rose is only going to be of interest to Zone 4 or 5 gardeners."

I'm not sure about that.  Some people recommend protecting grafted rose standards if the temperature drops below 25 degrees F.  In what zone, then, are they really a safe bet?  8? 9?

However, the perception that only Northern gardeners want hardy tree roses may well explain why nurseries have not focused like a laser on them.

But it doesn't explain why rose gardeners–especially those lunatics digging trenches to overwinter their tree roses or building little insulated suits for them out of PVC pipes–aren't instead out there experimenting with every hardy rose they can find to see which ones can be turned into standards. 

Rose gardeners, I have now concluded, are just sheep.

Rather rudely, I tell Peggy that I was inspired by 'Polar Joy' but didn't order it because I didn't think its single pink flowers were interesting enough.   "If I am going to have a tree rose, I want gigantic double blooms on it!"

"Oh yeah!  Who doesn't?" laughs Peggy, instantly endearing herself to me. 

Still, she defends her product.  "'Polar Joy' is a very pretty plant.  I have three of them in my yard in Minnesota.  Its flowers are very sweet, like apple blossoms."

"That's very nice, if you want apple blossoms. I want humongous double blooms on my tree roses!" I reiterate tediously but passionately.

"Absolutely!" Peggy says.  "That's what I'd want, too."

She promises that Bailey's is working on it, but adds that it can take ten years to bring a rose from seed to market, years of purposefully exposing it to blackspot and seeing if the Minnesota winter will kill it dead and propagating it, before it's really ready to be rolled out into your yard.

In the meanwhile, my pruners are itching for another victim, preferably among the tried and true stalwarts that seem to do much better for me than anything contemporary. 

'New Dawn' maybe?  The canes are strong enough, but it's so aggressive that I'm afraid that if I tried to clip it into a pompom, it might sink its vicious thorns into me when my back is turned. 

It would be an exquisite death straight out of Kafka's story "In the Penal Colony," where I'd be stuck over and over with those barbed thorns until, just before expiring, epiphany.  I'd finally understand the message being written on my body: "Shoulda ordered 'Polar Joy' instead."


  1. Nothing is more interesting that a short glimpse inside the intense fires of a gardners head (“…my pruners are itching…”)

    I did find the conversation with the grower sorta surreal -“That’s what I’d want, too.” Yet she is not doing that?

  2. run with this idea!

    I think many “hierloom” landscape shrubs are written off just because nurseries & plant breeders have so much time invested in their new cultivars.

    But what can top a well placed lady banks rose? Or that gnarly old Quince that just keeps chugging out blooms come freeze or famine?

  3. I’ve visited Bailey’s rose trial gardens and they are amazing. So is the work they are doing on cold climate plants, roses included. Now that I’ve seen for myself what’s involved, I’m a little more understanding of the process. And Peggy, like employees everywhere, may not have the power to push for the kind of rose she prefers. This blog is more likely to influence that kind of a decision.

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