Guest Rant by Tom Fischer, editor-in-chief of Timber Press
I live in Portland, Oregon, one of whose nicknames is “the City of Roses.” Why, I often wonder, couldn’t we be the City of Ferns, or the City of Large, Imposing Conifers, or even the City of Hardy Geraniums? All those plants do quite well here, and most of the time they look a hell of lot better than the local roses.
Maybe it’s just this thing I have against plants that can draw blood, but it made perfect sense to me when the late, great Christopher Lloyd tore out the decades-old rose garden at Great Dixter and planted cannas, dahlias, and hardy bananas. Why wouldn’t you trade a bunch of disease-prone, blobby shrubs for a scene of tropical exuberance? In fact, one of the first things I did after moving into my house was to dig up a bunch of ‘Iceberg’ roses growing along the front path and throw them away. It felt good.
Oh, I know what the rose-lovers will say—the fragrance, the romance, the long blooming period, blah blah blah. (OK, I’ll grant you that there are some roses that smell pretty good. But not so good that they’d make me dig up a daphne.) They’ll say they don’t all get black spot and powdery mildew, and that one or two actually have foliage that you might, in a charitable mood, call interesting. Whatever. (And yes, I know about Rosa glauca; I used to grow it.)
My problem with roses goes beyond the fact that for a third of the year you’re looking at thorny sticks. Assuming that their main function is to produce flowers—rather than to serve as a noble example of form, or a paragon or foliar beauty—what is it that you’re getting? A rather large wad of petals that looks at home only in the company of other highly bred flowers, in a highly traditional setting. (We won’t even talk about that monstrosity, the rose garden, where the thorny stickiness—or sticky thorniness—of the individual plants is unrelieved.)
But, you will object, what about single roses? What about the unimproved species? I’ll give you some points there, and for the varieties that produce attractive hips. I still harbor a few glowing embers of affection for Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’, a single whose flowers start out peach-color and gradually turn a deep coppery pink, and ‘Darlow’s Enigma’, a large shrub that bears dense tresses of small, white, sweetly perfumed flowers all season (and doesn’t need deadheading). But I wouldn’t give either one space in my garden nowadays. I have yet to encounter a rose that I would plant for the beauty of its overall outline, or for its textural interest. They contribute just one note to the garden, and if you like that note, then great. But I want a symphony.
So, if not roses, what? For voluptuous flowers and good foliage, Paeonia rockii. For warm color in early summer, flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum). For fragrance, most daphnes, sweet azalea (Rhododendron arborescens), Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii), or (West Coast and South) osmanthus and gardenias. For architectural form, doublefile viburnum (V. plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’), witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.), pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), or (West Coast) manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.). For superb foliage, clumping bamboos (Fargesia spp.), dwarf fothergilla (F. gardenii), or oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia). A garden full of these beauties would be, oh, about a thousand times more interesting than a garden full of roses.
So I urge you to follow Christopher Lloyd’s excellent example: get rid of ’em.
Top photo by Tom Fischer. In collage, Paeonia rockii by AnnaKika. Oakleaf hydrangea, Flame azalea and Doublefile viburnum by Susan Harris.