Tough Beauty Versus Delicate Beauty



When I first started gardening, I wanted the crazy roses I only saw in books, never in real yards.  The giant shrubs and climbers with the beautiful small flat double flowers. 

I had recently moved to upstate New York, zone 4, back when it meant something to be that far north.  When it was possible that the mercury would shrink to below 30 below every night for several weeks at a time. The new friends I was making, older than me and experienced gardeners, said roses could not survive such cold, except for rugosas.

So I ordered rugosas, a full hedge of them.  The problem?  They bloomed all summer, even after the Japanese beetles arrived on July 1. So my experience of these roses was a lovely scent–but flowers that were roiled with screwing and defecating bugs.  Not an appealing sight.

But I always did my research, and careful study, including Michael Pollan’s wonderful essay on roses  in his first book Second Nature, convinced me to try some roses my friends were unfamiliar with: once-blooming old European roses.  They thrived, particularly the albas.  Their beautiful big leaves had a bluish cast.  Their incredibly delicate flowers in pink and white had a wonderful flat, full shape, as if all stray petals had been lopped off by the swords of fairies.  They smelled great.  They bloomed for three full weeks…and finished hours before the Japanese beetles emerged from the ground to give the lie to the garden’s innocence.

I forgot about rugosas.  Until this last vacation week, when my friends Tom and Martha took me on their lobster boat to Long Island off the coast of Maine.  No Japanese beetles.  Just the salty air rugosas are famous for thriving in.  There were giant hedges of them.  They were beautiful, in a wild way.  I detected no fairies present at all.


  1. Beautiful, beautiful. Makes me want to take a second look at roses, a plant I have never been tempted to grow.

  2. Pollan’s chapter on roses is indeed a classic. It was Thomas Christopher’s “In Search of Lost Roses” that first enticed me in…Pollan just stuck another nail in the coffin. Try some of the apricot-orangish Griffith Buck roses, depending on where you live; amazing.

  3. Sigh… I dug up a lovely ‘Show Garden’ climbing rose and sent it to my sister in Oregon (I live in Michigan) because although the plant was amazingly vigorous, all I ever saw was chewed up flowers, thanks to the Japanese beetles. I also have a lovely small Rugosa cultivar that mostly blooms before the beetles but sadly something else chews up its leaves during the spring. By now (late August) it has made new leaves and an occasional flower, so I am keeping it. But no more roses. Rose rosette disease is attacking the nasty Multiflora rose here which is a mixed blessing, I guess.

  4. The rugosas are among my favourites but in uk we have different problems with them. Stupidly, people supply them grafted if you’re not very careful, so before long we’re cutting out the irritating stems of original rose they were grafted on to. A chore I could do without and never entirely successful.

    But no Japanese beetle yet! Fingers crossed….

  5. After 3 summers with almost no Japanese beetles, they were back this summer, although not as bad as in the past. I had forgotten the disgusting sight of their shiny little bodies mating all over my shrubs. I went for the buckets of soapy water, but it sure does take the joy out of mid-July into August. My Therese Bugnet rose is utterly hardy and blooms in June before the beetles emerge, and its reblooming is sparse enough not to attract much beetle attention. I don’t grow a lot of other roses except Rosa glauca, which isn’t bothered by beetles.

  6. It was Katherine White in her book Onward and Upward in the Garden who made me lust after old roses – even before I had a garden. When I did have land I immediately wrote to the GArdens of Yesterday and Today and bought a slew of old roses. Many survived. Many didn’t. The albas are troopers! And beautiful. But I have rugosas too. Japanese beetle free thanks to milky spore disease, although, full disclosure, it is possible that the isolation of my garden helps. I did have them, but now I don’t.

    • Roses are Elizabethan! They are the sweet fleeting kiss of love, the soft pulse of spring’s vibrant heartbeat, pushing upward and onward amongst the tangled thorns of a garden’s dirty battle against the forces of all things wanton and noxious.

      Sad are only those who do not warm to the scent of sun warmed beauty, and smile at the coming of spring’s last special visitor.

      Plant roses, instead of venom, and see what blooms in your turgid soul.

  7. Michelle –
    Love your posts and agree completely about the Japanese beetles! I do love my David Austin roses but those beetles are enough to make me want to give them up. I will look forward to trying out albas.

  8. So much self-pity in Michele’s so-called
    rants. More like sour grapes. Perhaps
    she needs to face reality and begin a new

  9. Growing up on the coast of New Hampshire, Rugosas were everywhere, and I didn’t always have an appreciation for just how tough they are. For me the “beach roses” of my childhood are now one of those nostalgic plants that always have a place in my garden, wherever it might be. Fortunately they seem to grow most anywhere, with very little intereference from me!

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