“Nobody smells roses any more.”

“Nobody smells roses any more.”

26th March 2015218Views11Comments
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Roses need to be with other stuff: like this Charlotte with rudbeckia.

I kid you not. One of my visitors during Garden Walk Buffalo last weekend told me that a nursery staffer actually said this to her as she was shopping for roses there, after she asked which of their many offerings had fragrance.

Of course I immediately wondered which local nursery was the scene of this infamy and she told me. I would never mention it here—oh yes, I would: it’s Hi-Way Garden Center, in Amherst, a Buffalo suburb. It’s not one that I patronize much, but now I’ll make sure never to go there.

Here’s why. My rule for roses is that their first duty is to be fragrant. And that’s not all. I also require that they have fully double blooms, unless there is something else exceptionally interesting about their forms. I like old roses—or new roses modeled on old roses, like the David Austin varieties. I don’t care if they repeat continually—in fact, if they’re really great, I don’t mind if they bloom just once. I use roses as perennial plants mixed in with other perennials.

And what’s the paranoia with “no spraying needed?” Like I would ever spray anything ever. If my roses have issues, I just trim the issue-infected parts off. There are plenty of plants around them to hide whatever might be going on.

Or how about this Abraham Darby with  buddleia and lilium.

I read Susan’s post about the Kordes types with interest, but I can’t say I see much there that I like as well as old garden and David Austin roses. Too many of the Kordes have “slight” fragrance (translation: NO fragrance) and the forms are just not as lush and complex as the old rose templates. Of course, you don’t need to spray them. Nobody needs to spray anything. They’re nice, but they just don’t have what it takes.

For the last fifteen years, I have been growing David Austin’s Charlotte, a beautiful yellow with cupped blooms and a strong fragrance. It’s tall and has never had any kind of disease. I also grow his Abraham Darby, which is gorgeous and has one of the best fragrances I’ve ever known. It has black spot once in a while, and I couldn’t care less; I just shift the surrounding perennials to hide it. I also have a tall red climber—I think it’s Don Juan, but it was there when I moved in in 1999, so I’m not sure. Still going strong, nice scent, good form.

All this relative success with roses without doing more than throwing down some Espoma once a year and deadheading makes me wonder: why are we looking for anything like Knock-Outs and why did we want Knock-Outs in the first place? In terms of public landscaping, I would merely suggest that it would be better to leave roses out of the equation. I see plenty of Knock-Outs in public places and find them totally uninteresting choices. There are lots of other good choices for massed plantings.

Let roses be roses. The way they were meant to be. If “nobody smells roses any more,” then clearly we’re going in the wrong direction.

Posted by

Elizabeth Licata
on August 4, 2016 at 8:00 am, in the category It’s the Plants, Darling, Shut Up and Dig.


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  1. Wow, almost the very first thing I look for in a rose is fragrance. It must be beautiful, repeat-blooming, and fragrant. No fragrance = no purchase by me.
    I consult a chart in the book, “The Organic Rose Garden,” by Liz Druitt. (All of the roses I planted this year have three stars in their fragrance rating, which is the highest rating.) I also gravitate toward old garden roses and I, too, have a David Austin rose (Heritage?).

  2. I imagine that once a novice smells the prolific Knockout and receives nothing in return, one learns not to take the time to smell any kind of rose. Now, nurseries are selling pollen-free sunflowers. Might as well not look for bumblebees either, I guess.

  3. One of my favorite roses is the Rosa gallica ‘Versicolor’. Once bloomer, that is stunning. I’m with you on the fragrance. No teas in my garden. If a rose needs to be propped up with -icides and too much fertilizer, it’s too wimpy for my garden. I never use Epsom salts, just a good organic fertilizer in the spring and compost amendments for the soil.

  4. Most of the Austin roses aren’t quite hardy enough for my Zone 4b (still) garden, but almost all of my roses are old roses chosen for fragrance. I do love my Grootendorst even though it doesn’t have a scent, but fragrance is one of the most important characteristics in a rose!

  5. Love this rant, Elizabeth. I remember leaning over to smell some of my Grandma’s roses once and getting a big whiff of ant spray. I certainly stopped smelling them in her yard. But to me, fragrance is an essential piece of the whole idea of being a rose.

  6. Laura, there are some good books on roses in cold climates; one interesting one recommends a deep planting method. I wish I could remember their names. I’ll see if I still have them.

  7. Fragrance is one of the most important things, for me, in choosing a rose. And yet I can’t imagine giving up Mutabilis. Knockout I can do without. I don’t spray anything, and all of mine lose their foliage over and over, but grow more. Mutabilis does better than the others at keeping its foliage–but I’ve had to replace it at least once because it died for unknown reasons.

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