Thoughts from a Foreign Field

Things are Looking Rosey

Photo/Illustration: James Alexander-Sinclair

There was a period in my life as a garden designer of which I am deeply ashamed. For a couple of years I refused to plant roses in any gardens that I designed. I thought them fusty and old fashioned. In my fevered short sightedness they were as hip and happening as Cliff Richard in a lavender coloured tutu.

I know, I know. The foolishness of youth knows no bounds. All I wanted was the short term kaboom of flashy perennials and in my impetuousness I was dismissive and shallow.

Mea culpa.

But the good news is that I am now completely cured and I embrace roses with all my heart. I smile at Rugosas, I dance with Bourbons, I frolic happily with ramblers and allow climbers to twine themselves around my naked body (but only Zepherine Drouhin as it has no thorns – I’m not that foolish). However, I have learnt not to go overboard in my evangelical love. I still recoil at the idea of a rose garden solely populated by floribundas and hybrid tea roses as they remind me of crematoria and the less loved corners of municipal parks. The secret is in the balance: just enough roses with just enough underplanting. And the roses should always be healthy.

People tend to get overexcited by roses  – they are probably the world’s most recognised and loved plant – and grow them just because they are roses without thinking about the colour and form: this is a mistake. A rose, like any other plant, has to mingle well with its neighbours. It has to cooperate and blend, to compliment and contrast. Nature does make this pretty easy, however, as roses are exceedingly varied. Plenty of colour choice (provided you are not set on blue). They come in all different sizes from the miniature to the humungous – there are roses which climb, roses which drape, some which bush and roses that lend themselves to manipulation.

Roses grow all over the world – although they are mostly Asian in origin – and have been invaluable to poets, gardeners, artists and lovers for millennia. I know that for most of the readers of this blog it is wintertime and roses are not at all topical. However, I excuse myself by asserting that we all need a winter cheer-up and also that, in England, this is the perfect time of year to plant bare rooted roses.

I have a list of my five tip top roses. These are the ones I would take with me to my desert island – even though they might not thank me at all for my consideration.

1. Rosa Penelope

A hybrid musk rose which smells like a perfect summer afternoon. Flowers are as delicately pink as the inside of a Cowrie shell.

Rosa Penelope
Photo/Illustration: James Alexander-Sinclair

2. Rosa Scarlachglut

A bright scarlet shrub rose that I used to grow as a climber winding its way around a thick wooden telephone pole. It only flowers once but leaves you with gloriously plump hips for autumn.

Rosa Scarlachglut
Photo/Illustration: James Alexander-Sinclair

3. Rosa Winchester Cathedral

One of those bred by the inestimable rosarian, David Austin. Pure white and named after the famous cathedral founded by Alfred the Great. It is one of his range of English Roses which come in many sizes and colours.

Rosa Winchester Cathedral
Photo/Illustration: James Alexander-Sinclair

4. Rosa rugosa

There are lots of these: white ones, pink ones, doubles and singles. They make handsome hedges and are very tolerant of atmospheric pollution and salty winds (particularly useful on that desert island).

Rosa rugosa
Photo/Illustration: James Alexander-Sinclair

5. R. sericea var. pteracantha (The Winged Thorn Rose)

An oddity in that this is a rose grown solely for its thorns which emerge flat, winged, monstrous and translucent on the new growth and glow hellfire red when backlit. The flowers are insignificant and the colour fades on older stems, so prune hard and prune heavy.

The Winged Thorn Rose
Photo/Illustration: James Alexander-Sinclair

View Comments


  1. CTpat 02/11/2015

    Rosa rugosa was new to me when we moved here (Mystic, Connecticut), and I called them "beach roses" for a long time, since they were most obvious in the sand right near the water. Wonderful fragrance.

  2. johnbales 04/19/2015

    One of my favorite's is a David Austin rose, 'Jude the Obscure' which can be grown as either a bush or a climber. The fragrance sublime as are its colors. A newer floribunda rose that I also love is "Julia Child". A beautiful buttery yellow rose, also with exquisite fragrance. I've had it one year. It's first year it bloomed regularly. This spring it is covered in buds, the first of which opened yesterday. I have several new David Austin roses I've planted this the English roses and can't wait to see them in bloom.

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