Know the Classics
Patsy Cunningham

Shrub roses are quickly becoming the typical rose grown by rosarians and landscapers alike. The beautiful form of the hybrid tea has not been enough to maintain its popularity with gardeners in the face of disease and other growing difficulties.  There are the Meidilands, the Knockout series and various ground covers. The wonderfully hardy and healthy roses bred by Dr Griffith Buck are beautiful examples of shrub roses, his ‘Distant Drums’ with its lavender, tan and pink tones and quick rebloom is one of our favorites.  More recently,  David Austin’s English roses, heavily petalled and saturated with color and fragrance, have brought a lot of people into shrub rose growing.  All of these roses are considered to be Modern shrubs.

The American Rose Society (ARS) divides shrubs into two main types, Classic and Modern.  You might have noticed that in some rose shows, the shrub classes are divided this way.  So, what makes a shrub ‘Classic’ and why are they worth growing? The ARS defines classic shrubs as those that are classified as hybrid rugosa, hybrid kordesii, hybrid moyesii and  hybrid musks. That means that for the most part, classic shrubs have a species rose in their near background.  The other hybrid species roses make up our old garden rose classes.

The first of these rose types, the hybrid rugosas , are the best known of the classic shrubs. Rosa rugosa is a native of the Far East that was used in hybridizing since the late nineteenth century.  One of the early names for Rosa rugosa was Rosa ferox or the Hedgehog Rose, referring to its prickly nature. The rugosas are well known for their healthy wrinkled ‘rugose’ foliage. The flowers are usually brilliant in color and very fragrant. Many are repeat bloomers and also produce large fleshy hips. They are tolerant of poor soil and even salty sand dunes.  Rugosas not only don’t need chemical sprays, they do not tolerate sprays of any type. 

One of the best known is ‘Linda Campbell’, with its big sprays of bright red blooms. More unusual is ‘FJ Grootendorst’ . It has serrated red petals and the blooms look almost like carnations. Some of the highest rated are ‘Henry Hudson’, ‘Rugosa Magnifica’ , ‘Rosarie de l’Hay’ and Belle Poitvine’.  Colors range from white, to pink to red and purple. There is also a popular yellow rugosa called ‘Topaz Jewel.’  With their huge colorful blooms, strong stems and stunning foliage, rugosas exhibit well. Like most single or semidouble roses, they show best when picked the morning of the show.

The Hybrid kordesii are an interesting lot. They are all descended from a seedling of ‘Max Graf’,  a chance cross of Rosa rugosa and Rosa wichurana . Rosa kordesii had double the chromosomes that would have been expected from this cross, which enabled it to be crossed with other modern tetraploid roses.

Arguably, the best of the Hybrid kordesii is ‘Dortmund’.  This popular variety acts more like a climber than a shrub. You’ve seen it in our Roger Williams Park Victorian rose garden covered in cherry red blooms with distinctive white eyes. I particularly like ‘Ilse krohn Superior’, a reblooming sport of ‘Ilse Krohn’, bred from Dr. Brownell’s ‘Golden Glow’ and Rosa kordesii.  It’s a very vigorous and disease resistant climbing shrub covered in creamy white hybrid tea like blooms in June. If kept deadheaded, it reblooms.  Rosa kordesii was used by Dr. Felicitas Svejda to breed the very hardy and disease free Canadian Explorer roses.  Her introductions for Agriculture Canada include ‘Champlain’, ‘Quadra’ and ‘William Baffin’. These are hardy to zone 3!

Hybrid moyesii are the smallest group, mainly consisting of selected variations of the species. Rosa moyesii created quite a sensation when it was first introduced to the West from China because of its unique opaque blood red petals. The moyesiis all have prominent bosses of heavy stamens in their single blooms.  They become large thorny sometimes ungainly bushes, producing brilliant red hips in an unusual variety of shapes. Two of the best specie-like hybrids are ‘Highdownensis’ and ‘Geranium’, with its flagon shaped hips.  While I have never seen it, ‘Eddie’s Crimson’ rates very highly among all shrubs with the typical moyesii bloom enlarged to four inches.  Pedro Dot used Rosa moyesii to breed ‘Nevada’, a popular floriferous shrub with large white blooms sometimes tinged with pink.

The last of these four types, the hybrid musks, are particularly valuable for their ability to tolerate more shade than most roses.  Their name implies they have the Musk Rose, Rosa moschata, in their lineage, though the relationship is pretty distant.  They were bred mainly by Reverend Joseph Pendleton in the early 20th century using ‘Trier’ with its Rosa multiflora and Rosa moschata  genetics, as his base parent. Hybrid musks are also known for their strong fragrance, sometimes noticeable at a distance from the blooms.

A beautiful hybrid musk that I saw exhibited this year was ‘Erfurt’. The blooms were much larger than ‘Ballerina’ and were porcelain white with a beautiful rich pink edge.   Like most hybrid musks, it blooms in large sprays.   

 ‘Ballerina’ is the hybrid musk most frequently seen around here. It is utterly reliable in hardiness, disease resistance and rebloom. The blooms are tiny but are produced by the thousands. Their color is dependent on the weather and also by the amount of sun the plant receives. We’ve seen that the color can be almost white when in 100% sun and heat, while it is a deep pink and white blend in shadier and cooler positions.  When our Rhode Island Rose Society went to the Cranford Rose Garden a few years ago, we saw a eye-catching specimen of ‘Ballerina’ as a tree rose. 

The Cranford Rose Garden also had a spectacular hybrid specimens growing with their border climbers. ‘Felicia’ towered above us on the tall fence with large double rich pink blooms. If you were to go to the renovated Peggy Rockefeller Garden  in the Bronx in NY, you would see a large variety of hybrid musks.  My favorite was ‘Belinda’, a large bush literally covered with blooms and and also with plenty more unopened buds.  ‘Buff Beauty’ was also there with its large buff yellow blooms with a loose hybrid tea form.

If you take a look at the ‘Handbook for Selecting Roses’ published yearly by the ARS, you’ll see that the four highest rated shrubs  are ‘classic’ shrubs, namely ‘Dortmund’ , ‘Eddie’s Crimson’, ‘Henry Hudson’ and ‘Rugosa magnifica’.   In fact, out of the top rated 26 shrubs, fully 14 of them are classic shrubs. These ratings are based on the annual Roses in Review poll of ARS members and reflect how well these varieties grow in the garden and exhibit in shows.  So, Modern is not always better; sometimes you should rely upon the Classics if you want a proven winner.



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Date last edited: 01/21/10
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