What is a Native American rose? Is it the beach rose (Rosa rugosa) that grows vigorously on the sand dunes of northeastern America,
or the wreath rose (Rosa multiflora) that rampages all over the eastern half of the United States? Could it be the Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigata), which grows freely in Georgia? The answer is none of the above. All are prolific, tough species roses, but none are native to North America.
True native roses, which are both beautiful and useful for wild and not-so-wild landscapes, are a bit harder to find at local nurseries, but they are worth seeking out. They look great in wild landscapes, offering delicate fragrant flowers and colorful hips. Bees and wildlife love them!
Native American Roses
Over 20 rose species are native to various parts of North America, but some are rarer than others. Most bloom only once a year and bear single, pollinator-friendly single flowers in white, pink, or rose. When the petals fade, native roses develop nutritious scarlet hips that are a treat for birds and animals, not to mention the humans who sometimes forage for them. Some natives are armed to the teeth with lots of sharp prickles, making them perfect for boundary or privacy hedges. Species like Rosa blanda, which feature relatively smooth stems, can hold their own in more “civilized” situations.
The following native roses have the widest North American geographic distribution, making them good candidates for wild gardens.
Pasture or Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina): Sometimes called the “pasture rose”, fragrant Rosa carolina roams much farther than the boundaries of its namesake state, surviving in dry open meadows and along forest edges. It is native to the eastern half of North America and succeeds especially well in the southeastern United States. The prickly plants grow 3-feet tall and wide with pink flowers that bloom from May to June, depending on the location. As with many species roses, petal color fades to near-white as the blooms age. The crisp green foliage turns beautiful shades of orange-red in the fall. Though quite shade tolerant, this disease-susceptible rose flowers and performs best in full sun.
Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana): Rosa virginiana is a taller shrub rose (5- to 7-feet tall and 3-feet wide) that is less geographically widespread than Rosa carolina. It sports single, fragrant blooms that may be pink, yellow, or rose-purple and flower from June to August. It requires full to partial sun and is tolerant to a wide range of soil types, from moist soils to dry. Leaves turn fire orange-red in fall alongside deep red hips.
Prairie Rose (Rosa blanda): This sweet thornless rose bears several evocative nicknames, including “prairie rose”, “Hudson’s Bay rose” or “Labrador rose”, for its favored locales. Cold-hardy and tough, it is native across northeastern North America where it survives in open, dry, sunny prairies and open woods. Its nearly thornless stems and mounded habit make it a good candidate for use in “wild” planting schemes. Flower color varies from dark pink to white and blooming may occur from June to August. It only reaches 4-feet tall and wide, but it tends to spread, so it needs elbow room. Native plant lovers can rejoice in the fact that the relatively smooth stems make necessary pruning easier.
Wood’s Rose (Rosa woodsii): This is one of the better natives for colorful flowers and hips. Pink-flowered Wood’s rose is a westerner by inclination, found in growing wild in the western half of the United States and much of Canada. It also goes by the name “mountain rose” because it succeeds in challenging high-altitude conditions. Small, medium-pink flowers appear annually from May to July on upright shrubs adorned with blue-green foliage and a bumper crop of prickles. Growing up to 5-feet tall, Wood’s rose is extremely cold tolerant. In addition to the flowers, the shrubs produce loads of bright, teardrop-shaped hips and have fiery fall leaf color.
Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris): If your wild garden is damp, Rosa palustris may be right for you. Native to the eastern half of North America, swamp rose is a large shrub (8-12-feet tall) that likes to be sited at the water’s edge, where it can commune with moisture-loving sedges, iris, and other, similarly inclined plants. It will tolerate some shade but it blooms and performs best in full sun. The late spring blooms are lightly scented and may be deep rose pink or pale pink. The prickles are hooked, which makes pruning a challenge.
Climbing Prairie Rose (Rosa setigera): This spring-blooming climbing rose offers blooms that range from deep magenta to white. Sometimes known as the “bramble-leafed”, it sends out long, flexible shoots that enable it to scramble up to 15 feet, making it useful as a substitute for non-native climbing roses. If trained on an arch or trellis and provided full sun and good draining soil, climbing prairie rose can be a show-stopper. The fragrant pink blooms appear in clusters that develop into showy red hips in fall. Wise gardeners remove the root suckers that inevitable sprout at the base, enabling the plant to shoot skyward without producing a thicket underneath.
Landscaping with Wild Roses
Remember that wild landscapes and gardens can be “wild” without looking completely unruly. They are created using native species and emphasize biodiversity, habitat creation, sustainability, and beauty. Plant placement can be naturalistic while also be civilized and pleasing to the eye.
To use native roses most effectively, provide enough space. Many, but not all varieties grow tall and relatively wide, with a tendency to form dense thickets if left to their own devices. They look great planted alongside bold native Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa), breezy native bunch grasses like Shenandoah switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’), and native purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).
Species roses have gotten by on their own for millennia, but they will respond with more flowers and hips if given a good start with a quality soil amendment like Fafard® Premium Topsoil, alfalfa meal natural fertilizer, and regular of water. All bloom and perform better if given open air and full sun. Prune seasonally to keep plants tidy and to promote good airflow, which will dissuade fungal diseases.
Native roses are not available in big-box stores or even most garden centers. The best way to locate specific species is to seek out mail order nurseries that specialize in species roses. High Country Roses is one such source.