Monday, February 23, 2015 11 comments

The greatest roses you never heard of

Not knocking 'Knock Out' but...

 Ask people to name an “easy care” rose and the most likely answer you’ll hear is ‘Knock Out’.

Introduced to the gardening world in 2000, this humble shrub is highly touted for its disease resistance, hardiness and drought tolerance. I've nicknamed it the "Lazy Gardener’s Rose" because it even tidies itself up, eliminating the need for extensive pruning. 

'Double Red Knock Out'
Fact is, when you visit a big box garden center or nursery these days, 'Knock Out' and the members of its extended family are about the only varieties of roses you’ll find. And although these shrubs have their place in the landscape, it is a shame other varieties are overlooked. Especially one largely unknown and underused class of antique roses that can give modern shrubs a run for their money.

Rosedom's unheralded superstars are Polyanthas, and I'm pleased to report these oldies but goodies are now enjoying a resurgence in popularity.  
'Cl. Cecile Brunner'

Polyanthas made their debut in France in late 1800’s, originally the result of crosses between China roses and sprawling Multifloras.  The new class of rose was disease resistant, hardy and everblooming. And because they tended to be compact growers, polyanthas were ideal for mass plantings, containers and low borders. 

As a rule these roses are only available through mail order. Two exceptions are ‘The Fairy’ and ‘Cecile Brunner’, (also known as the Sweetheart Rose). You may just stumble upon these in your area. But there are dozens of other varieties in a palette of colors ranging from white to cherry red to purple just waiting to be discovered by gardeners.
'White Pet' Courtesy David Austin Roses

Cydney Wade, owner of Rose Petals Nursery in Newberry, Florida, declares polyanthas to be the “rosarians’s secret” because of their versatility, bloom power and history. “It may be a small class, but it includes some highly rated varieties that have survived over 100 years.”

'Clotilde Soupert'

‘Perle d’ Or’, ‘Clotilde Soupert’ and ‘The Fairy’ are three of the most popular at the nursery. (Rose Petals has a number of polyanthas in stock and they ship each Monday.) She recommends ‘Pink Pet’ and ‘White Pet’ for containers and ‘Gartendirektor Otto Linne’ as a stunning climber.

Consulting Rosarian and American Rose Society judge Bill Blevins is also a polyantha enthusiast. “ They offer ease of growth, quick repeat bloom and the charm of a bygone era.”

He notes ‘Lullaby’ remains a favorite from 1953 with its heavily petaled white to blush pink blooms and dark green leathery foliage.

But Polyanthas aren’t all antique. Along with ‘La Marne’ (1915) and ‘Marie Pavie ‘(1888) Bill gives high marks to two modern additions to the class: red ‘Wing-Ding’ (2006) and orange-red ‘Zeniatta’ (1991). 

'Pookah' was a head-turning winner at Biltmore
Last May, a gorgeous polyantha called ‘Pookah’ bred by James Delahanty, won The Honorable John Cecil Award for Open Group at the Biltmore International Rose Trials.  I was one of the judges there and would love to add this robust beauty to my garden.

I grew ‘Zeniatta’ in Maryland and like ‘Pookah’, it was very vigorous, throwing out spray after spray of traffic-stopping blooms.

I also planted ‘The Fairy’ in the small garden we started at our cottage on the Eastern Shore. When we decided to tear the house down and rebuild, we planned to dig up the roses and keep them in pots during construction. 

'Zeniatta' is perfect in borders and containers
Unfortunately, the backhoe showed up a day earlier than expected and my plants, including ‘The Fairy’ were buried under a mountain of broken concrete blocks. I was devastated, because my late mother-in-law had given me the rose as a housewarming gift. I vowed to replace it one day.

Six months later while clearing construction trash to start my new patch, I noticed something green emerging from the debris. When I looked closer I spied the unmistakable 7-leaf leaflet of ‘The Fairy’. She’d survived, and within a short time was once again waving her cheery pink blossoms at me from the front garden.

'Lovely Fairy' is a sport of the legendary original

So next time you think about buying a rose, choose one that combines a rich history with dependable performance and spunk.

Pass up the ‘Knock Out’ and pick a polyantha.