I know of one lilac that has some repeat flowering in the fall, but I’m not aware of any spireas, mockoranges, shrub honeysuckles, forsythias, serviceberries, butterfly bushes, rabbitbrushes, cotoneasters, or other shrubs that repeat their flowering cycle. Why is it, then, that many gardeners demand continuous flowering roses ? We want them, of course, because they exist.
The fixation on constant flowering is encouraged with annuals, which, of course, don’t really start blooming until late spring or summer and then the first winter, they die. And seasoned gardeners know that the search for perennials that “bloom all season” leads to the proper selection of many species that will bloom in succession. So when we hear of roses that bloom from May or June through September, we think we have found the holy grail. However there are qualities besides repeat flowering which could entice us to cultivate the so-called “once-blooming” roses. I would like to share these not-so-obvious reasons with you.
For several hundred years, before anyone understood the functions of the different parts of a flower and how to manipulate them to create hybrids, roses were selected for the beauty of their bloom, fragrance, color, shrub form and hardiness. It was not until the mid 1700s that roses began to be bred for repeat flowering, and this achievement has been made with some significant costs. It is important not only what breeders select for, but also what they don’t select for.
So before we leap to the conclusion that repeat bloomers are superior to the “once-bloomers”, take a look at some other qualities. For example, when a rose has only one bloom period, it often produces as many or more flowers than a “continuous” bloomer will make in a season. This means that when it is in bloom, the spring bloomer will create a floral effect, which is not only beautiful, but exuberant, breath-taking, atmospheric, magnificent and splendorous. Such environmental effects can be experienced by the spring-blooming “Banshee”, Fruhlingsgold, Alba Suaveolens, Complicata, Paul’s Himalayan Musk, Scharlachglut and Father Hugo, and the summer-blooming Rosa setigera.
Not only do these masses of roses create powerful romantic and sensual effects, but many “once-bloomers” capture the heart with the exquisite beauty of their flower forms. Whereas the Meidiland roses create masses of color that are very impressive from a distance, the individual flowers lack the great beauty of many of the heirloom roses. For instance, I know few women who would choose a bouquet of Meidiland flowers over the classics Madame Hardy, Felicite’ Parmentier, William Lobb, Constance Spry, Ispahan, Reine des Violettes, Belle de Crecy and Variegata di Bologna.
And then there is fragrance. The modern urge for more flowering forgot for the most part to include fragrance. We have become a very visual society, and fragrance was thought for many years to be less important in rose breeding than color. Consequently the heirloom roses are generally more fragrant that the hybrid teas, floribundas and landscape roses. And the intensity of the scent is only part of the experience; the quality of the scent is very important. Fragrance is difficult to rate and to define because it is so individualistic. A scent that is strong to one person may not be perceptible to another, and a fragrance one person finds pleasant, will be unpleasant in the nostrils of another. However many of the “once-bloomers” have fragrances which have great universal appeal at a fundamental level. For instance, it is not unusual for someone smelling the very fragrant hybrid tea rose ‘Double Delight’ to say “That’s very nice”, but upon smelling the Apothecary’s Rose to exclaim simply, “Whoa !!”. This old rose, also known as Rosa gallica officinalis, was grown in Medieval monasteries for its medicinal values in treating emotional disorders as well as for its anti-bacterial properties. The healing and calming effects of its smell are not lost on the modern nose or the modern lifestyle. Other “once-bloomers” with enthralling, ecstatic, delicious, rich perfumes are Fantin Latour, Kazanlik, Felicite’ Parmentier, Rosa spinosissima, Belle de Crecy, Desire’ Parmentier, and Ispahan.
Other qualities often left out of modern rose breeding have been cold hardiness and the abilities to tolerate drought, heat, wind and poor soil. Recently, Jamanouchi Pharmaceutical Co. sold Jackson and Perkins to the firm Wassertein and Co. which specializes in leveraged buyout investments. You know these owners are not, and have not been, interested in breeding well-adapted roses for Colorado. And so for years, many roses were bred that were weak and disease-prone plants with beautiful flowers. They required a lot of spraying. Now the trend is toward disease-resistance. Good.
It is very often the “once blooming” roses that are so strong and adaptable to drought, wind, poor soil and neglect. Why is that? Because they are not expending more energies to continue flowering. They can produce their seed, then go into the R&R mode and recover, and focus on photosynthesis. This prepares them better for early freezes; and their vitality makes them more disease-resistant or more disease-tolerant.
Since the repeat flowering genes came originally from the China roses which were not very cold hardy, the modern hybrid tea and floribunda roses can die back considerably in cold climates and cold winters. In contrast, those old-fashioned roses, which have survived a hundred or more years of cultivation through extreme weather patterns, wars and neglect, are usually well adapted to Colorado conditions. If they get an insect or disease problem and you don’t have the time or inclination to do anything about it, they will survive. If you go through a divorce, spend a sabbatical year in Europe, have a baby or are pinned down by your job for a year or more, these roses could still be alive when you return to gardening. Examples of these tough roses are Banshee, Alba Suaveolens, Eglanteria, Madame Plantier, Rosa Mundi, Eddie’s Jewel, Rosa glauca, Cardinal de Richelieu, Maiden’s Blush and Nuits de Young.
And in recent years, rose enthusiasts have found roses with lost identities still thriving in cemeteries, on road sides, and at abandoned homesteads. These “found” roses are proven winners that often were bred in the 19th and 20th century but were dropped from the trade because they did not repeat. Examples of the found roses fill Fairmount Cemetery in Denver and Columbia Cemetery in Boulder. They can be sometimes purchased under such names in double quotes, as “Banshee”, “Dark Red Rambler”, “Fairmount Flouncy Pink”, or “The Yarmouth Rambler”.
In the last 15 years or so, some real progress has been made in rose breeding to select for beautiful flower form and fragrance, as in the roses of David Austin. These may be less tough and less cold hardy than ideal, but still useful. And there has been progress in cold hardiness and disease resistance in the Canadian roses and modern shrub roses, but many of these are lacking in fragrance. Of course, these roses do repeat, and many of them are worthy of growing in our gardens. We can even love them.
However it is unkind and unfair to dismiss the roses, which lack repeat flowering under the label of “once-blooming”. Describing these many wonderful roses by what they lack rather than by what values they possess, is like describing myself as “the old guy with balding hair and a missing tooth.” Instead, we could define Paul’s Himalayan Musk as “The Perfumed Winnebago Blocker”, and Rosa setigera as “The Return Of Spring’s Glory”, “Banshee” as “Fragrant Deer Fencing”, Felicite’ Parmentier as “A Foolish Man’s Winning Apology”, Lawrence Johnston as “The Yellow Wall of Blousy Blossoms”, William Lobb as “An Amazing Piece of Colour”, and the Apothecary’s Rose as “Knits Up the Raveled Sleeve of Care”.