Alison AplinRoses – why some perform better

Have you ever wondered why some people’s roses appear to do better than others’? It may have absolutely nothing to do with the regular fertiliser regime, the amount of water, how you prune them, whether you summer prune them and so on. It may be purely the fact that they are on different rootstocks.In former gardens I always grew roses. My mother loved them and I went through a phase of constantly sourcing different roses to grow. My preference was for the old fashioned varieties; in the later gardens these roses were always grown on Rosa multiflora rootstock. As a person who usually researches most things that interest me, rose culture was no different. And by reading books by respected gardeners found out why this rootstock would work best for me.

Rose sickness, from my own personal experience, is a problem that rose purchasers should be aware, especially with roses purchased on Doctor Hughie rootstock. They tend to sucker profusely once stressed, are prone to rose sickness, are more disease affected and appear to need regular amounts of water in order to stop them suckering. They almost demand a clay sub-soil but roses on Rosa multiflora rootstock are not fussy about their soil – they seem to manage where-ever they are planted, as long as they are kept moist until fully settled in. Once settled, they don’t look back.

Rose sickness, according to Christopher Lloyd, is more correctly called “Specific Replant Disease”. In his wonderful book, “The Well-Tempered Garden”, 1970: p239, Lloyd refers to the “mysterious soil-borne disease whose existence has been known for over 200 years but whose causal agents have yet to be identified”. He identifies this disease as what we know as rose sickness. He also makes mention of the fact that Rosa multiflora rootstock is resistant. Considering that this was pretty common knowledge over 40 years ago, why then do we still have rose growers using Doctor Hughie rootstock?

Lloyd, in his book “The Well Chosen Garden”, 1984: p15 discusses the issue of pests and disease amongst roses. He states “It should be remembered that the greater the field numbers of density of any single crop or creature, the greater the field day for parasites and disease organisms to which they are a prey”. He also goes on to state that “the greater the variety of plants that you grow, the fewer will be your problems”.

Christopher Lloyd, now deceased, was a remarkable English gardening identity. I went to a talk that he gave many years ago now when he visited South Australia and was instantly attracted to his witty, charismatic charm. He was immensely knowledgeable on the subject of gardening, realising especially the need to fit your choice of plant to the type of soil within your garden. I found his wisdom to be quite inspirational; he was elderly at the time and had had many years of hands-on gardening experience.

Roses in a mixed planting

Rose gardens, where roses predominate, are a monoculture and are more prone to fungal problems and disease. When roses are grown amongst other shrubbery in borders, reminiscent of English style gardens, the incidence of disease and pests is considerably reduced. Small birds and natural predators also inhabit gardens of greater plant diversity, and it is these creatures that keep aphids and other pests at bay, especially when no toxic chemicals are used. Gardens of greater plant diversity encourage biodiversity in all its forms – this is why a real garden is such a healthy place – a haven for all manner of diverse species that work within this ecological microclimate.

Blushing Iceberg within a mixed garden

I have also found that many roses grow very well when struck as cuttings, with no grafting. Selecting vigorous varieties is the safest measure, because they will strike better. Grouping one colour range is the safest, and often the most aesthetically pleasing – far more so than one of yellow, one of red, one of pink and so on. You often see bright pink roses with gaudy yellow which I personally don’t like. Bright pink with pale yellow or cream and conversely pale pink with gold work well together, but it is often safest to keep these colours apart if in doubt.

As a sustainable advocate, I choose to use roses on multiflora rootstock because I don’t have the need to keep spraying for fungal problems and I also never spray to eradicate aphis – I let nature take care of itself without human interference. They also need far less water through the drier months with the ‘deep and infrequent’ method of application. And of course these roses don’t sucker, the most influential reason I have for choosing this rootstock.

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Alison Aplin

About Alison Aplin

Alison is a passionate, multi award winning sustainable landscape designer, Horticulturist and arborist. She has been the owner and designer of 2 Ecotourism gardens that have both won significant awards. Her writing is based on knowledge, empirical learning which is essential to sustainable ethic, and a questioning mind leading to much research. Her articles are often controversial - with a disclaimer that she is responsible for the written matter, and not Garden Drum. A deeply caring person about the natural environment, Alison's writing endeavours to explain why sustainable landscapes are so important. Without people like her, they will be lost and gardens will become merely concrete

8 thoughts on “Roses – why some perform better

  1. Hi Alison
    In the metropolitan area of Perth, Western Australia the recommended rootstock is R. fortuneana. It is superior on our sandy soils and is more resistant to nematodes. Most of the commercial nurseries use it as a rootstock but I remember when a large hardware store sold roses imported from the eastern states that were on a rootstock less suited to our conditions and it was really obvious how inferior they were so it certainly pays to select the correct rootstock for your situation.

    • I just love Rosa fortuneana when grown as a climbing rose – and it is so tough. I would like to see it used in eastern parts of Australia where there is no clay subsoil. I really think that it would work well. Doctor Hughie is, in my opinion, a shocking rootstock and people should be wary if they don’t have the required clay base.
      Thank you for your comment Linda.

  2. Just caught up with this, Alison. I was taught by my mother (who was taught by her mother) that if you take out a rose, you should give that patch of dirt at least a couple of years’ rest before you introduce another. That is, plant something quite different there, to freshen up the soil. Any comment?

    • I would assume that your mother and grandmother were wise gardeners.
      In the earlier times they would not have grafted their roses, but certain roses still have the tendency to leave ‘Rose Sickness’ in the soil. Fortuneana and multiflora have both been found to be far superior roses for grafting without suckering. Indica was once used but this also suckers like the Doctor Hughie and so is now rarely if ever used.
      We need to listen to gardeners who have had considerable experience – this knowledge is invaluable to pass down through the generations.

  3. Hi Alison, I’ve just read this article & have recently purchased a few bare-rooted roses. How can I tell what rootstock was used for them please? I’d really appreciate your advice with this as I love roses & will be purchasing more in the near future.
    Many thanks, Wendy.

  4. Hello Wendy
    It is not easy to tell the different root-stocks. The multiflora rootstock has a deep root system – much deeper than Dr Hughie. You can also ask the supplier what root stock they use and they should tell you. Don’t mention multiflora upfront as they will then agree with you.
    The multiflora rootstock roses are usually 2 year old bare roots with thick solid trunks. In every respect they are stronger plants and are slower to get to the point of sale; for this reason they are often dearer plants. But many of the suppliers are now pricing their Dr Hughie plants at the same price in order to hide the fact that their roses are not as good [in my opinion!].
    I have also found that a lot of roses do well grown at this time of the year as cuttings – without being grafted at all. If they are strong plants in the ground, and are not weak specimens, then they could easily grow from cutting. And if they are the sort that do well from cutting then they do far better than when grafted.
    Plants that do well from cuttings are often the earlier hybrid teas and many of the floribunda. Even some of the old varieties do well from cutting.
    Some of the online suppliers e.g. Mistydowns, supplies roses on multiflora rootstock.
    All the best with sourcing your roses.

    • Hello Judy
      Sorry Judy but I can’t help you there. I havent grown roses for ages now and because I don’t use them, tend to forget plants that I don’t regularly use. It looks like an oldie, but with hydridising, old looking roses are now becoming new.

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