I have lived around Rugosa roses most of my life. Most people who visit coastal areas are familiar with these thickets of fragrant and very thorny rose bushes that are covered in white or magenta flowers during the summer and have shimmering deep orange to red seed – pods in the fall. The bushes thrive growing wild often spreading by rhizomes in the sands and dunes that are closest to the ocean. The plants also reproduce by seed. No other wild rose bush has such a density of thorns on each stem which makes it easy to distinguish from any other wild rose. The single or multi-floral blossoms waft an impossibly sweet scent towards the discerning nose while providing bees and insects with the sweetest nectar imaginable.
When I moved inland the first bush I bought was a Rugosa rose. Although they do not grow as prolifically in the Maine mountains as they do on the coast, it is still possible to have beautiful healthy blossoming bushes gracing your yard, and over the years I have watched mine spread slowly through the sandy soil, the new shoots always trying to catch the sun. Each June I look forward to picking richly perfumed flowers for the house. This year the roses bloomed late and caught the first heat wave that hit Maine. I was disappointed to have the roses peek for such a brief moment in time, although there will be a second bloom later this summer. Even so, the scent of blooming roses outside my window awakened me at dawn for a week.
Imagine my surprise when I moved to Northern New Mexico to spend winters and discovered Rugosa roses thriving at gas stations! My respect for these tough denizens of the wild increased as I witnessed the bushes blooming under a fierce southern summer sun. I was determined to buy one for the casita…
It wasn’t until Mother’s Day while visiting greenhouses that my friend Andrew spotted a few small bushes in an area that was overflowing with hundreds of pots of more cultivated roses. I was so excited to have found what seemed to be a lost friend because I had asked about buying these roses earlier in the spring only to discover that no one seemed to carry them. Frankly, I was surprised, because if these bushes thrived in unlikely places like gas stations in Santa Fe, they would probably grow well just about anywhere. I have developed a deeper respect than ever for tough plants after living in the desert!
Needless to say, I returned home that day with a small blooming Rugosa rose that I tenderly planted in front of the south porch. The bush had just a few blooms left on it so I left them on the bush, bending down to smell the deep magenta flowers instead of picking some. By the time I left for Maine the bush had developed small green seed pods called rose hips. Because I have a drip system in place, (thanks again to Andrew), I am hopeful that the bush will take, although I know from personal experience that planting these roses can be tricky.
When I researched Rugosa roses for this article I was astonished to learn that most of these roses originated and are native to Asia and Siberia with smaller populations native to this continent, Europe and Africa.
The rose as a species according to fossil evidence is 35 million years old and in this country some 150 species, including Rugosas, eventually spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere, from Alaska to Mexico.
Apparently, garden cultivation of roses began some 5,000 years ago, probably in China. We are so fortunate to have so many kinds of wild roses growing in this country and now I have some understanding of why there are so many wild species. Roses have been around for a very long time! There is another pale pink wild rose that grows wild in Iren’s Bosque in Abiquiu and here on my property that is also very fragrant. Years ago, I also transplanted a tiny white rose from Bowdoinham Maine that has mushroomed into a giant wild bush near the brook that used to be covered in bees. These one-inch single white rose clusters are also amazingly fragrant. Sadly, many rose hybrids loose their scent and are ignored by pollinators which is why I prefer wild ones.
The petals of the screened-dried Rugosa rose make fragrant long lasting indoor bouquets (dry petals in an attic or warm place until they crush easily).
Best of all, this rose produces delicious nutritious edible seed pods for humans and non humans alike. The fruit can be eaten raw or cooked because the hips are sweet. If one has the patience to make rose hip jam as I have, the rewards are considerable. The fruit is a fairly large size for a rose with a relatively thick layer of flesh and is rich in Vitamin C. Inside the seeds are a good source of vitamin E, and can be ground into a powder and mixed with flour or added to other foods as a supplement. It is also possible to make a tea combining the fruit with some leaves that is very pleasing to drink. If my little rose bush In Abiquiu makes it I plan to make a sun tea that combines rose hips and mint leaves from my southern garden. Just the thought makes my mouth water.
There are other practical reasons for growing this species. It hybridizes easily with other roses and is valued because it is so disease resistant and tolerant of road salt. It is also an excellent plant to control erosion.