Amongst the generally accepted literature for summer dry gardens, there is never any mention of drought tolerant roses. Many roses have their ancestry from species growing in dry areas, of course many of the original garden ones were brought back from the Middle East – you can’t get much more drought tolerant than that, although of course these are not desert plants.
Roses do seem to be very out of fashion and as it is so difficult to get any information on this subject anyway, I have been left to experiment myself and given that there are thousands of roses now available I have been only able to scratch the surface by identifying plants growing in the area and trialling them in my own garden. I have never had a failure, which is most odd as I have had countless failures with many dry garden plants that are commonly recommended. Part of this is that I garden on clay, which roses like and I would not recommend them for sandy, gritty or limestone soils.
Drought Tolerant Shrub Roses
‘Iceberg’ is without doubt a nice drought tolerant garden rose, fabulous white flowers off a medium sized bush and repeat flowering, although no scent. ‘Penelope’ is healthy disease resistant shrub, with gorgeous white blooms in clusters with lemon centres, smelling fragrantly. Arching stems rise to about 2 m tall.
Several other hybrids grow in my garden without any water at all but I have not been able to identify them. All of my roses are entirely blackspot and mildew free; they love the heavy clay and thick mulch I give them – this never could be said of my roses in my former UK garden, they suffered horribly from blackspot, so much so that by August one wondered why one grew them at all. It seems that blackspot spores either cannot get hold or overwinter in our dry conditions.
There is a range of modern hybrid ground cover roses that I see planted in local public spots – but I cannot get my head around them, they look dwarfed and so ‘parks and gardens’. I like my roses to big blousy old-fashioned bushes, ramblers or climbers. I find many modern cultivars of plants bred to be too dwarf, looking as if they come from a pitch and put or a gnomes’ garden.
Drought Tolerant Roses - Ramblers
‘Félicité et Perpetué’ (translating loosely from French as Everlasting Fidelity) is another excellent choice; a sempervirens hybrid, white pompons bred in 1827 by the Duc d’Orléans’ gardener. Flowering in clusters, very vigorous, at least 5m, tolerates shade, drought and poor soil. Good for growing into trees, fast growth too.
One certain success area for the gardener of drought tolerant roses is to look for rambler roses from the R. wichuriana (often spelt wichurana) rambler group. Rosa wichuriana is native to Japan and has vigorous glossy evergreen growth. In the early part of the 20th century a large range of hybrids were produced from hybrid teas crossed with R wichuriana – this gave the strength and drought resistance of the species roses with the flowering characteristics of the hybrid tea. Most of the hybrids had the characterisitic old rose look, slightly floppy loose flowers tinged with colour at the base. As repeat flowering hybrid teas had not been bred by then, very few of the resultant crosses are repeat flowering. New Dawn (1930) is the only repeat flowering rose in this group and is as sport of Dr Van Fleet (1910) and has nymph-like pink blooms, with thick glossy growth.
The resultant crosses are very vigorous, often 10-20ft or more in width and the same in height. Leaves are green and glossy and look lovely all through the hot summer long after the flowers have faded away. Usually new growth comes up from whippy thick stems from the bases every year.
It is not possible to keep these near indestructible roses in check by pruning; you can use them to cover a bank, cloth a wall, an outbuilding, a fence and climb into trees. An annual prune to remove half the old stems in late winter is all that is needed. Depending on where the rose is growing this can be an awkward job, but if you can get at it easily, simply untie it, prune out the old stems and retie it back again. Gloves are essential!
If the top growth has become too tangled, you can always cut the rose back to 15cms to the ground and it will re-sprout. Flowering will of course be affected for 2-3 years. When dealing with roses that have been planted for a long time, I always give them a second chance before turfing them out by doing this.
Feed the plants in spring with a general fertiliser and mulch heavily in autumn. No spraying will be needed.
Here are some of wichuriana group hybrids that are available easily in France and the UK:
- Gardenia 1899, very vigorous climber creamy white with a touch of yellow at the base of the petals.
- Veilchenblau 1909, fabulous tumbling mauvey blue
- Auguste Gervais 1916, white semi double flowers with heavy yellow stamens.
- Francois Juranville 1906, clear soft pink.
- Paul Transon 1900, pink
- Leontine Gervais 1903, coral pink vigorous climber
- May Queen, cabbage pink rose to 5m, very nice green growth.
- Alberic Barbier 1900, glossy green softish growth, cabbge white/yellow blooms, around 5m
- Albertine, 1921, pink flowers with a coppery tint, large flowers, 6m or so.
- American Pillar, 1902, single pink large dog rose type with a yellow eye , easy and tough (Vita Sackville-West loathed this rose due to its colour which is too vibrant for northern climes, but it works wonderfully in the south of France)
- Dorthy Perkins, 1901 clear pink cabbages, susceptible to mildew.
Quite a few others are readily available too; consult a rose specialist for more details.
As with all roses, when planting, prepare the soil well; double or triple dig in a lot of muck or compost, add a handful of bonemeal, stake them and keep them well watered for the first year at least.
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