By Roberta Bailey
Who can resist the smell of a rose on the coast? The smell of beach roses, Rosa rugosa, pulls up a lifetime of memories for me, but the memories of sitting on sun-warmed rocks using my teeth to scrape the bright orange flesh from ripe rosehips are the strongest. To this day, I will stop any beach-bound procession to feast on rosehips. But the scent, sight and taste of shoreline roses are not limited to the coast. Rosa rugosa can be grown almost anywhere, with little care, and with few if any pests.
Rosa rugosa is a 4- to 8-foot, upright, deciduous shrub with glossy, dark green, crinkled or rugose leaves borne on very prickly, thorny branches. Originating in Japan and China, it has naturalized itself to much of the Northeast coastline and inland. It blooms in June through late summer, with pale to dark pink or white, usually 2- to 4-inch, single blossoms, with an occasional double. It spreads by seed or sucker, forming patches 10- to 20-feet wide. The roses form large, vitamin-C rich, showy orange hips in fall, usually late August or early September in Maine.
This shrub is easy to grow. Planting instructions could read, “Put them in the ground and stand back.” Placement should be considered, as the plants will spread. A vigorous grower, it makes a solid hedge or barrier in just a few years. It can be managed with mowing, raised beds, containers or a retaining wall.
Hardy to zone 3, rugosas can take wind, drought, and salt air. They grow in any region except the deep South, as some winter chilling or dormancy is required. Plants thrive in full sun, but can have some shade as long as they get at least six hours of sunlight.
Rosa rugosa is highly tolerant of all but poorly drained soils: Good drainage is necessary. They will even grow in sand. Ideally, they should be planted in moderately fertile, humus-rich ground with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0. Prepare a bed 1 to 2 feet wider than your hedge or planting area. Place plants in the ground, setting them at their former growing level. Water them well and mulch 1 to 2 feet around the plants, with 2 to 3″ of organic matter.
The roses will need very little future care, except for watering in long periods of drought. If you feel you really want to do something for them, water them with a fish emulsion solution in early summer.
Seedlings are self-fruitful. If you buy a named variety of rugosa, two or more varieties may be needed to set fruit. Ask when you buy the plant.
For good fruit production, minimize pruning. Remove dead wood by cutting it back to the ground or a vigorous shoot. Rugosas tend to have a good natural shape.
Very few pests bother rugosa seedlings. In some areas, Japanese beetles or aphids can be a problem. (Do not use systemic pesticides on plants from which you will be eating rose hips. Generally rugosas resist pests.
Rugosas have many uses. The flower petals can be cooked in omelets, fried in batter, crystallized, made into jelly or syrup, used in soups, salad, and made into rosewater. The large, sweet-tart hips are very high in vitamin C. A 1/8-inch-thick flesh covers the large seed sack. The hips can be dried for teas. To process the hips, cut or scrape the flesh from the seed sack or scoop out the seeds. You can also cook the hips in water and strain the juice, when appropriate. The hips can be made into tea, jelly, jam, sauce, or my favorite, rosehip butter, a lightly sweetened puree of pure rosehip pulp. Of course, nothing beats sitting in the sun, scraping pulp with your teeth, then throwing the seed sack into the surf, a practice that ensures immediate and future gratification.
About the author: Roberta lives in Vassalboro and works for Fedco.