Thirty years ago I bought my first roses, all mid-century hybrid teas such as ‘Mister Lincoln’ and ‘Oklahoma’ (both bred in 1964), with award-winning performance and big, lush blooms. The summer passed in a conscientious flurry of preventive spraying schedules, precision-timed fertilizer applications and increasing dissatisfaction with the results. Despite obsessive attention, these plants would not thrive. I didn’t know my blue-ribbon roses were bred to produce exhibition-quality, large-petalled flowers at the expense of pest resistance and vigour. Every green aphid was a fanged monster on their tender tissues, each stray fungal spore ballooned into a colony of dreaded black spots. With more and better information I might have made different selections. But as it was, my award winners all dwindled through the summer and met a wintry death.
Since that season of discontent, much has been achieved in developing modern roses with inbred resilience to the harsh realities of climate and ecology. Plant breeders have turned their gene-mixing skills to developing beautiful roses that are repeat blooming, are able to persist through insect and disease problems, and grow vigorously. Easy-care modern roses have long bloodlines carrying healthy genes from past centuries.
In recent years, I’ve grown the modern coral-pink climber America, a disease-resistant garden workhorse with the genes of 89 rose ancestors, dating back to 1859. Yellow-pink ‘Morden Sunrise’ (Canadian bred in 1999) is another winner in my garden; thriving without winter protection and exposed to the west wind, it’s not fazed by the usual hardships of budworms and leaf spots (though admittedly, Japanese beetles are entranced by the fragrance). Lest you fear that high petal count, deep scent and voluptuous form have been sacrificed, have a look at the Austin English roses developed from classic antiques married to modern cultivars. Rose breeder David Austin’s crimson red William Shakespeare 2000 is typical (if one can use that term to describe a masterpiece) of the lushly perfumed, full petal count, disease-resistant English roses that are both easy-care and modern. Similarly, my container-grown, glowing pink floribunda Sexy Rexy (enjoying garage storage over winter), hasn’t sacrificed its classic double form in acquiring disease resistance. I've also planted two favourites I call the party girls: white floribunda Iceberg and pink hybrid musk ‘Penelope’, both with prettily frilled, semi-double petals like ballerina skirts, provocative stamen displays and clean foliage all summer.