Plants - Roses

Scents and Sensibility

Judith Adam
Photography by
Photography by Tracy Cox

By choosing wisely and planting well, most Canadian gardeners can grow armloads of fragrant roses

On a summer afternoon, when the sweet scent of roses wafts through the air, gardeners across Canada are apt to swoon with pleasure. The Greek poetess Sappho was also overcome by the seductive lure of perfumed petals in the warm sun (" . . .the rose each ravished sense beguiles . . ."), and the rose scents in her seventh-century gardens were essentially the same we enjoy today. While every rose is desirable, fragrant roses inspire us to particularly industrious planting strategies. Our goal is to find a scented rose for every possible garden situation, and to learn the professional tricks of the rose breeder's trade: how best to enhance fragrance and encourage strong growth.

We may be northern gardeners, but that's no reason to endure sensory deprivation. Scented roses can be grown in all but the harshest climates. Species roses and Canadian cultivars have the fortitude to cope with harsh environ-mental conditions or the gardener's extended absences from the cottage. For example, the circumpolar rose (Rosa acicularis) is a strongly fragrant species rose hardy to Zone 3, with deep pink, single flowers on 1.8-metre canes. Equally fragrant are the light pink, ruffled flowers of 'Delicata', a disease-resistant and cold-loving, 1.2-metre rugosa hybrid (1898, Zone 2) that also produces large, scarlet-orange hips in autumn. Modern, Canadian-bred roses with superior fragrance include 'Louis Jolliet', with old-fashioned pink flowers blooming continuously from June through September on 1.2-metre shrubs, and 'Henry Kelsey', a 2.4- metre climber that blooms repeatedly and freely, with red petals surrounding its golden stamens. Both are hardy to Zone 3 while other sweet-smelling Canadian cultivars are hardy to Zone 2.

Back in our well-tended home gardens, we can give better care and growing conditions to small-scale scented roses, just the right size to keep company with perennials in mixed borders. Many of the antique rose cultivars are surprisingly adaptable to 21st-century planting beds and have the added benefit of their extraordinary perfume and attractive autumn hips. The fiery red blooms of 'Etna' moss rose (mid-1800s, Zone 5) pair nicely with the dark blue 'Kent Belle' bellflower. The double flowers are deeply perfumed and embellished with tiny, soft, camphor-scented bristles. Notable among the damask roses is the one-metre-tall 'Jacques Cartier' (1868, Zone 4), a luxuriously double, free-flowering rose with intensely fragrant pink petals, which contrast nicely with annual or perennial purple-flowered salvias. Old roses generally bloom just once, but last for an extended six-week period in early to midsummer. Many are hardy to Zone 5, though some, including Rosa gallica 'Versicolor', also known as 'Rosa Mundi', can be grown in Zone 2 gardens. The striped crimson and white petals of 'Rosa Mundi', a gallica rose discovered in the 16th century, bring welcome, bicoloured gaiety to grey-leafed companions such as 'Valerie Finnis' Western mugwort (Artemesia ludoviciana 'Valerie Finnis').

Fragrance potential in roses falls into the domain of recessive genes that are difficult to manipulate. The pale antique roses of the 19th century are notable for their intoxicating scent, but many 20th-century roses were hybridized for an expanded colour palette and blossom shape. All too often scent genes were lost along the way. Today's hybridizers have incorporated fragrance into breeding programs to produce roses with strong perfume, smaller plant size and recurrent bloom. Inspired by David Austin's development of modern English roses, European growers have followed by introducing the Romantica, Generosa and Renaissance series.

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