The Decline of Roses

'Darcy Bussell' rose

‘Darcy Bussell’ rose

As Valentine’s Day approaches, roses should definitely be on the mind of you and me. Or maybe not.

Roses are not what it used to be.  In 1990, there were 50 million field grown roses in the United States and today that number has declined to less than 20 million.  Many reasons have been advanced for this decline.  It is said that people just don’t have time to care for roses, especially hybrid teas, the ones traditionally grown for their flower size, color, and fragrance.  Hybrid teas also have a reputation for being highly susceptible to disease and there is an increased wariness regarding plants that require pesticides to perform as advertised.  Here’s an interesting historical note.  Through the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s, black spot, the major fungus disease of roses, was not a problem in urban areas due to the lack of concern for air pollution.  Polluted air was rich in sulfur and sulfur depresses black spot occurrence.  As urban air became more sanitized, black spot proliferated. 
Some people have said that lack of interest in roses, which do require an investment of time, parallels lack of interest in yard work generally.  The physical outlet of gardening now finds its expression in exercise machines.  And then there are those digital devices that also hog our leisure time.
In line with pesticide concerns, gardeners have opted for replacing their rose gardens with vegetable beds.  Relieved of the burden of spraying their roses, they can now grow pesticide free veggies instead.  In addition, there is not as much yard space as there used to be since new housing developments squeeze homes together as close as possible on relatively small plots of land. The matchbox yards that remain are frequently consumed with the addition of a deck, a pergola, or a pool, making rose growing impossible. The phenomenon of condominiums, too, restricts the growing grounds of their residents to a small patio or balcony.  As if lack of time and space for growing roses were not enough of a blow to the domestic rose market, it happens that locally sold cut roses are increasingly imported from South American countries, especially Colombia and Ecuador.
On top of all these reasons for a decline in rose enthusiasm among producers  and hobbyists, there is a widespread rumor about roses being exceedingly thirsty plants, but this is simply not true.  I was recently in communication with Michael Marriott, technical director and senior rosarian of David Austin roses. David Austin or English roses combine classic forms and fragrances of old garden roses with the vivid colors and repeat blooming properties of contemporary rose varieties. According to Marriott, at least where irrigation of David Austin roses are concerned, “two good soakings a week should be perfectly adequate and I’m sure they’ll survive without much problem on less.  Roses once established are great survivors so they might sulk a bit with minimal water but will soon revive once plentiful water returns.  To ensure that water goes down deeply and does not run everywhere,” Marriott continued, “create a depression around each rose bush roughly the same diameter as the rose so that the water is concentrated in the soil where the majority of the roots are found.”
“New plants,” Marriott counseled, “will need a bit more care and attention to get them established. It is important to get this right to make sure the roots go down deeply so fewer good soakings as opposed to lots of little ones is the order of the day. I always think it will be better to plant David Austins as bare root roses although many gardeners have great success in planting containerised roses even during the heat of the summer.”
As for established roses, Marriot knows “somebody who grows roses very well in Arizona who applies about 6 gallons of water a week (per rose bush) during the summer,” and that, based on testimonials from California and Australia, David Austins “do well in a drought and better than hybrid teas.”  Some of the more water-thrifty David Austins recommended by Marriott include newly hybridized ‘Olivia Rose Austin’ and ‘The Poet’s Wife,’ as well as ‘Boscobel, ‘Darcey Bussell,’ ‘Gentle Hermione,’ ‘Harlow Carr,’ and ‘Lichfield Angel,’ ‘Jubilee Celebration,’ ‘Lady of Shalott,’ ‘Munstead Wood,’ and ‘Princess Alexandra of Kent.’
Since this is rose planting season, I am extending an invitation here to send along your experiences growing roses.  Which are your favorite varieties?  What are your strategies for conserving water and for controlling pests (especially fungi) in the rose garden?
As far as the performance of David Austin roses in Southern California, I consulted with Tim Carruth, rosarian at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino.   Carruth is a renowned hybridizer of roses, earning nine All-America rose selections during one ten year span.  Those selections include such floribunda favorites such as ‘Scentimental,’ ‘Betty Boop,’ and ‘Hot Cocoa,’ as well as ‘Fourth of July,’ a climber.   As far as David Austins are concerned, Carruth says that many varieties, such as the generally acclaimed ‘Graham Thomas,’ grow explosively, up to 18 feet tall, but do not flower as advertised.  On the other hand, certain David Austins do perform admirably  in our area, including ‘Molineux,’ ‘Ambridge Rose,’ ‘Darcey Bussell, ‘Lady Emma Hamilton,’ and ‘Lillian Austin.’
Tip of the Week:  “Mulching is of course hugely beneficial,” Marriott writes,  “and absolutely crucial. It should be at least 4” thick and maintained at that depth. Apart from helping to retain moisture, mulching of course has hugely beneficial effects on the life of the soil, encouraging all the fungi, bacteria, and assorted beasties (miscellaneous soil micro-organisms) that help to keep the soil healthy which in turn helps to keep the plants growing well too.”

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