Cape May has wonderful sun and sea breezes that make most roses grow well. Hybrid teas are fussier than most roses and need a good deal of rotted manure and compost added to the soil. Other easy roses such as Knock Out also thrive at the ‘shore’ given just a bit of compost and light mulch. These are disease resistant and bloom from May to November. But the easiest to grow of all roses at the shore is the Rosa Ragusa. This one has grown all over Cape May for a good many years. Its fragrant blooms have given way to bright orange pods this time of the season. These can be planted now for a shrub in future years.
I like to grow all kinds of roses, but dislike using chemicals on them. Some of my roses grow beautifully. Others look a bit ragged when the heat and humidity begin. Actually, we sprinkle sulfur or copper on them before the hot summer weather sets in and they do pretty well. Hybrid teas are elegant, look like a rose, sometimes smell good, but are usually the fussiest of all roses to grow. These love to be watered well and fed often. Other carefree shrub roses bloom well and have healthy, glossy foliage. Many of the French and old-fashion roses are strong and vigorous and even bloom most of the season. They often look like peonies or cabbage roses. But, the roses that smell the best are the almost flat type blooms found on the Rugosa rose shrub. They are in both white and deep rose in my gardens and do well in sandy soil.
Rugosa hips or “sea tomatoes,” as they have been called in a past generation, were a standard fruit item. Today many people do not even know what they are but the hips, which are full of vitamin C, are still harvested for commercial uses, including for rose hip teas. I love their rose fragrance blooms that are edible raw or cooked, the glossy, handsome leaves can be used for tea.
This native of Asia does have many cultivars with varying growth habits, but the species shrub itself, with strongly upright growth habit to about six feet was first introduced in America, into New England, in the mid 1800s. They were soon grown in orchards that have gone wild and naturalized in coastal regions along with another native rose.
I love to have these colorful plants around the outside of my garden fence where I enjoy their fragrance all season. If there is any drawback to growing Rugosa, it is the intense spikiness of the limbs. But it makes a stunning protective hedge, or even anti-burglar shrub under windows. The dense, thorny upright limbs have a stark look in winter that has a certain type of beauty. If the hips are not harvested in autumn, they linger among the leafless branches long into winter until the birds find them.
These plants require very little care to bloom and fruit well. I give mine a handful of 10–10–10 each spring because they are growing in sand. They want full sun, though they are tolerant of a little shade if need be. The plants in one of the corners of the herb garden actually get too much shade after years of being there, so we planted a few new ones along the back sunny border. The most care that needs to be done for their maximum beauty is an annual pruning, in late winter before spring growth begins. The oldest canes should be cut out of the shrub, right down to the ground.
Suckers are easily removed when still young. These can be potted and given away once they’re well rooted. An old wives’ tale says if suckers are picked soon enough as stubby shoots devoid of thorns, they can be cooked in soup. I am not so sure I would like this, but then who knows.
The fragrant blooms make fruit that begins green but soon turns a colorful orangey red. These fruits begin to ripen in August when the hips look like small orange tomatoes. They become soft and sweet enough to eat fresh off the branches in fall after a few frosts. The birds also enjoy them then. They’re seedy, however, and some may prefer to use them in jams and jellies, cooking and then sieving the seeds out. Some herbalist says that if the seeds are eaten, they do have a great deal of Vitamin E, to add to the Vitamin C content of the fruit’s flesh. In some areas along the coast sieved seeds were traditionally saved, dried, ground up, and mixed with flour to use in baked goods.
Rosa Rugosa is a hardy, low-maintenance, sturdy shrub adaptable to almost any soil condition except wet clay. It is nice to have because it produces beautiful very fragrant flowers all summer long, with re-bloom until the first hard frost when there are usually copious amounts of fruits. If you have a dry, sunny spot, this is the rose for you. There are many select cultivars available that heighten the plant’s natural beauty. Choose one and you will never regret it.
Email Lorraine at Lorraine@tripleoaks.com. Visit her in Cape May during the annual food and wine festival. She will have her book Best Garden Plants for New Jersey with her and be happy to sign a copy.