The Climbers: Roses With Altitude

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Oh, my aching muscles...

American Pillar, close-up.

By Mary Gutierrez

I haven’t quite figured out what differentiates a climber from a rambler. The rose reference books I consult say that ramblers are more likely to bloom just once and offer masses of small flowers, compared to the larger  individual flowers found on climbers. I’ll take their word for it. I’m sure you’ll find, as I have, that there are exceptions to this generalization.
Climbing roses are, often, accidents of rose breeding that occur when a rosarian is trying to create a rose with certain characteristics and the offspring turns out to be a vigorous, tall plant. Such is the lottery of genetics.

This vigor may frighten off gardeners who cultivate small, urban spaces. I think there is room for at least one scrambling rose in the smallest garden. Small gardens need plants with height, and if you have room for just one small tree or if you have an unsightly outbuilding, then you have a perfect home for a climbing rose. The trick is selecting just one!

The Cast of Characters
I was first smitten with a fragrant rambler at Heronswood years ago,  ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’. Its intoxicating fragrance makes me wish I encountered it in gardens more often. This cultivar definitely fits best on a large property, as it becomes huge with age.

A fine rambler that I’ve seen maintained as a shrub at the Bellevue Botanical Garden is ‘Ghislane de Feligonde’, a pinkish-yellow flower that ages to salmon. It is a lovely rose that is worthy of being grown more often.
Every rose book I’ve ever read sings the praises of ‘New Dawn’ a sport of ‘Dr. W. Van Fleet’. (Dr. Van Fleet has the vigorous R. wichurana in his parentage—see the sidebar.) When I moved into my house in 1992, there was a ‘New Dawn’ growing near the foundation that was spectacular for a couple of years. It developed the worst case of rust that I’ve ever seen in a rose—or any other plant—and I haven’t been able to get my appetite for this plant back. I’ll take others’ word for it that it is a great rose—it doesn’t live here anymore!

But there are other large, scrambling roses that call my garden home. I grow an enormous climber called ‘Mermaid’. Its single flowers look like yellow fried eggs, with a cluster of stamens forming the “yolk” in the center of  the petals. It’s a healthy plant that is covered with flowers all season and that bears the most enormous thorns I’ve ever seen. When I prune it, I feel like it is actually fighting me for every branch. And it usually wins. It’s consuming the storage shed and I think I’ll just let ‘Mermaid’ have it. Her beauty justifies the pain, though!

I grow and adore a rambler called ‘American Pillar’ in spite of its gaudy pink color, lack of fragrance and once-blooming habit. When it is in bloom, it’s hard to notice anything else in the garden. Each flower is cerise-pink with a white eye, massed in large trusses that cover the plant for the month of June.

My ‘American Pillar’ grows on—you guessed it—a rose pillar, and I prune it to keep it in proportion to the support. It would be gorgeous over a large arbor or pergola.

I grow another rambler that is making a comeback in gardens: ‘Veilchenblau’. Its popularity is due to the mauvey-lavender color of its blossoms. The color is unique and the plant is healthy. I have it in the back of my garden, growing through a bay laurel tree, because it blooms for a fairly short period. The fading flowers are mixed in medium-sized flower clusters alongside new buds, so the flower clusters don’t have a fresh appearance for very long. From a distance, though, it is striking. I also appreciate its “thornless-ness.”

I hope this whets your appetite for climbing roses and that next spring you’ll choose a rose with altitude!

Mermaid is beautiful, but thorny.

Why I Love Rosa wichurana
The “original” ground cover rose—in my opinion—is the very un-modern climbing species Rosa wichurana. This lovely plant is commonly called “Memorial Rose” because was often grown in cemeteries. R. wichurana, in my Zone 8 garden is fully evergreen. It is vigorous (but not unmanageable) whether it is growing prostrate or climbing a fence.

Best of all, in July, when my other roses have finished blooming, R. wichurana becomes a mass of dainty white flowers. Mine is planted at the base of a fence that sits at the top of a rockery. The pliable stems clamber up the fence, then cascade down the slope, smothering any weeds (or other plants!) that are in their path. —MG

Some of these roses will require a sturdy support--something more substantial than the fan trellis you'll find at the home-improvement center.

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