The Beach Rose
A prickly Seacoast survivor
Saltspray rose, seaside rose, dune rose, beach rose—by any name, it is as common as sea grass on the coast, as iconic as a lighthouse on a cliff. Flourishing up and down North America’s northeastern seaboard, this rose is so naturalized on the shores of New England that it seems like a native. It grows as wildly as weeds on the prairie. But in fact, this rampant rose is an import, and a relatively recent one at that. Indigenous to the Far East, it was unknown in the West until the late eighteenth century, when a Swedish botanist by the name of Carl Peter Thunberg first spotted it in Japan. Charmed by its crinkly petals and serrated leaves, he called it Rosa rugosa, or “wrinkled rose.”
“Hedgehog rose” is the rather unlovely name it soon acquired in England on account of the sharp, short prickles that cover the stems from rootstock to bud. This, along with a taste for formal gardens with tractable plants, might explain why rose-infatuated English gardeners shunned Rosa rugosa for much of the nineteenth century. In the 1880s, though, as topiaries and parterres started to go out of fashion, and more naturalistic flowerscapes gained appeal, so did Rosa rugosa. Noting its hardiness, continuous blooms, and fresh perfume, gardening experts began to give it high marks. In 1891, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew declared it an exceptional garden plant.
By then, Rosa rugosa was pretty well established on this side of the Atlantic. Growing freely on Cape Cod and the Islands, it was gaining a foothold in Connecticut and Rhode Island and a toehold in New Hampshire and Maine. Amateur botanists recorded its appearances and its habits. How it got here is anyone’s guess.
According to legend, it washed up after a shipwreck. (Why the castaway rose was onboard in the first place is a practical question that this legend does not address.) Another possibility is that it was an accidental stowaway: seeds or root bits may have been crated up with other plants shipped overseas. Or maybe a bird, not a boat, delivered Rosa rugosa—and considering how freely swallows and sparrows disperse seeds, that may be the case. The fact that the hips (fruits) of this rose are both buoyant and sturdy and can remain intact in seawater for months at a time is also suggestive. Anyway, whether swept in by waves or buffeted by breezes, Rosa rugosa took to these shores.
In Nantucket, it took so well and so fast that a single plant sighted by a roadside in 1899 had become a giant shrubbery by 1904. Around that time, a naturalist who was following the progress of flora all over the island spotted another vigorous specimen flowering on the site of a demolished oceanfront hotel—“sole vestige of the planting that had brightened the wind-swept and barren spot nearly a decade before,” he declared. Soon, hardly a dune did not have a Rosa rugosa.
At home with the toughest sedges and ivies, these roses are as rugged as pitch pine and scrub oak. Resilient in the face of gale winds, impervious to ocean spray, they can withstand winters as far north as New Brunswick, Canada. As far south as Virginia, they will not shrivel in blistering heat.
To be sure, Rosa rugosa is so adaptable that it can be unstoppable, and its tenacity makes attempts to get rid of it difficult at best. For these reasons, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service watches the plant closely and collects regional status reports (accessible at plants.usda.gov). Among the environmental concerns is that Rosa rugosa’s readiness to naturalize comes at the expense of native plants and animal habitats. And yet, along with these drawbacks, Rosa rugosa has beneficial uses as a conservation plant. Because it spreads by suckering roots, it can stabilize dunes and buttress them against storm surges and tides. By anchoring sandy soil, it can help prevent erosion from rains and winds, to say nothing of hindering marauders and trespassers, too. So while it is sensible to use caution when introducing Rosa rugosa to a specific locale, it is wise to think twice before removing shrubs where they are well established.
Flowering freely in shades ranging from white to blush pink to bright rose, Rosa rugosa blooms continuously from spring through fall; its orange-red hips add interest from midsummer to autumn; as other plants brown, its leaves turn from lush green to yellow gold. Though only two varieties occur in the wild, ‘Alba’ and ‘Rubra’, between them variations proliferate, some with poppy-like flowers growing individually, others in clusters, some unfurling their petals in a single layer, others in double layers or more. Whatever shape Rosa rugosa may take, whatever its hue, it is wonderfully fragrant.
In addition, it is relatively disease free and pest free and therefore suitable for organic gardens. In fact, fertilizer does this plant more harm than good. Mulch, organic or otherwise, is moot. And just as Rosa rugosa thrives in ocean air, so it also survives by roadsides covered in harsh salts. Indeed, Rosa rugosa will beautify human-made hardscapes just as surely as it does natural softscapes of meadows and dunes.
A single plant can expand into a colony pretty quickly. This means Rosa rugosa is not appropriate for small gardens or mixed borders. Pruning will not make much difference—except to spur it on to more vigorous growth. You can turn its unruliness to advantage by growing a row of these shrubs as a carefree flowering safety fence. In exposed areas, a hedge becomes both a windbreak for the garden and a barrier against the sea. As a bonus, the thorny thickets provide shelter for small animals, and the juicy hips are food for birds.
People also enjoy the hips, which are both tasty and healthy. Used medicinally in China for centuries and loaded with vitamin C, they make a delicious citrusy tea and delectable sweet-tart preserves. Moreover, the floral essence produces a delightful perfume.
With all that Rosa rugosa has to offer, it is no surprise that once gardeners started paying attention to it, hybridizers started crossing these plants with other species, hoping to breed their best traits into floribunda and polyantha roses while taming the waywardness out of the mix. Some crosses succeeded; some did not, but scores of viable, beautiful hybrids emerged from the trials, which continue today. Most nurseries stock numerous varieties, but if in doubt or seeking more information, the American Rose Society (ars.org) is a terrific resource. For a thorough account of species and hybrids, along with discussion of propagation, cultivation, and landscaping uses, Suzanne Verrier’s lavishly illustrated Rosa Rugosa (Capability Books, 1991) remains the best reference to date. To experience Rosa rugosa on your own, head for the beach on a summer day, look around at the blossoms dotting the dunes, and take a breath of the sweet, rose-scented air.