Published July 14, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Pioneering roses: Some of the yellow roses we see in Wyoming today have origins from the early settlers who traveled the Oregon Trail.”
By Barb Gorges
Roses are perennials, but the joke is, in Cheyenne, they are annuals. These prima donnas of the garden are often killed by one of our episodes of harsh winter weather.
Sometimes, only the grafted part of the rose, the fancy variety, dies and the hardy, usually less beautiful, rootstock lives on.
There’s no shame in losing roses to winter, and you can replace each bush for about the price of a dozen cut roses. Even the folks at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens have to replace theirs occasionally.
Recently, I ran into Steve Scott, head of horticulture for the Gardens. Having just been inundated by roses while on a trip to the Pacific Northwest, I asked him what the deal was with these “annual” roses around here.
Rose varieties that bloom all summer don’t prepare adequately for our winters, he said. That brings to mind the fable of the grasshopper who fiddled while the ants laid in the harvest, I guess.
On the other hand, the species roses, close cousins to wild roses, bloom once in June for several weeks and then go into winter preparation mode, protecting canes and roots from future winterkill.
I recognize those roses: the big shrubs full of yellow blooms like the one my mother had at her old house in Wisconsin, or the one at my front door in Casper, and even the Austrian Copper rose (orange and yellow) in my Cheyenne backyard that has probably been here since the house was built more than 50 years ago.
These particular roses come with fascinating stories, I discovered, as does any flower people think is worth fussing over.
Persian Yellow rose
Europeans had no yellow roses until they discovered one in Persia, now part of present day Iran. However, some people didn’t like the way it smelled and named it Rosa foetida, “Fetid rose,” fetid meaning stinky. But it has become an ancestor of all kinds of yellow roses we see today.
Austrian Copper rose
The gardener at Emperor Rudolf II’s imperial gardens in Vienna first described Rosa foetida bicolor in 1539, a variety of the Persian Yellow rose in which the upper surface of the petals is red-orange and the lower surface yellow, what we know as the Austrian Copper rose today.
Harison’s Yellow rose
Later, George F. Harison, a rosarian (someone who cultivates roses) found an interesting, hardy hybrid growing in his estate’s garden in the New York City suburbs in the 1820s. It was apparently a cross between the Scotch Briar rose and the Persian Yellow rose, with flowers having more than double the normal five petals of wild roses—and a nicer fragrance.
Harison was a lawyer but he recognized a valuable rose when he saw one, so he gave cuttings to William Prince, a nurseryman on Long Island, who propagated it and began marketing it as “Harison’s Yellow rose” in 1830.
Oregon Trail rose
In little time, this new rose became so popular it frequently travelled with the pioneers going to Oregon. Something from one’s garden was much more portable and made a better memento of home than that chest of drawers that was eventually t dumped by the side of the trail to lighten the load.
So sometimes Harison’s Yellow is known as the Oregon Trail rose. It’s also known as the Yellow Rose of Texas, though the song by the same name is about a woman.
If you’ve ever ordered plants by mail, you have to wonder how anyone on the Oregon Trail, circa 1836-1890s, managed to keep a rose alive on a several months’ long trip. It was summer when the wagon trains made it to the Wyoming part of the trail—they liked to get to Independence Rock, 60 miles southwest of Casper, by the 4th of July.
The pioneers carried this rose with the ends of the cuttings stuck into potatoes, wrote Donna Mileti Benenson, in an article for Early American Homes magazine.
Abandoned homesteads in the West are often memorialized by a cascade of yellow roses in June. Last month I saw a shrub near Bozeman, Mont., standing by itself, that was more than 6 feet high, and from which point the canes bent and descended nearly to ground, loaded with blooms and creating a mound twice the usual diameter of 5 to 6 feet.
How to find hardy roses
Though Harison’s Yellow rose is a hybrid, meaning it won’t grow true from seed, it suckers easily, sending up new canes that can be cut and rooted. I wonder if Prince, the original propagator, ever made much money once gardeners figured out how easy it was to share.
If you don’t have a friend or family member with a Harison’s, it and other hardy shrub roses are available commercially.
Of our Cheyenne nurseries, Riverbend expects to have both Harison’s Yellow and Austrian Copper roses again next spring. Grant Farms sometimes carries them.
High Country Roses, in Denver, www.highcountryroses.com, 1-800-552-2082, sells Harison’s Yellow, Persian Yellow, Austrian Copper, other colors of species roses and other hardy roses grown on their own roots. They also have rose-growing advice.
Caring for hardy roses
If roses like Harison’s Yellow can prosper at abandoned homesteads, you won’t expect to perform a lot of maintenance.
Cutting out dead canes will make them look nicer. An inch of water a week will make them fuller.
They aren’t often plagued by insects and diseases so wait and see before you apply pesticides.
Don’t fertilize them less than six weeks before the first average frost date of September 20—that would be no later than the first week in August—so they can truly winterize themselves.
Once a shrub rose is finished blooming, it provides rose hips for the birds and a nice green backdrop for other flowers in your garden, maybe even some of those “annual” roses.
But while you try out fancy new varieties every year, keeping the rose breeders and growers in business, your Harison’s Yellow rose could continue to prosper, and even outlive you.