By Cassandra Kesig
Believed to have been grown as garden plants first in Ancient Babylon, Ancient China was among the first civilizations to cultivate and hybridize roses. Presently, these decorative bushes and climbers are nearly universally-favored by professional horticulturalists, at-home gardeners, and lovers everywhere. Mid-Victorian Europeans latched onto rose-cultivation as a leisure activity and display of middle class and aristocratic wealth–a well-manicured, biodiverse garden was crucial for a home’s design and, of course, for hosting garden parties. One of the first major rose collections was put together by Josephine Bonaparte, first wife of Napoleon, with more than 250 varieties located at Chateau de Malmaison, their country home.
Naturally, this floral affinity extended to California’s growing cities and homesteads, founded in the wake of the Gold Rush. In the mid-1800s, not long after the first hybrid tea rose was bred in Europe, the majority of California’s garden roses were still being imported from Europe. At the turn of the 20th century, the first tea rose variety cultivated in California was created by nurseryman Edward Cooper, the “Sarah Isabella Gill”, which spawned a small cohort of rose breeders to assemble in the Bay Area, becoming an important aspect of local commerce. Today, roses thrive throughout the state’s temperate coastal climate, and a number of botanical societies promote and moderate cultivation and hybridization statewide. Sites such as The Huntington Library Rose Garden and Descanso Gardens in LA County celebrate roses and their heritage with the public. They’re an inexplicable fixture of our lawns, backyards and common areas, beautifying Orange County from the mountains to the coast.
Distinct for their temperamental nature and intensive needs for growth, the thousands of rose varieties in existence demand equally varied methods of maintenance. The most common garden rose class, the hybrid tea rose, is classified as the first “modern” rose, as opposed to the “old garden roses” of antiquity. Bred for increased hardiness, the range of color and full bloom quickly transformed hybrid teas into a sort of cash crop, popular as cut flowers as well as bushes and hedges. These, along with their relatives, the clustered grandiflora (a combination of hybrid teas and floribundas, recognizable for having multiple blooms on one stem), are relatively drought-tolerant, unmistakable for their stately blooms and abundant in decorative gardening.
Shrub roses and miniature roses, self-described, are classes that may require less rigorous care than their hybrid tea and floribunda cousins. The former, popular in landscaping, more naturally repels disease and pests, and is viable for larger, more robust plants able to serve structural and architectural roles in any garden, as well as provide groundcover. The latter may fulfill the desire for cut floral arrangements with their year-round bloom and ability to be grown indoors. Both demand less pruning, and are generally as diverse, enduring, and ornamental as any other class.
Climbing roses are perhaps the most labor-intensive of the bunch; whereas a typical bush might have a handful of stems hold flowers upright, climbers require their central branches be affixed to a structure (a fence or a trellis, for example), and the flowers bloom outward from many lateral stems that grow along its shaft. Horizontal branches are known to produce more flowers than vertical branches, and the flexibility of their arrangement lends itself to infinite design possibilities!
Rosarians from the Orange County Rose Society have recommendations for rose varieties from all of these classes that prosper in both coastal and inland gardens on their page.
Care and Winter Pruning
Elsewhere in the US, freezing winters and blistering summers might demand more from the gardener in terms of maintenance, but the main threat to garden roses in Southern California is summer heat, aridity, and powdery mildew caused by humidity; by and large, Orange County is a more hospitable climate than most. Periods of dormancy, which pauses the bloom cycle and prevents flowering in cold weather, is often bypassed entirely in mild winters.
This period of dormancy is the ideal time for heavy pruning, an essential process for plant health that should be done annually or bi-annually. It’s recommended in California for mid-to-late winter between New Year’s and Valentine’s Day, in order to prepare the plant for bountiful flowering in the spring! Pruning is not only useful for stripping away dead stalks from the previous year’s bloom, but invigorating the plant to produce new buds and larger flowers for the coming cycle.
Roses require space, not only from other plants, but between their own individual canes. When pruning, it’s important for all types that the canes are spaced out and not crossing so as to prevent crowding and promote air circulation. There should be 3-6 central canes; dead or diseased canes will be twiggy, discolored, and can be pruned from the base; suckers, which are developing offshoots of the stem, should also be removed as close to the base as possible.
To begin, any existing blooms and foliage should be cut off, about ⅓ of plant growth, to access the base. To display in floral arrangements, cut the stems of removed flowers at a sharp angle and place immediately in water–pruning is often the quickest way to a DIY bouquet!
When your bush is mostly bare, locate the buds on the exposed stalks, which will likely be in the top half of the cane. Now, for the step that requires the most precision, trim the excess length of the cane about ¼ inch from the bud at a diagonal angle. Too far and the cane won’t flower, too close and the bud will fall off entirely. If possible, cut above a bud facing the outside of the plant, so once bloomed the flowers will face outward. For climbing roses, young branches (between 2 and 3 years old) should be trimmed very little to strengthen the stalks and condition them for horizontal growth; the offshoots will continually produce flowering stems, and needs to be trimmed regularly when mature in order to prevent crowding and crossover.
Now your roses are ready for the advent of springtime! Don’t let their barrenness fool you–come warmer weather, your blooms will be out in full force, and your garden primed for a party or two. Not only that, you’ll be participating in a centuries-long tradition of horticulturalism.
To find a video showing HMOC's own rose pruning virtual workshop from 2021, click the button below.
Robert B. Martin, Jr., “Ten Principles of Rose Pruning,” Orange County Rose Society, https://www.orangecountyrosesociety.org/pruning-a-rose.
Darrell Schram, “California’s Oldest Surviving Roses,” Pacific Horticulture, https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/californias-oldest-surviving-roses/.
Andrew Schulman, “Pruning Climbing Roses,” fineGardening, https://www.finegardening.com/project-guides/pruning/pruning-climbing-roses.
Jesse Singer, “Victorian Gardens: Their History, Significance, and Essential Elements,” Garden Culture Magazine, https://gardenculturemagazine.com/victorian-gardens-their-history-significance-and-essential-elements/.
David Trinklein, “Rose: A Brief History,” University of Missouri Integrated Pest Management, https://ipm.missouri.edu/meg/2008/2/Rose-A-Brief-History/.
“Descano Gardens: A History of the Rose,” KCET: Lost LA, https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/clip/descanso-gardens-a-history-of-the-rose.
“Types of Modern Roses,” University of California Master Gardeners, Tulare and Kings Counties, https://ucanr.edu/sites/UC_Master_Gardeners/files/23466.pdf.
“Types of Roses,” Orange County Rose Society, https://www.orangecountyrosesociety.org/types-of-roses.
Linda Beutler, Garden to Vase: Growing and using your own cut flowers (Portland: Timber Press, 2007), 38-42.