The rose bushes in Napa Valley are now full of leaves and tiny buds, preparing to bloom. By May, garden roses will be in full flower. My rose-care season began in January with heavy pruning on a dry day, followed by the purchase of two bare-root roses (‘Marilyn Monroe’ and ‘Julia Child’) to replace a pair that died from old age and drought. Although those two bushes didn’t make it, roses are generally very hardy.
Rose fossils have been found in 35-million-year-old rocks. Rose wreaths have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. Evidence suggests that the Chinese have cultivated roses for five thousand years. During the Roman Empire, people used crushed roses for perfume, rose hips for medicine and petals for confetti.
In the 14th century, the Houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose) used roses as symbols in their struggle for control of England during the War of the Roses. In the war’s aftermath, the symbol of the House of Tudor became a red rose embedded with a white rose. Such a flower does not exist but symbolized the joining of the Houses of Lancaster and York.
Prized by royalty, roses and rose water were used as legal tender in the 17th century. Empress Josephine gathered a large collection of roses in her garden at Château de Malmaison. Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s famed botanical drawings were done in her garden.
China introduced roses to Europe, and Europeans quickly learned to cross cultivated varieties with native roses to produce longer-blooming and hardier types. Many of the roses we grow today can be traced to this period.
North America has 35 to 50 native rose species. Early settlers may have brought cuttings from England but there were wild roses here to meet them. Wild roses continue to dot our hillsides, scenting the air and providing food for wildlife.
In the 1830s, Native Americans were forced to walk thousands of miles from their homes to Indian Territory across the Mississippi River. Legend has it that a white rose sprang up along this trail wherever a Cherokee mother’s tears fell. The wild Cherokee Rose (Rosa laevigata) can still be found along the Trail of Tears. It is the state flower of Georgia.
Rose rustling has become something of a hobby among some rose lovers in the U.S. Rustlers hunt in isolated places, such as cemeteries, for old rose varieties that are no longer available commercially. (That said, specialty nurseries do carry many old varieties that you can order.) If you want to try rustling, be sure to abide by these rules: Always ask the property owner’s permission, and take only cuttings, never the entire plant.
Late April and early May are good times to visit the rose garden in Napa’s Fuller Park. The garden was developed by Napa Parks and Recreation in collaboration with Napa County Master Gardeners. The garden is at the back of the park (on Jefferson Street between Oak and Laurel Streets) close to Seminary Street.
Master Gardeners worked with the City of Napa to choose rose varieties that do well in our climate. City workers planted, irrigated and now maintain the garden. Master Gardeners continue to provide advice and training.
In designing your own rose garden, choose an area that receives at least 6 hours of sun each day. Decide on your vision for your garden. Do you want ground-hugging carpet roses, rose bushes or tree-like rose standards?
Plant roses at least 4 feet apart to ensure good air circulation. Roses also require good drainage, fertile soil and a source of water. Roses need less water than many plants; however, they do need summer irrigation.
Napa County Master Gardeners have devised a Rose Cycle, a calendar of monthly tasks that will help you keep your roses healthy. In April, watch for pests such as aphids. Remove them and finger-prune your roses. In May, dead-head (remove spent flowers) and fertilize. Stay on top of each month’s small tasks and you will have healthy, beautiful roses.
Workshop: UC Master Gardeners of Napa County will hold a workshop on “Flowers and Foliage in the House” on Saturday, April 27, from 9:30-11:30 a.m, at University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Find details here: Online registration (credit card only); mail-in/walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment). Or call 707-253-4221.