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How Long Does a Rose Bush Live?

by Rich Baer,Master Rosarian Portland Rose Society

A question that I have been asked a number of times this year is “How long does the average rose bush live?” This is a question that I have seen addressed many times over the years and I have often been at odds with the answers that I have seen and heard. A number of years ago a valued friend and rose colleague, John Clements of Heirloom Roses and I had many in depth conversations about roses while sitting in the shade of a large conifer in the middle of the Heirloom rose gardens. To say the least, we were both quite opinionated about almost everything that involved roses, sometimes we even agreed. Heirloom roses has from the very beginning reproduced roses on their own roots and John was very much an advocate that that was the best and only way to reproduce roses. One of the many advantages he was adamant about was that own root roses lived much longer than those that are grafted. I worked for Edmunds’ Roses at the time and we only sold roses that were grafted and we very much believed in them just as John did with the own root roses. It was John’s belief that the average grafted roses would live perhaps ten years. I replied that I had many roses in my garden that were well past the age of ten years and were thriving. To that his reply was that mine lived because I knew how to make them live. Well that was quite a compliment, but I just do not believe that it is very true, even though I do have a lot of experience with roses, there is nothing special that I do to mine that the average gardener does not do.

'Color Magic' Plant & Bloom & 'Peace' Bloom, photos by Rich Baer

I also have seen many times in other newsletters that roses have an average life span of about ten years or less, but these opinions are usually expressed by avid rose exhibitors. It is what seems to be many of their beliefs that being pushed to produce exhibition quality roses shortens the life of the rose bush to maybe a half dozen years or so. If that is true, I think that the culprit is that the grower gets tired of them in a rather short period of time and digs them out if they fail to produce class “A” exhibition blooms. It may also be the result of plants being terminally harmed by the fertilizer regimen that many exhibitors expose their roses to. Fertilizing every week or so to push plants to be productive, I believe, produces a toxic environment that no plant would be expected to survive long in and probably has little effect on the quality of the roses being produced.

Since I have read no scientific studies that will provide a realistic answer to this question, I have to rely on my personal experience in my garden here in SW Portland. In the picture above is a plant of Color Magic. Back in 1982 I picked a nice bloom off of this plant and took it to the Portland Rose Society’s fall show at the Lloyd Center. To my surprise and delight it was selected the best novice entry in that show. The picture of the plant was taken two years ago and the bloom to the right was one that it produced at that time. To me those two images say a lot about a rose that had been growing and blooming in my garden for over 30 years.

I have records that I have kept over the years about each rose in the garden, when it was planted and what its root stock is, or at least whether it was grafted or own root. With many of the early grafted plants I am not sure what rootstock they were on. Some of the early plants that I got from J&P were obviously grafted onto R. manetti root stock because there have been a few suckers to grow over the years and one of them was a R. manetti. I also have had root stock appear over the years that was from R. canina on one of several roses that I got from a Canadian nursery, R. multiflora on roses that were grown by Edmunds’ Roses in Oregon, and Dr. Huey on roses that were grown in the later years by Edmunds’ and by most other growers in the US, so my garden has a wide variety of different under stocks on the plants and I have not noticed any specific difference in the longevity of the variants. In checking my records, it really surprised me how many old (in years) roses there are in my garden. When we moved to Oregon in 1978 the first garden improvement was to plant a rose garden. We ordered 13 roses from J&P, because we did not learn about Edmunds’ until several years later. Some of the plants we bought were Oregold, Smoky, Eclipse, America and Peace. My records do not go back that far so I am not sure of the rest of the varieties. But I am sure about the very first rose that got planted in our new garden and it was Peace. It was put in the front row on the corner of the rose garden. It is still there 38 years later and still producing many many lovely blooms including the one in the picture which was good enough to win best in show in a Pacific Northwest Photo contest. The picture at right shows the base of the peace rose as it looks today. This leads to the comment that I often hear that goes with the “How long should they live” and that is “I do not like the way the bush looks”. As a rose ages it often tends to grow a spreading crown. In the picture at the right it almost looks like there are three separate roses growing where the original peace rose was. This look does not bother me, but it does bother some gardeners. The response to this is that a rose is a garden plant that should provide you beauty in response to the care you give it. If you find that any particular plant is no longer attractive because of the way it has matured, it is certainly your prerogative to dig it out and replace it. ABOVE: 38 Year Old Peace Rose Crown

I have a Milestone rose bush that has spread over the years much like the Peace rose and about seven or eight years ago I dug it and split it into three bushes one of which I planted back where it had been. That worked for quite a while but if you were to look at it this year it would look like it was time to repeat the process. This time the new growth is symmetrical around the original bush which means that I probably will not be digging it up. However, you may also find that as your roses age, they will move. I have had roses that have moved up to a foot from where they were originally planted. Well, they do not actually move, but all of the new basal growth comes from one side of the bush and if the same thing happens several years in a row, the rose will appear to have moved in the direction of the new growth. This is really noticeable when two roses each grow toward each other and it can make the gardener look like he planted his roses while under the influence of something like rose wine.

The picture to the right is the same Color Magic that I wrote about two years ago as being 30 years old. It was planted in 1980 and had survived all of the winters that we have had in the past 30 years, but this winter killed it. The picture was taken on April 8th but I was not too hasty to remove it, basically because that would have involved doing work with a shovel, not my favorite tool. The conclusion about how long a rose should live ended by noting that roses did not really have a defined life span, but they could be killed in various ways. In this case the life span of my Color Magic was 30 years. But I must also note that two other Color Magic bushes in the garden survived.

The final picture in the sequence was taken August 6th, 2014 and you can tell that the Color Magic has almost fully recovered from being dead. It is not quite as big as last year but it probably will be by the end of the season. So at least for this bush the question continues to be unanswered, how long should a rose bush live? Well more than 32 years in this case. LEFT: Resurrected 'Color Magic'

This is certainly not to suggest that roses are all immortal and once you plant them you will have them forever. Your experience as a gardener tells you that that is not the case. While I certainly believe it is true that roses do not have a maximum number of years to live and will then die of old age, many of them do die from year to year. In areas that have cold winters it is freezing weather that often will cause a rose to die. Our previous two winters, not the most recent one, each provided enough severe weather to cause roses to die and I lost a couple from our garden, a Margaret Merrill and an Aroma Therapy. Both were grafted roses and the upper part was killed by the winter which stimulated the rootstock to grow, so actually the rose did not die, but I did want to grow the Dr. Huey rootstock that came up, so they have been replaced. So if something kills a plant, should the duration of that plant’s life be used when determining the life span of the bush, I do not think so.

When we moved in, there were several old rose bushes planted around the yard. One was a Tropicana and I moved it out of the garden due to its propensity to harbor mildew. One of the others was a MME Cecile Brunner. I really did not think much of it at the time but it was in a place where it could not be, so I moved it. Then I moved it again. Then I moved it again to a spot out near the back lot line. Through all of the years and moves it has thrived, yet another example of a rose that seems to be forever.

So plant your roses and expect them to be around until you get tired of seeing them. At which time you should definitely replace them with more roses.


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