Take cuttings of Rosa ‘Cantabrigiensis’ to increase your stock of healthy roses growing on their own root system. Photograph: Martin Hughes-Jones/Garden World Images
Next time you buy a rose, look at the bulge low on the stem. It may not seem like much, but this lump, known as the graft union, tells a story. Almost every rose sold in the UK is grafted; breeders join the stem of one rose, the scion, to the roots of a vigorous species rose, the rootstock, until they fuse together. The vigorous growth of the rootstock rose (usually Rosa laxa in the UK; or ‘Dr Huey’ in the US), is paired with the beautiful flowers of the scion: the best of both worlds. Or is it?
What the breeders don’t say is that roses can grow happily on their own roots. Grafting is cost-effective commercially; huge numbers of rose bushes can be propagated from a small amount of plant material – often a single bud – and plants are pushed up to saleable size in the first year. But own-root roses are enjoying an upsurge of interest due to their healthy growth and organic credentials.
Roses grown on their own roots are hardier and stronger, and propagate easily from hardwood cuttings. They bloom for longer and are less susceptible to viruses. These roses start slowly, using their energy to produce a root system in the first year, before matching and surpassing the growth, flower production and longevity of grafted roses within three years. Roses from cuttings develop as an organic whole rather than as the result of a quick-fix, junk-food growth spurt. They require no extra cosseting. The suckers – strong shoots that grow out from the base of the stem – are even true to type. This avoids one of the perils of grafted rose-growing, where the rootstock rose sends out rogue stems that bloom in a completely different colour from the rest of the bush.
Rose breeder David Austin introduced a collection of 10 of its most popular roses as “own roots” to its American market two years ago. It now sells almost 30. British breeder Eurosa is launching a range in the UK next year.
For the moment, though, there is a free way to get own-root roses growing and that is by taking hardwood cuttings. Roses are easy to propagate in this way, and now, when plants are dormant and the stems are fully ripe, is the time to do it. Once taken, cuttings can be forgotten about until the following year. The stem calluses over during winter and produces roots in spring. All roses can be propagated from hardwood cuttings, so why not experiment with ones in your garden, or scope out friends’ and neighbours’ finest specimens and beg a cutting or two.
How to take cuttings
Choose strong, healthy shoots from this year’s growth that are firm and woody. Use a sharp pair of secateurs to cut a straight stem around 30cm long and the thickness of a pencil. Remove leaves and the soft tip. Cut sharply and cleanly straight across the base of the removed stem, immediately below a bud. Snip the top of the cutting at an angle. This stops water pooling here and helps you tell the difference between the top and bottom: it is important to plant the cutting the right way up. Make a hole (or trench, if you’re propagating several at once) outdoors in a sheltered spot. Add some grit and push the cutting vertically into the ground until two-thirds of the stem is buried. Roots will form along the stem and the buds above ground will start to grow in spring. Leave the cuttings in place until the following autumn, then transplant to their final home.
Roses to grow
‘Buff Beauty’ is a hybrid musk rose. It has double blooms in an apricot yellow that fade to soft cream and have a strong tea rose fragrance. After three years, it grows into a shrub with smooth, arching stems and dark green foliage. Repeat flowering.
Height and spread: 2m x 2m.
‘Boscobel’ is a red-budded shrub rose; the buds open to loose, double blooms in blushing pinks and apricots. It has a heady myrrh scent.
Height and spread: 1m x 1m.
‘Charles de Mills’ is a smaller shrub gallica rose with an upright habit. The velvety-crimson flat flowers are densely petalled and measure 10cm across. With few thorns, it is very healthy, reliable and hardy.
Height and spread: 1m x 1.2m.
‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ is a vigorous, repeat-flowering climbing rose. Unstructured, milky-cream blooms with a hint of pink open intermittently from May onwards.
Height and spread: 4m x 8m.